Tomato pie was an adulthood discovery for me. One evening, years ago, we gathered with neighbors on our front porch for a summer potluck (possibly a July 4th gathering, though also possibly not), and one neighbor’s contribution was a pair of magazine-worthy tomato pies that featured beautiful hand-curled crusts and a rainbow array of heirloom tomatoes.
It was love at first bite, and how could it not be? Flaky pastry, cheese, just enough mayonnaise to keep the crust from getting soggy, and a bounty of height-of-summer tomatoes that were enhanced by heat and a bit of salt.
The next day I went searching for recipes, wondering how, despite growing up in a farming and cooking family (on my mother’s side), I’d never had this particular summer treat, had never even seen one. A quick check through my mother’s green recipe card box confirmed what I already knew: No tomato pie there. On to my collection of various comb-bound cookbooks from churches, The Woman’s Exchange, and Junior Leagues all over the South. Tamale pie? Yes. Tomato pie? Nope, not a single one.
To the internet, then, where I found recipes but little history. What bits I did find pointed to an answer I might have guessed, that Southern tomato pie, like the one my friend had made, was not a steeped-in-tradition recipe of old but a relatively new arrival — one that, apparently, failed to capture my mother’s attention.
It wasn’t that she hadn’t kept adding to her collection over the years. Her green metal box had clippings from the 1980s tucked in the back, behind the hand-written cards from earlier years, and she continued to be interested in cooking and recipes. If she read about tomato pie, she probably dismissed the idea outright. To her, almost no height-of-summer produce benefited from cooking. She preferred fresh peaches and blackberries to any cobbler or pie, and she cooked green beans only enough to take the edge off.
For tomato pie, I was on my own. I put my mother’s box of treasures back on the shelf to continue gathering dust.
In the years since that summer, I’ve made some version of tomato pie just about every year, although, like my mother (and my father), I do prefer tomatoes in their truest, uncooked form, sliced on a sandwich or just on a plate. No recipe, just tradition.
Last summer I found myself again rifling through that green metal recipe card box, looking this time for my mother’s custard recipe to make some for an ailing friend who needed to put on weight as part of her recovery. Although she didn’t have much of a sweet tooth, my mother had a weakness for custard in all its forms, liquid, baked, chilled, and frozen. It was one of the few things for which she had an appetite until the very end, which I know only because my mother’s pink-lipsticked friend Eloise brought a bottle of custard the week before my mother died. (“Your mama always made this for me and so many other people over the years to help us build back strength. I thought it was my turn to do the same for her.”)
And though she always said “crème Anglaise” and not “custard,” I knew perfectly well that the origin lay not with her beloved Julia Child but in country-cooking family tradition. I’d watched my grandmother stir milk, sugar, and egg yolks in a saucepan exactly the same way her daughter, my mother, did it. And although my grandmother’s version was thicker than my mother’s, they were otherwise identical.
Which is why there was no recipe card for custard (nor for cheese soufflé). Browsing through the papers (some cards, some just paper scraps), I realized that all of the ones written in my mother’s own handwriting were either guidance notes for things she might not otherwise remember or credits to other cooks: “Dodi’s cookie bars,” “Bill’s Red Beans,” “Mother’s Chess Pie.”
It’s a diary in a box, a window into my mother’s heart, filled with artifacts and mementos that span generations and cross the lines of biological and chosen family.
Like heirloom tomatoes, which exploded into popularity among affluent foodies over the past two decades (I wonder if my grandparents would be amused by this), the heirloom recipe box is now having its moment. It’s fashionable again to have a wooden or metal container on prominent kitchen display. Rifle Paper company offers several different designs. Etsy, not surprisingly, has a mind-boggling assortment of options.
While this quaint trend started long before “COVID” entered our vernacular, the pandemic has likely given it a boost, particularly among those with the privilege of having had more time at home to cook, to reflect, and to appreciate shared histories with a renewed gratitude and poignancy. As we come back together after the year+ of isolation, perhaps these little boxes will feed our reconnecting in all the ways that truly matter, honoring the past and carrying it into the future.
Food | Week of July 5, 2021
Well, yes, a tomato pie is on the list, though in this case, you say “pie” and I say “galette.” A flatter, slab-style preparation helps keep things from getting soupy, and it’s just easier overall to make. At farmer Josephine’s suggestion, I’m going to use her lovely San Marzano plum tomatoes instead of regular round ones and see if their lower water content also helps. (Side note: Southen tomato pie and Sicilian tomato pie are two entirely different and yet also not different things. So, using paste tomatoes is not an altogether terrible idea, right?)
From Mrs. Lockard’s market table came some lovely, leafy celery. How many times have I recommended Jane Grigson’s celery soup for you? Many. But I usually make, and recommend, that soup, served hot, during cold weather. When I looked at the thin, vibrant celery stalks from the summer market, I wondered how my favorite soup would translate into a chilled version. I substituted Greek yogurt for most of the cream, was generous in adding the celery leaves, and squeezed a bit of lemon juice for good measure. I took the batch for lunch with my octogenarian ornithologist friend and his ornithologist wife (both very good cooks), and they declared it delicious. Didn’t take good notes as I was playing, so I don’t know exactly how I did it and probably can’t replicate. All to say: If you like celery soup, have fresh celery, and like to play with your food, then take the tried-and-true base recipe and play away.
I cleaned out the vegetable drawer, salvaging root vegetables (beets and carrots) just in time to keep them from feeding the compost pile. I quartered them, added leeks and garlic, hand-tossed them in olive oil and fresh thyme, and used my oven’s handy Auto Roast feature (meaning, I can’t give precise roasting instructions because the oven JUST KNOWS WHAT TO DO). I tossed those goodies with arugula, sprinkled some fresh lime juice and salt, and had a lovely salad for dinner. If you have things hanging out in your vegetable drawer, too, then maybe you’ll give that a try.
The thing about tomato season is keeping up with the tomatoes. My favorite thing to do is roast them (especially the scratch and dent ones that might otherwise get tossed) and either freeze right away or put in a jar to use on pasta for a quick dinner. Here’s last night’s:
How did I do it? Let’s test my memory:
(Boil water for pasta and cook the pasta in the background while doing this other part.) Roast tomatoes, garlic, and thyme with a bit of olive oil. When that’s done (25 minutes in my magic know-it-all oven), bring it to the stovetop, add more olive oil, some red pepper flakes, and an anchovy or two for good measure. Cook over medium-ish heat until the anchovy melts away, then take your tongs and lift those lovely al dente noodles out of the water and straight into the skillet. Toss that all together, adding a little more pasta water if needed. Have a jar of fresh pesto on hand? Add a spoonful, if you like. Brighten it with lemon zest? Why not. Have tomatoes that are going to go bad but don’t want to make pasta? Then roast the tomatoes, put them in a jar, and let them wait for another night. It’s summer, silly; don’t make things hard.
Speaking of recipe archives, here’s what I was cooking 8 years ago this week. (Funny, right?)