The pleasures of summer dining are countless, but most of all, it's the food itself we love the most: barbecues, pole beans, popsicles, all the fresh berries a person can pick and eat, fried chicken, hamburgers, beer-can chicken, "summer pudding," hot dogs, Mister Softee, the list goes on. With the help of my Atlantic Wire colleagues, I have compiled 12 contenders for the best summer food, along with the reasons we would consume these items all year round if we had our druthers. Who is the top of the summer food pile? (For the purposes of this post, drinks count as food, because, well, lemonade, rosé, and mint juleps.) Scroll down to vote for your favorite! We will declare a winner after we're done eating all weekend.
1. A Simple Tomato Sandwich. First, of course, the tomatoes have to be good. Summer tomatoes, red and ripe and perfect. You get some good white bread and you put just a little bit of mayo on it, and you slice the tomato and sprinkle with rock salt, place between the two slices of bread, and devour. Repeat as needed; best eaten over a sink.
2. Watermelon. You can cut it open and fill it with vodka. You can grease it and toss it in a pool and play games with it. You can use a melon scoop to make perfect little balls of delicious fruit candy. It's hydrating, and low-calorie, and refreshing. You could eat it all day. If you swallow a seed, a watermelon tree might magically grow in your stomach, and that makes each bite a little more exiting. As Esther Zuckerman says, "Watermelon is iconic." Carrying one around means you're having a party.
3. Blackberries. Elle Reeve submits: "1. Their sweetness is cut with a bit of bitterness. 2. Each berry is a collection of dozens of tiny berry juice capsules. 3. It's almost impossible to get good ones from anywhere but off the bush on someone's farm that you've snuck onto. 4. And that means eating them has a thrilling element of danger, because you have to watch out for the horrible snakes lurking in the bushes. 5. Blackberry cobbler."
4. Bratwurst. Grilled, smoky, delicious, bun-able. "The best summer food ever is bratwurst, a German kind of sausage," says J.K. Trotter. "Per Wisconsin custom, a bratwurst link should be steeped in beer before being grilled and consumed. Should be paired with Spotted Cow, a Wisconsin-only ale so delicious that a Manhattan bar was busted for selling it in 2009."
5. Corn. In the words of Matt Sullivan, "Corn is perfect in every way." Simple, elegant, fresh, grill-able. On the ever-so-slight negative side, though, is how it gets in your teeth. Bring floss.
6. Lemonade. I believe in drinking lemonade all year long. Why? Because it feels like summer, and it makes every day it's drunk seem a little bit brighter, somehow. Philip Bump, lemon connoisseur, dissects it further: "It's that balance – the little bit of sour, all the sweet, and the ice. There's no more important distinction in food than between lemonade from mix and lemonade made from lemons, water, sugar. No imitation food is as bad compared to the original as mix-lemonade. It is why you should NEVER buy lemonade from a kid on the street unless you see a lemon in the container. It takes a village." Esther Zuckerman adds that this is a drink "best consumed after being purchased from one of the myriad street fairs that line New York streets. It is the perfect anecdote to the steaming pavement."
"That said, there is nothing I hate more than cooking fried chicken in my house. It smells, it gets in your hair, you sweat, and turning on the stove transforms my apartment into a greasy sauna that smells like stale Paula Deen. Which is why I propose ceviche. In English ceviche means, 'tastes like a spicy miracle.' The most challenging part of the dish is finding room in your refrigerator to fit a bowl."
8. Popsicles. Beyond the fact that it is essentially a miracle of science that liquid can be frozen around a stick and eaten, popsicles are just the best. They are cold and delicious. They come in any variety of flavors, from mass-produced to artisanal. They can be natural; they can be less so. They are efficiency itself: You hold the popsicle stick in your hand and you eat the popsicle, and you throw the stick away or maybe compost it, and that's that, until you start over again. On the hottest summer nights, you may eat popsicles in front of the air conditioner for dinner. You can make your own, or you can buy them in a store, or from a truck. They are not a commitment. Sometimes the sticks have jokes on them. And little kids with green faces from eating popsicles are adorable.
9. A Glass or Two of Rosé. Pink and pretty and cold, with maybe just a tinge of sweetness, rosé is liquid popsicle and somehow always manages to make a night feel like an occasion. While some deem the season for the wine to be spring, summer is just as good, I think, and really, you can drink the stuff all year round. The sparkling ones are especially tasty when it's warm out.
10. Gazpacho. From tomatoes to tomatoes, with a bit of kick, depending on how you like it. "It is salty and crunchy and cool and delicious. It is affordably elegant," says Bump. Gazpacho won't weigh you down. And it's a seasonal milestone: "I like the idea of a cold soup, it seems very summer-specific," says Richard Lawson. "I like the flavor, but mostly it just communicates summer to me. When you see gazpacho on a menu, you know you've made it through the winter."
11. The Mint Julep. Fresh-smelling green mint sprigs, cold, cold ice and even colder bourbon, a bit of sugar or simple syrup for some sweetness to make the medicine go down ... This is a perfect food, yes, and it even means you're eating (or drinking around) your greens.
12. Summer Pudding. What is summer pudding? Sullivan explains: "The American summer for me always began with summer pudding, which I'm pretty sure is English, but whatever: Our family friend, a caterer, would bring one perfectly sculpted version to our country house every Memorial Day, and it would last about as long on the picnic table as the beginning of summer ever does — as long it takes to eat something cold, something new, something borrowed, something red, white, and/or blue. And summer pudding is all of those, caterer friend or not: white bread, holding in a heap of red berries and blue berries and juice and a ton of sugar and maybe some booze, tossed onto a plate and into the fridge. See? It's American after all."