Tomatoes grow all over the world, and they play important roles in the cuisines of many cultures (Italia, anyone?). But down in Dixie, we do summer’s favorite fruit right (yep, tomatoes are a fruit). In fact, I’m gonna argue that we do them better than most. Proving this point was a mere few swift keystrokes for my food-writer friend and big time food-appreciator, Jennifer Kornegay. This Alabama gal means it, folks. Here's her case for the American South’s dominance of delicious tomato dishes. From the humble to the hearty, consider the evidence.
Exhibit A: The Tomato Sandwich
I can’t tell you with 100-percent certainty that the tomato sandwich originated in the South or that it's a purely Southern phenomenon. Maybe folks in Ohio and Rhode Island eat what they call "tomato sandwiches." Maybe they’re pretty darn good. What I can tell you is that the Southern tomato sandwich, simple as it is, elicits a "Christmas-morning" excitement from most below the Mason-Dixon line (especially that first tomato sandwich each summer). And with one bite, it will do the same for you.
It’s nothing fancy, but the ingredient list is specific and the method, precise. Take two slices of white bread (I prefer Wonder or Sunbeam), and spread a thin layer of Duke’s mayo on each (no substitutions here). Cover one slice with lightly salted, heavily peppered, not-too-thin but not-too-thick slabs of ripe tomato. Top with the remaining slice of bread and push down with gentle pressure. Cut the sandwich into two pieces, and you’re done. Enjoy the lunchtime staple that’s been putting smiles on Southern faces for generations.
Exhibit B: Fried Green Tomatoes
We Southerners love our tomatoes so much, we can't even wait for them to ripen before we pick 'em, batter 'em, give them a bath in hot fat and consume them. Everybody knows this rustic food has been a regional fave long before it was a book or funny-tender chick-flick. Or has it? After the movie’s success, it found its way onto menus at every Southern eatery with any pride and also ventured far beyond our borders. While many claim Southern meat ’n three joints have been serving the dish since Depression days, others swear it has its roots in the Midwest or even (gasp!) the Northeast.
Regardless of who made fried green tomatoes first, Southerners now make them best (and probably most often). Our region’s finest chefs from NOLA to Charleston include dressed-up versions of this comfort-food classic on their menus. They and myriad home cooks know that frying the green discs tempers their tartness and softens their firm flesh. And it was a Southern story that propelled the treat into gastronomic glory. Plus, most of the country identifies FGT with our regional cuisine, so we'll go ahead keep them on the iconic Southern food list. (We don't want to confuse anyone.)
A second debate surrounds what kind of crust covers a true Southern fried green tomato. Some enrobe the slices in egg wash, then a flour and cornmeal mix. Others opt for a quick dunk in buttermilk and then a dusting of straight cornmeal. Either works for me, and you can’t argue with the current guardians of all things Southern, so this recipe from Garden & Gun is legit. One no-no: Adding panko breadcrumbs (or any breadcrumbs) to the crust strips away any Southern heritage this homey standard has. Just. Don’t. Do it.
Exhibit C: Chow Chow
No, not a big fluffy dog. A tangy, spicy condiment made most often from green tomatoes (but sometimes red ones too). They're combined and pickled with peppers, onion and vinegar resulting in a relish that adds its sweet-hot punch to slow-cooked veggies like collard greens, pinto beans and field peas. Variations on the theme are abundant; other popular ingredients include cucumber, cabbage, mustard seeds, celery and carrots.
There is evidence that chow chow originated in South Carolina, but a few food scholars tie it to Chinese rail workers in California. No matter. Mason jars full of the stuff have been at the center of Southern tables for two centuries. I heart this chow chow from Christy Jordan’s Southern Plate.
Closing Argument: The Southern Tomato Pie
Yes, you read it right. Not a sissy tart. A PIE. (And not a pizza with the sauce on top, which is what passes for tomato pie in the Northeast.) This is my region’s savory claim to tomato fame, and it is, with out a doubt, born and bred down here, baking several of our beloved culinary traditions into one handy-dandy package.
Tomatoes picked at their peak are mounded with cheese, garden-fresh herbs and maybe a little crumbled bacon, and then it’s all glued together with mayo inside a homemade crust. Some recipes include hot sauce’s kick, and slivers of Vidalia onion find their way into to versions, too. For your first time, trust an authority on Southern cooking, and try this time-tested Southern Living recipe.
We could go on; We have more proof. But we feel pretty good resting our case on the firm yet flaky and cheesy foundation of Southern tomato pie.
Thanks again to Jennifer Kornegay for arguing our case in this post!
(Image credits: Erika Tracy)