“I have learned that nothing can equal the universal appeal of the food of one’s childhood and early youth.” ~ Craig Claiborne
Last spring I spent a week in South Carolina with my sister, Sherrin. We take a “sister trip” every year, and the previous two years we had stayed in Texas for Antiques Week in Round Top, down where the Junk Gypsies work and live. It’s quite an adventure, and I highly recommend it if you’re into treasure-hunting, interesting junk, fine antiques, or people-watching.
This year, however, we decided to venture to our dad’s home state to poke around in Charleston and to visit the small town of McColl, where my dad’s family lived for many years. The small agricultural South Carolina town is a true picture of Southern determination to keep one’s chin up during hard times.
McColl could have rolled up its sidewalks and died when the cotton mills closed after World War II, but it didn’t. The people of McColl are still there, decades later, hanging on to the town’s early beauty, created when folks who were doing well economically built large, lovely homes. Those homes are still there, though sadly, some of them are neglected and abandoned, ghosts of a more prosperous time. But the town pushes forward; the downtown storefronts still have small businesses buzzing along inside, there are lovely churches on every corner that continue to share the Gospel with the people there, and there is plenty of traffic on the streets. They survived.
All Southerners have had to do that to varying degrees over the years, during Reconstruction after the Civil War, during the Great Depression, and so on. During those hard times, many poor Southerners actually fared better than their more well-to-do countrymen, because they already knew how to make do with almost nothing. "Getting by" was a way of life for many folks, so when the Depression hit, they already knew how to feed seven children from food grown in the back yard. They knew how to stretch one chicken into several meals and then make stock with the leftover carcass. Nothing was wasted, and the food was simple and good; they made chicken soup, chicken and rice, or chicken and dumplings, a family favorite at my house. I will share my recipe for that below.
That’s the kind of food that many of us love best. I’ve personally enjoyed some mighty fine meals at lovely upscale restaurants around the South. I have, through my television job, met some accomplished chefs and tried their handiwork, which was frequently delicious. But my favorite meals, when it comes down to it, are the simple meals that my sweet mother served when I was growing up. Of course, she was influenced by the kind of food my dad grew up with and enjoyed, to some degree; for instance, rice was a staple in our kitchen, a food any South Carolina resident has on the table nearly every day.
But I digress; I had a meal while visiting South Carolina that was as close to perfection as I had while there, at a restaurant called Hominy Grill. It’s in Charleston in an old single house, and they serve Southern food in a way that would make your great-grandmother proud. Cheese grits, fried green tomatoes, cornbread, fried chicken, and field peas with rice were just a few of the menu’s offerings. One thing immediately stood out to me, though; something called tomato pudding.
Tomato pudding is somewhat like bread pudding made with stewed tomatoes. I was dubious, but the waiter said it was one of their most popular side dishes. I decided to try it. When it arrived, it looked simple enough: a small white bowl filled with broth-y tomatoes and white bread chunks, and not much else. I tasted it, and was whisked back in time to our little kitchen on St. Joe Beach, where I recall dad standing by the stove mixing together stewed tomatoes and white bread, something at the time I thought was “grody.” (It was the 1980s, y’all.)
Anyway, I believe this is what my dad was trying to recreate; though I haven’t yet asked him, I imagine that this dish is something his mother made in their little kitchen in McColl years before, a way to fill her children’s bellies and use up stale bread at the same time. I’m guessing he had a craving for it from time to time, as we all do our favorite meals from our mother’s table, so he made it for himself.
I found that the restaurant had shared the recipe online; I liked it, except that I cut back on the amount of sugar added, as I felt it was a bit too much. I hope you’ll be open-minded and spare one can of stewed tomatoes and a few slices of bread to see what you think of old-fashioned tomato pudding. You never know, it might be your new favorite thing!
28 ounce can of stewed tomatoes
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 stick of salted butter
4 slices of white bread, cubed
salt and pepper, to taste
Preheat oven to 375 degrees, and butter an 8″ x 8″ or 9″ x 9″ baking dish.
Melt butter; set aside.
Pour the canned tomatoes and all their juice into a medium-sized mixing bowl. If tomatoes are whole, mash them gently to release their juice and break them up a bit with a large spoon.
Sprinkle the tomatoes with the sugar, and then top with bread cubes. Do not stir.
Drizzle the butter over the bread cubes, and the sprinkle with salt and pepper.
Pour the contents of the bowl, without stirring, directly into the buttered baking dish.
Bake for 30 to 40 minutes, until bubbly and golden brown in color.
For a more savory variation:
Reduce sugar to one tablespoon, and sprinkle tomatoes with 3/4 cup grated parmesan cheese.
Top the whole casserole with a sprinkling of fresh basil leaves (about 1/2 cup), or 3/4 teaspoon dried basil, just before baking.
During the last five to seven minutes of baking, if desired, top with two handfuls of shredded mozzarella cheese, and continue baking until cheese has melted and is golden on top.
Chicken and Dumplings
2 1/2 cups plain flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
3/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup shortening
1 1/2 cups of whole milk
2 boneless chicken breasts or 4-6 thighs (dark meat yields a more flavorful broth, especially bone-in)
one medium onion
1 stalk celery (or substitute 1/2 teaspoon celery seed)
1 clove garlic, finely minced
1 bay leaf
Place chicken in a large stock pot. Cover with water, and add celery stalk (whole or cut in half), bay leaf and onion, cut in half, and bring to a boil; reduce heat to simmer.
Add garlic, then cook chicken until meat is done, adding water as needed to keep chicken covered just a bit. Remove any foam from pot by skimming with large spoon as it cooks. ( I let mine simmer for at least 30 minutes.)
Remove the chicken from broth when done, as well as onion and celery. Discard veggies and bay leaf. Set chicken aside.
Hold broth at a simmer while you prepare the dumplings.
To make dumplings, in a medium mixing bowl, combine flour, baking powder, and salt. Add the shortening to the flour mixture, and use a pastry blender or a fork to chop the shortening up into small pieces until mixture resembles coarse meal.
Add 1 cup of milk, and gently stir in. Using your clean, floured hands, gently knead a few times; if dough is crumbly, add more milk, a little at a time. You want the dough to be moist and soft, but not wet and sticky.
Sprinkle 1/2 cup flour on clean countertop, and roll out half of dough to pie crust thickness with a floured rolling pin. Cut into strips with a sharp knife, and use a thin spatula to gently lift dumplings, one at a time, and add them to the simmering chicken broth. Stir each one in very gently.
Repeat process with second half of dough.
Simmer the dumplings gently for ten to fifteen minutes. Taste the broth; add salt, if needed, a bit at a time until you have it just right for your palate!
If you like a thick broth, place 3/4 cup of cold milk in a soup bowl and add three heaping tablespoons of plain flour to it. Mix it together well with a whisk until there are no lumps left whatsoever. Pour this mixture into your broth, and allow to simmer for a few more minutes, stirring gently, as the broth thickens. Taste again for preferred level of salt and pepper.
Add chicken (bones removed) back into your pot, and stir in. Allow chicken to get reheat for a few moments before serving.
Serves 4-6 people.
Stephanie Hill-Frazier is a writer, food blogger and regional television chef, whose on-air nickname is “Mama Steph”. She grew up in Gulf County, on St. Joe Beach, a place she will forever call home.
She is married and has three sons who are substantially taller than she is. You can find more of her recipes at WhatSouthernFolksEat.com, and visit her at Facebook.com/WhatSouthernFolksEat.