not my father’s stewed tomatoes

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.

stewed tomatoes | the merry gourmet

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.

stewed tomatoes | the merry gourmet

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.

stewed tomatoes | the merry gourmet

Yield: Serves 8-10

Southern-Style Stewed Tomatoes

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.

Ingredients:

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

Directions:

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.

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21 Responses to “not my father’s stewed tomatoes”

  1. 1
    Aggie — May 9, 2013 @ 8:43 pm

    I feel like I just ate that whole meal with you, it sounded so delicious & you described it so well. I would love to try this recipe out, and I think my father in law, a stewed tomato out of the can lover, would appreciate & love it as well.

  2. 2
    Kathryn — May 10, 2013 @ 6:20 am

    I’ll be honest and say I’ve never even heard of stewed tomatoes before but you describe them so wonderfully that I can’t wait to get into the kitchen and make a batch.

    • Merry-Jennifer

      Merry-Jennifer replied: — May 10th, 2013 @ 6:52 am

      Kathryn,
      I believe stewed tomatoes are a southern USA phenomenon. If you try them, you’ll have to let me know what you think!

  3. 3
    Alice Martin — May 10, 2013 @ 6:28 am

    Merry Jennifer, you never knew how much I loved stewed tomatoes. When we moved from south Florida to northern Florida I learned my new friends called them, “tomato gravy” and served them over rice. Whatever you call them, whatever whatever you put them on, they are wonderful and I can’t wait try your recipe. (I think the sugar is the secret to making them out of this world.)

  4. 4
    Boyce D. George — May 10, 2013 @ 8:15 am

    Merry Jennifer I certainly enjoyed your comments although I wish our time together had been under different circumstances. I have never really enjoyed stewed tomatoes as my mother made them in the summer time with fresh tomatoes from our huge garden. My parents and brothers all liked them, but I was the odd man out.

    • Merry-Jennifer

      Merry-Jennifer replied: — May 11th, 2013 @ 10:08 am

      I’m looking forward to seeing you again, Boyce, under much better circumstances. Thank you so much for being there for me and Mom. It was a highlight for us.

  5. 5
    Lynda - TasteFood — May 10, 2013 @ 11:21 am

    I was force-fed stewed tomatoes as a child as well. Now I love everything to do with tomatoes. This recipe is a keeper for sure. Lovely post MJ.

    • Merry-Jennifer

      Merry-Jennifer replied: — May 11th, 2013 @ 10:07 am

      I’m exactly the same, Lynda. Tomatoes are now my favorite food! Well, besides cake.

  6. 6
    Di — May 10, 2013 @ 11:21 am

    My mother was from Macon, Georgia. She made stewed tomatoes the same way your Dad did. I always loved them but never think to make them. I can’t wait to try your recipe !

  7. 7

    I am so glad you are finding strength through the blogging community because often time I find my comfort in the blogging world too – everyone is so supportive :) your posts are always so sincere and thoughtful..

  8. 8
    Macaroni Mama — May 10, 2013 @ 5:10 pm

    I felt like I was being punished as well. Yuck! Couldn’t stand stewed tomatoes. I love your blog!

    • Merry-Jennifer

      Merry-Jennifer replied: — May 11th, 2013 @ 10:07 am

      Thank you, Mom. :)

  9. 9
    Jenn S. — May 11, 2013 @ 10:43 am

    Stewed tomatoes (known during my childhood as “tomatoes n’ rice, since the tomatoes were always accompanied by sticky, buttered white rice!) remind me so much of my dear Mama. She always served tomatoes and rice with her fried pork chops and often with her fried cube steak. I had the luxury of growing up on fresh-frozen tomatoes, as my Mama and Daddy would put up a “mess” of fresh, slightly-stewed tomatoes every year in quart baggies to last us through the fall and winter. Oh, they were so delicious (my mouth is watering!) My recipe varies slightly from yours, MJ, in that I start with a tiny bit of bacon grease for flavor, use fresh-frozen tomatoes when I have the luxury (canned plum, if not), white sugar, instead of brown, salt, pepper, and a bit of cornstarch (first dissolved in cold water) as my thickener. Mmmmm, guess what I’m serving for dinner tonight?? Thanks for the inspiration. :)

    • Merry-Jennifer

      Merry-Jennifer replied: — May 11th, 2013 @ 4:26 pm

      Your version sounds amazing, Jenn. I’m going to have to raid your Mama’s recipe box one of these days. I bet there are some real gems in there.

  10. Pingback: Links: Strawberries, Rhubarb, and a Cooking With Flowers Winner | Food in Jars

  11. 10

    Isn’t it amazing how food can have a calming effect on us. Whether it’s cooking it or eating it, there’s something about how it can soothe ones nerves. These tomatoes sound so perfect for a meal when you need your insides to be hugged.

  12. 11
    Nutmeg Nanny — May 14, 2013 @ 11:00 am

    I love stewed tomatoes, this sounds great :)

  13. 12
    Paula — May 15, 2013 @ 10:05 am

    This was a lovely post. You are such a wonderfully eloquent writer and your strength of character is truly inspirational.

  14. 13
    Kiran @ KiranTarun.com — May 15, 2013 @ 10:37 pm

    Food is so comforting and I’m glad you all are finding some comfort in this all. Hugs.

  15. 14
    Frank Smith — September 7, 2013 @ 10:40 pm

    I loved my mother’s stewed tomatoes. She took them from the garden. As a depression wife, she did not have fancy ingredients, so I thought it was just tomatoes and bread. Obviously note. I used fresh garden tomato and cooked them in a pot with your ingredients, drained off excess liquid [great soup], added the bread and put in baking dish. Baked as you said. Terrific! I think mother would have added a bit of cinnamon, so I will do so next time. Thanks for the recipe.

  16. 15
    Denise — April 18, 2014 @ 4:14 pm

    The first time I’ve had stewed tomatoes as a gravy was in January. My granaunt I. DC made them for breakfast w/grits and they were SOOOOO good. She’s from South Carolina, so they were real southern good! I don’t remember bread being in the tomatoes, but we’ll see. I’m going to try your recipe soon, I can’t wait.

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