My grandmother, Hazel, was a standout Southern cook. She was famous in Rocky Mount, N.C., for making the best, fluffiest yeast-risen rolls. She and her friends would gather once a week to make them, and the proofing gave them time to talk and share.
A Virginia native, she was much taller than my Gullah grandfather. Her height came in handy when we grandchildren saw a great-looking-yet-out-of-reach peach on the tree in her backyard—or when she wanted to save an extra slice of her lemon meringue pie for herself by stashing it on top of the fridge and away from little hands. She was statuesque in her youth, heavy in her later years. (Likely due, in part, to years of stashed pie.)
It wouldn’t be far-fetched at all to say my grandmother cooked up the marriage between her daughter (my mom) and my father. My dad was a young military officer when he lost his mom and youngest brother in a car accident. Hazel, a pastor’s wife and friend to my dad’s mom, cooked for anyone in need. In my father’s case, she didn’t just bring over casseroles as Southerners do. She made a place for him at her table and cooked for him as long as he needed the compassion you get from a meal made by someone who cares about you. That’s how my father and my mother eventually fell in love, over Grandmother’s dinners.
Hazel, a schoolteacher with a masters degree in education, was dedicated to making her community better by nourishing minds, souls, spirits and tummies, person by person, whether she cooked for church suppers, weddings and funerals, hosted lunch for my grandfather’s congregation at her house or simply made dinner for friends or family.
She and my grandfather organized meetings in support of the Civil Rights Movement. There’s no wondering why their son chose lunch counter sit-ins as his role in the movement: He said he believed that sharing a meal in the same place with someone is one of the most significant ways to show you accept them. That’s something he learned at Hazel’s table.
Every time my sisters and I saw her, she took the time to plant confidence in us. “Say to yourself, ‘I am black, and I am beau-ti-ful!’” She always enunciated the “t.” She also had a playful side which almost made me think she was a kid in grown-up disguise: All four walls of her living dining room were painted hot pink and she always had cherry Lifesavers in her purse, which she quietly passed to me, my younger sisters and cousins just as we were getting wiggly and huffy listening to sermons in church.
As a cook, Hazel was generous in sharing her talent, steering people to her house for dinner whether or not they were in need. (When do any of us not need a good home-cooked Southern meal?) But she kept her methods and recipes secret. About the most she would let me do was roll lemons on the counter for lemonade, and then she’d declare, “too many cooks in the kitchen!” and I’d have to leave and find something else to do.
Because my father was a military officer, we always lived far away—I only saw my grandparents for holidays and every three years when the Army assigned us to some place new and we could visit my grandparents during the move. So I wasn’t around my grandmother enough to hang around her kitchen and make all the mental notes I needed to piece together the secrets of her signature dishes.
I do, however, have a vivid taste memory of some things, such as tomato pudding, a side dish with slurpy buttery tomatoes on the bottom and sugar-crusted croutons on top. She most often made it with home-canned tomatoes, so it was served even at Thanksgiving and Christmas. It was my favorite dish, and I’d always wish I could eat just tomato pudding, all of it, myself and a spoon, and everyone else could have whatever else was on the table.
It took me about a half-dozen tries to recreate this classic Southern gratin so that it tastes like my grandmother’s version as I remember it. I wish I could tell you I feel like she and I are cooking together when I make it. I have a cousin who says that when she sews, she senses that our great-aunt is with her, guiding her hands and revealing the secrets to mastering things like tricky button holes. I haven’t experienced that gift of ancestral presence in the kitchen. (And I need it; or, more to the point, my fried chicken needs it.)
I’d like to have talked with my grandmother in the kitchen, woman to woman, maybe while waiting for unbaked rolls to rise, the puffing dough as the only signal that time is passing. Maybe nailing the tomato pudding recipe, simple as it is, is a gift from Hazel. I’m glad to have it and glad to teach it to my niece, who since age 5, has had a natural love of cooking. She and the tomato pudding make me feel that my grandmother’s legacy is alive.
