There are some people on Earth who have never heard of tomato pies.
There are some people who, when they hear the phrase, think of pizza.
And then there are the rest of us, the blessed ones, the eaters and lovers of tomato pie—the proper kind, the kind that’s actually a pie, a buttery crust filled to the brim with stacks and stacks of fresh, ripe tomatoes.
If you’ve never had tomato pie, I can hear your skepticism now. I’ve heard it before. I heard it in the office when I pitched this story. And to that I will answer that in all my years of making tomato pies, which has been many long years indeed, I’ve never once served a slice that has gone uneaten. Or, for that matter, unloved.
Traditional tomato pie—what is often referred to as “Southern tomato pie,” as to distinguish it from the Atlantic coast pizza of the same name—isn’t all that traditional, or Southern, but that’s no matter. We’ve adopted it and made it our own, to the point where the dish had a spread in this June’s Southern Living, and Alabama fashion designer Billy Reid had a recipe for it in the Southern Foodways Alliance’s 2010 cookbook.
The dish is a simple one: a pie crust, mounds of sliced tomatoes, some seasoning, mayonnaise, and cheese. From this formulation you can make it as simple or as complicated as you want—sour cream or ricotta instead of mayo (or no cream at all), fancy cheeses or basic cheddar, a frozen pie crust or handmade savory pastry. You can add different herbs, lemon or orange zest, cracker or bread crumbs, a sprinkling of bacon, slices of onion. If you search through cookbooks, you’ll find all kinds of variations, and there’s no wrong way to make one. There’s only what you like, what you’re in the mood for, and what’s in your kitchen.
Still, it can be hard to explain to the uninitiated the sheer pleasure of a mouthful of warm tomatoes, gooey cheese, and flaky crust.
“It’s like a very sophisticated tomato sandwich,” says North Carolina food writer Sheri Castle. “It’s everything I love about tomato sandwiches, but enough to serve a group.”
Castle was a latecomer herself to the joy of tomato pie—she says she first tasted one in her 30s—but now they’re a staple of her summers. She’s a fan of the simpler pies, like I am, ones that are centered on the best in-season heirlooms available.
“No pie is going to be better than the tomatoes you put in it,” Castle says. “Don’t use mayonnaise and bacon as a crutch.”
Castle’s convinced tomato pie has become seen as a Southern dish because of the region’s fondness for making pies in general. And the earliest (semi-)savory tomato pies do appear to emanate from the north. The 1836 edition of Massachusetts native Lydia Maria Child’s The Frugal Housewife seems to be the first American record of a dish called tomato pie; it was to be made with stewed tomatoes and otherwise prepared as pumpkin or squash pie, with “only an egg or two more.” An 1882 New Hampshire Shaker cookbook, Mary Whitcher’s Shaker Housekeeper, has a similar recipe but with fresh slices of tomato. Both recipes use nutmeg and a little sugar, suggesting something of a slightly sweet tomato quiche.
Still, it seems the most common tomato pie of the era was a green tomato pie—sliced green tomatoes, sugar, nutmeg, butter, and vinegar or lemon in between a double crust, probably not dissimilar in taste from a tart apple pie. The 1877 Buckeye Cookery calls the dish “Southern Tomato Pie,” but other contemporary texts simply call it “Green Tomato Pie,” if they list the dish at all.
Yet now, green tomato pies are a rarity while red, ripe pies are a staple. What happened?
At some point in the first part of last century, a tomato pie made with onions and topped with mashed potatoes became a popular dish—though, again, not in the South. A 1914 article from a Spokane, Wash., newspaper has a recipe that’s just tomatoes, onions, bread crumbs, and potatoes. A 1953 recipe from a Toledo paper adds cheese to the mix. Then the dish seems to mostly vanish, only to be reborn with mayonnaise and lots of cheese a couple of decades later.
Food writer Nancie McDermott says the dish as we now think of it was a likely a product of a different time.
“It looks to me like a ’60s-’70s thing, which I suspect comes out of the newspaper/magazine food editor world, where there was a market for tasty, simple recipes that would delight one’s bridge club or please the folks at the covered dish supper,” McDermott writes in an e-mail. “It’s what home cooks with discretionary time and money would enjoy making. Turning on the oven during the summer is not a joy or a habit, beyond the breakfast biscuits, so I’m betting that its appearance dovetailing with air conditioning penetration is not an accident.”
This jibes with my own family history: Although I grew up eating tomato pies every summer, my mother did not. When I asked her why she started making them, she replied, “I must have just seen a recipe somewhere and thought it looked good.”
