You all are the best. Seriously.
My family has had some challenging situations arise, and no matter what, I feel completely loved and supported by this community. To each of you who reached out to me after my last post, thank you. You lifted me up, as you always do, just when I need it most.
While we were in Louisville, my mother and I had dinner with my father’s brother, Uncle Boyce. My father is one of three boys; Dad is the oldest, and Boyce is the youngest. My dad and his brothers, though their heights, hair color, politics, and religious beliefs differ – prompting some terribly fun arguments when they all get together — are really more similar than different on the inside, where it counts. So being with Boyce was like being with a shorter version of my dad. It felt good to be with him.
Boyce took us to a local restaurant favorite of his, Cunningham’s Creekside. My mother was familiar with the restaurant and had been to the downtown location way back when, long before it burned down in 2001. Mom and I ordered drinks – wine for me, bourbon for her – a necessity after the long day of travel and worry and hospital rooms, and we breathed deep for the first time in 24 hours. At the tables around us, couples and foursomes drank beer out of bottles, laughed and talked, and occasionally glanced at the sports news on ESPN on the televisions bolted to the walls around the dining room.
Our conversations drifted as we waited for our meals to be brought to the table. My mother and Boyce reminisced about the old bar that used to be down the road, the one with the older woman who belted out tunes on the piano, the songs growing raunchier as the night grew late and more drinks were thrown back. I heard the story of how my mother and father met, in a bar in Louisville. He was at another table, and she thought he looked like Omar Sharif in Doctor Zhivago, so she bought him a drink and had it sent over from her table across the room.
We spoke of the devastating accident her twin sister and brother-in-law had been in, and the potential outcomes. We left a lot unsaid, growing quiet and shaking our heads in disbelief and discomfort at the possibilities. The chatter in the restaurant grew louder as the minutes clicked by.
When our meal came, the conversation came to a halt. I think each of us was happy to focus on something other than the reason we were there, in Louisville. I cut into the crispy fried fish fillet I had ordered and savored that first bite. A forkful of creamy macaroni and cheese followed. And finally, I tried the dish I’d been looking forward to since I cracked opened the plastic menu and saw it listed under Side Dishes: stewed tomatoes.
I lifted a spoonful of the stewed tomatoes and, carefully, taking care not to drip the juices onto my shirt, I put the spoon in my mouth. If my mother or my uncle was speaking to me at the moment, I didn’t hear. All of my senses were focused on those sweetened tomatoes at that moment. And if someone told me that my eyes had closed while I tasted them, I would not be surprised.
When my father served stewed tomatoes at dinners when I was growing up, I viewed the dish as a punishment for something, probably for being his child. His preparation of them was simple. He opened a can of stewed tomatoes, dumped the contents into a saucepan with a plop, and turned the electric burner on medium high. When they were warmed through, he scooped up two or three whole, plum-sized tomatoes, and ladled them onto each plate. They looked like bloody organs, something that belonged in a hospital’s pathology lab, not on our dinner table.
I don’t recall what Dad’s stewed tomatoes tasted like, only that they were awful. Each meal that those tomatoes accompanied inevitably resulted in me and my brother sitting at the dinner table, after the sun had set and well after my parents were long gone into the living room to watch television, as we struggled to clean our plates. “Because I said so, that’s why.”
I learned to swallow stewed tomatoes whole. It was easier than the alternative, which was to taste them.
These are not my father’s stewed tomatoes. When I returned from Louisville, I recreated the dish I tasted at Cunningham’s Creekside. I cringed when I added the sugar, but the recipe would not be as delicious without it. The sugar provides balance to the acidity, a necessity for taming the flavors, for evening them out.
And even though these are not my father’s stewed tomatoes, I’m pretty certain he’d prefer my recipe to his own.
Southern-Style Stewed Tomatoes
Yield: Serves 8-10
When I tasted the stewed tomatoes at Cunningham's Creekside in Louisville, Kentucky, I immediately asked the waitress if I could have the recipe. She checked with the chef and came back with the ingredients list: canned stewed tomatoes, sugar, and bread. I gussied the recipe up a bit more, but not by much.
These stewed tomatoes are excellent all by themselves, but if you really want a great lunch or light dinner, serve them over creamy, perfectly-salted grits.
2 cans (28-ounces each) whole peeled tomatoes
3 slices stale white sandwich bread, crusts removed
2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
3 tablespoons light brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon coarse salt
1/8 teaspoon ground pepper
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
Using a strainer, strain one can of tomatoes, reserving the liquid for another use. Place the strained tomatoes into an oven-safe 2-quart casserole dish. Add the second can of tomatoes, including the juice. Using clean hands, crush the tomatoes between your fingers, leaving the tomatoes in large chunks. Tear the bread slices rough pieces and add to tomatoes. Stir in the melted butter, light brown sugar, salt, and pepper.
Cover the casserole dish and bake for 45 minutes, until the tomatoes are tender. Season to taste with additional salt and pepper, if needed, and serve.
Inspired by a dish at Cunningham's Creekside in Louisville, Kentucky.