– Shaun Chavis
Shaun Chavis divides her time between writing and cooking. She’s a cookbook editor for Oxmoor House, a division of Time Home Entertainment Inc. She’s also the co-founder of FoodBlogSouth, an annual conference for Southern food bloggers held in Birmingham., Ala.
Community Kitchen is an occasional column of stories and recipes from AFR members. We encourage you to join the community and share your story. Email Community Kitchen editor Domenica Marchetti at email@example.com.
Community member Shaun Chavis says this is a nice way to use up stale bread and it's very easy to make—children can do it (except perhaps for needing help with peeling the tomatoes). Other versions may use more butter, more bread and more or less sugar, so feel free to improvise to suit your own taste. You can easily scale this recipe up for a larger crowd.
- 4 pounds fresh, ripe tomatoes (about 10 medium) or 48 ounces canned or home-canned tomatoes*
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1/4-1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper (to your taste)
- 4 tablespoons brown sugar, divided
- 3 slices sandwich bread
- 3 tablespoons butter, plus additional for buttering the casserole
Preheat oven to 350 F. Set a rack in the lower third of the oven.
Butter a shallow 9-by-7-by-2-inch casserole dish (or another shallow baking dish that’s about 11/2 quarts), and set it aside.
If using fresh tomatoes, peel them: Fill the bottom of a steamer with 1 inch of water. Bring the water to a boil over medium-high heat. Cut an 'x' in the bottom of each tomato. Place the tomatoes in the top of the steamer in a single layer, with the x-cuts facing up. Place the loaded steamer top over the boiling water, cover and steam for 4 minutes, until the skins crack. Remove the top of the steamer and use tongs to place the tomatoes in a shallow bowl or on a plate, and let them cool until you can handle them easily. Repeat the process until all the tomatoes are steamed and peeled.
Tomato seeds can be bitter, so seed the tomatoes (which goes a lot faster than it sounds.) Cut the tomatoes in half around their equator. Hold each tomato half over a strainer placed in a small bowl. Wiggle a finger in the cavities to remove the seedy goo. Save the juice captured in the bottom of the bowl.
Core the tomatoes, being sure to remove and discard any prickly parts. (Overwatering and too much fertilizer make tomatoes grow too fast, and they develop tough cores that finger out into the fruit like roots in soil. Sadly, this happens when growers rush to get the tomatoes to market. Let’s start a campaign for slow-grown tomatoes.) Cut the tomatoes into ½-inch pieces, reserving the tomatoes and any additional juices in a large bowl.
Stir the salt, black pepper, 2 tablespoons of brown sugar and the captured tomato juice into the tomatoes. Pour the tomato mixture into the buttered casserole. Cover the casserole tightly with aluminum foil.
Bake the covered tomatoes for 45 minutes or until the tomato pieces have lost so much integrity, they no longer hold their shape.
While the tomatoes bake, tear the bread into 1/2-inch pieces. Or you can cut the crust off the bread and cut the bread into 1/2-inch cubes. (Grandmother Hazel tore hers, crust on. Shaun likes the irregular edges of torn bread – some of them get more brown than the rest, so you get different textures and more interesting character.)
In a small saucepan, melt 3 tablespoons butter over low heat. (Or, microwave it in a bowl until it’s melted.) Set the melted butter aside.
Remove the casserole from the oven, but don’t turn the oven off. Uncover the tomatoes and scatter the bread pieces over the tomatoes in a single layer. You may not need all the bread to cover the tomatoes. With your fingers, sprinkle remaining 2 tablespoons of brown sugar evenly over the tomatoes and bread. Drizzle the melted butter evenly over the casserole—make sure all the bread pieces get some butter.
Return the casserole to the oven, uncovered, and bake for 1 hour, until the tomato juices are thicker, reduced and bubbly and the bread is browned. Let the pudding cool for about 10 minutes before serving.
*If you use canned or (even better) home-canned tomatoes instead of fresh, you can skip the peeling, seeding and coring, and the first 45 minutes of cooking.