In my (admittedly incomplete and regionally biased) collection of community cookbooks, tomato pie recipes don’t start appearing until the 1980s. A 1991 Newsday article calls a Connecticut community cookbook recipe, with large quantities of mayonnaise and cheddar cheese, “all the rage in Manhattan these days.” (The recipe also appeared in Laurie Colwin’s posthumous 1993 cookbook, More Home Cooking.)
Yet despite its fleeting fame in the New York culinary scene, two decades later the dish is firmly ensconced in the South. The top result when you google “tomato pie”? Paula Deen’s recipe, of course.
But don’t let that dissuade you from making one. Other than a simple tomato sandwich, nothing quite says summer to me like tomato pie. And if you want something lighter and quicker, a tomato tart with pre-made puff pastry is just the thing. Pair with mixed greens, dressed with a vinaigrette, and crisp wine—a Pinot Gris from Oregon, maybe, or a dry French rosé —and you, too, will become a convert.
Just be prepared when everyone wants seconds—or thirds.
Modern Tomato Pie
What makes this tomato pie modern? Well, it’s light on the mayonnaise, for one. Then there’s the herbs and mustard in a savory pie crust, and the assortment of heirloom tomatoes (we like half Cherokee Purple, half something else). You can play around with the combination of cheeses involved, just make sure you buy the best quality you can afford.
1 1/2 c. all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp. salt
10 tsp. unsalted butter, chilled
1 tsp. whole grain mustard
1 Tbs. finely chopped fresh herbs
1 to 2 TBS water, chilled
Mix the flour, salt, and herbs together in a bowl that’s been stuck in the freezer for at least 20 minutes. (You can use whatever herbs you find most appealing or happen to have on hand; we used a mix of basil, thyme, and rosemary.) Cut in the butter with a pastry cutter or your fingers until it resembles breadcrumbs. Add the mustard and a little bit of water, pressing together to form a dough. Add more water if needed. Roll into a ball and chill in the refrigerator for at least 45 minutes.
5 to 7 large assorted heirloom tomatoes
2 Tbs. coarsely chopped basil, thyme, rosemary, or other herbs
1/4 c. mayonnaise
1 c. shredded sharp cheddar cheese
3 Tbs. finely shredded Gueryre
2 Tbs. finely shredded Parmigiano-Reggiano
salt and pepper to taste
Preheat the oven to 350. Slice the tomatoes and lay them out on a baking rack lined with paper towels. Salt generously and let them drain for at least 20 minutes. Meanwhile, roll the pie crust out and press into a pie pan; blind bake for 15 minutes, or until the crust is pale gold and seems set. While baking, mix together the mayonnaise and cheddar cheese in a bowl.
Once the pie crust is removed from the oven, immediately sprinkle the Gueryre over the bottom so it will melt. Then fill the pie crust with one layer of tomatoes, overlapping in concentric circles. Sprinkle half of the herbs on the tomatoes and add a dash of pepper. Spread the cheese and mayonnaise mixture on top. Cover this with a second layer of tomatoes. Garnish with the remainder of the herbs, another dash of pepper, and the Parmigiano-Reggiano. Bake about 30 minutes, until the tomatoes are tender. Let cool a few minutes before slicing and serving.
Ten-Minute Tomato Tart
Sometimes it’s just too hot to make your own pie crust. Sometimes it’s just too hot to stand in the kitchen for any time at all. But this easy Provencal-inspired tart won’t take you any time, and the small tomatoes ensure you won’t have a soggy crust. In fact, the hardest thing involved is waiting the 30-40 minutes it takes to defrost the pastry. If you don’t have chèvre around, substitute any good, non-gooey cheese, like Pecorino, Gueryre, or Ricotta Salata—or just the leave the cheese off for a lighter dish.
1 frozen puff-pastry sheet, thawed
1 to 1 1/2 qt. mixed grape and cherry tomatoes, halved or quartered, depending on size
1 Tbs. whole grain dijon mustard
1 to 2 Tbs. coarsely chopped basil and thyme
1 to 2 oz. chèvre
salt and pepper to taste
Preheat the oven to 425. Spread the thawed puff pastry on a baking sheet, and brush the center of it with mustard, leaving a plain half-inch margin. Heap the chopped tomatoes on the pastry, then sprinkle the herbs over them. Pinch the edges of the pastry up and around the tomatoes, so that nothing can spill out. Dot the tart with crumbled chèvre, and lightly season with a dash of coarse salt and freshly ground pepper. Bake 20-25 minutes, until the crust is puffed and golden. Serve immediately.