“If the pie looks perfect, it’s not homemade.” A waitress at a popular North Carolina barbecue restaurant told my wife Molly and me that once not long ago, and I’ve tightly latched onto it like a cook’s creed. I think it backs up my previously held belief that great handmade food doesn’t naturally look flawless like something that came off an assembly line. With all the mass-shared food-hack videos and photos on the Internet, we’ve trained ourselves to think what we whip up in the kitchen must have every minute detail in place or else it’s a failure. That’s just not a reasonable expectation.
We make a lot of homemade pies in our kitchen, as you might be able to tell if you follow #FoodieScore regularly, and when you make a lot of pies as a self-trained pastry baker you’re going to produce a lot of dishes that taste great but lack in Instagram or Pinterest portrait worthiness. It’s a real good thing I understand that concept, even if I fight tooth and nail with myself—and my wife, admittedly—to concede that reality each time one of my creations turns out less than perfect.
Thus was my experience with making Hattie Mae’s Tomato Pie, a recipe from a South Carolina community restaurant called Grits and Groceries (what a great Southern name!) that I found in a cookbook, “The Southern Foodie” by Chris Chamberlain, which we picked up at a local flea market a while back. A friend and former colleague in the journalism world has been suggesting Molly and I get to Upstate South Carolina to eat at Grits and Groceries for quite a while now. All the while, it just so happens I’ve been wanting to make a tomato pie at home. So when I found this recipe and saw it was from that particular restaurant, I knew it was the one to make and share, if it turned out all right.
Well, it didn’t turn out all right the first time. I make my own pie crusts and a measurement error led to a crust with which I was very displeased. The filling was tasty, but it couldn’t overcome the crust. So I waited a few weeks and then, when one of my mom and dad’s neighbors gave them garden-fresh tomatoes that they passed along to me, I decided it was time to try again. This time, my crust turned out tasty, as did the amazingly seasoned and fresh-tomato filling. But it was the third crust recipe I had made that day because I spent the afternoon making double-crust peach pies with fresh South Carolina fruit I had bought, and I was less accurate and patient with rolling out my dough and forming it beautifully into my pan. So it didn’t look too pretty.
Flabbergasted at my self-judged failure in the visual department, I muttered and moaned through dinner, and all the while Molly consoled me and reassured me the pie was “on point.” It did taste mighty good, but I can’t take credit for that. The honor for the flavor in this recipe goes to Grits and Groceries, which Molly and I still need to make the two-hour drive to visit in person and experience their cooking instead of just trying to make one of their dishes ourselves. I can take all the credit for the way the pie looks though. And it may not look perfect, but that’s because it’s 100 percent homemade.
Hattie Mae’s Tomato Pie
(And for the record, I’m not yet sure who Hattie Mae is. That’s a question I’ll ask when we visit Grits and Groceries.)
What You Need
4 ripe but firm large tomatoes, sliced ¼ inch thick
1 9-inch pie crust
½ cup finely diced onions
½ cup chopped fresh herbs such as tarragon, oregano, parsley and basil
1 cup mayonnaise (We use Duke’s, of course.)
1 cup grated cheddar cheese
What You Do
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
2. Place the tomatoes on a baking sheet and season with salt. Allow to sit for a few minutes until some of their water is drawn out. Pat dry with a paper towel.
3. Place half of the tomatoes in the pie crust. Top with the onions and 2 tablespoons of the herbs, and season with salt and pepper. Layer the remaining tomatoes and season with salt and pepper.
4. Combine the mayonnaise, cheese and remaining herbs in a small bowl. Spread this mixture on top of the pie. A rubber spatula can help you with this step.
5. Bake for 25 minutes, until golden brown.