A Taste of South Carolina: Just What is Tomato Pie?

By:Libby Wiersema

Date:8/9/2016

Think the heat is the most pressing summertime issue for South Carolinians? Nope – that’s nothing a trip to the beach, a glass of iced tea and a little AC can’t fix. Hot temperatures and those mid-summer afternoon showers mean bumper crops of tomatoes. If you’re not grabbing them up at the markets, chances are you’re picking them from your own garden or accepting handfuls from coworkers, friends and neighbors.

When your kitchen counter begins to resemble the set of a tomato sci-fi flick, it’s time to turn on the oven and reduce your “cast.” It’s all good, though. Sacrificing some of that juicy fruit will yield plenty of applause when you serve up a killer Southern tomato pie for dinner.

Some history, sort of

The history of tomato pie is largely based on deductions and conjecture. In the 1800s, unripe tomatoes got full fruit treatment, with bakers chopping and tossing chopped green tomatoes with sugar, cinnamon and nutmeg for a dessert pie filling. Some accounts point to 19th century Shaker recipes for pies with ripe tomatoes, cream and bacon – savory pies that more closely resemble the Southern version we enjoy today. If you take at a look at those old recipes, though, you’ll notice a couple of glaring omissions that make them a different animal altogether. Not only are South Carolina-grown tomatoes not an ingredient, but our beloved Duke’s mayonnaise is missing, too. Both are required ingredients for making tomato pie in the Palmetto State.

What's in 'em

Tomato pie is easy to prepare, versatile and full of South Carolina flavor. Just make sure you have the basics on hand: pie crust, cheese, onion, mayonnaise, your favorite herbs and plenty of rich, red local tomatoes.

You can buy a ready-made pie crust and save yourself a bit of trouble. The yum factor of your dish won’t be compromised much – this is one pie where the taste rides so fully on the filling that it’s hard to mess up. When it comes to your tomato pie foundation, just about anything goes. For example, the Lone Star restaurant in Santee uses slices of day-old bread as its pie’s foundation. The Clay Pot in Florence prefers a flaky, homemade ice water crust. Some cooks will use puff pastry, canned biscuit dough or phyllo dough for their creations. Experiment, find one you love and get busy.

No matter which recipe you use, you’ll want to thinly slice your tomatoes, arrange between layers of paper towels, sprinkle with a little salt and leave them alone for a few minutes. This will help leach out excess fluid and prevent a watery, soggy pie. Sweet yellow or green onions, as well as oregano and basil, will complement the tomatoes. Use a blend of cheeses for a flavor boost; sharp cheddar and Parmesan make good companions. You’ll mix the cheese with mayo and, as previously stated, the preference in these parts is good old Duke’s, a tangy recipe born in Greenville many moons ago. To this topping, some folks add a little dill weed or cayenne pepper for a slight kick. Many cooks have found that spreading the pie with a tub of their favorite pimento cheese is a tasty shortcut that yields comparable results.

Get ‘em while they’re hot

If you’re not inclined to make your own, there are plenty of eateries across the state where you can experience the joys of fresh tomato pie. Among the most popular are Dixie Supply Bakery & Café in Charleston, Stono Market & Tomato Shed Café on Johns Island, Kings Market on Edisto Island, Lee’s Farmers Market in Murrells Inlet, The Farmers Shed in Lexington, Grits & Grocery in Belton, Malia’s in Aiken, Clay Pot in Florence and The Cottage in Bluffton. Call first to check availability as some eateries only offer it seasonally.

On the other hand, if you need to thin out your mad stash of tomatoes or satisfy the craving you worked up after reading this article, here’s a simple recipe to get you started. Feel free to add your favorite herbs and cheeses to suit your tastes.

Southern Tomato Pie

1 9-inch pie crust, homemade or store-bought

4 to 5 homegrown tomatoes, thinly sliced and drained (as instructed above)

1 medium sweet onion, thin sliced

Fresh basil leaves, chopped

1 cup of sharp cheddar cheese, grated

¼ cup of Parmesan, grated

½ cup Duke’s mayonnaise

Olive oil

Salt and pepper

Heat oven to 350 degrees. Bake pie crust until it begins to turn golden, about 10 minutes. Let cool. Lightly sauté onions in a bit of olive oil, just enough to lightly coat your pan. Layer drained tomato slices in pie crust; sprinkle lightly with salt and pepper. Sprinkle with basil and top with lightly sautéed onions. Mix cheeses into mayonnaise. Spread evenly on top of pie. Bake for 30 to 40 minutes, or until pie is brown and bubbly. Cool a few minutes before serving. Eat on the front porch with a glass of sweet tea.

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