A New England-born writer tries a Southern classic for the first time, and is instantly smitten.
I’m not sure a Northerner can ever truly understand Southerners’ love of mayonnaise and tomatoes together.
My Southern friends rave about tomato sandwiches. Not BLTs, mind you, which I grew up eating, but tomato and mayo sandwiches with salt and pepper and nothing else. Chuck Reece of The Bitter Southerner writes that a proper tomato sandwich employs Duke’s or Blue Plate mayonnaise, thank you very much, and never Hellmann’s (a Yankee creation and therefore verboten).
“The Southerner’s ideal tomato sandwich—with a juicy, ripe tomato and the requisite amount of mayonnaise—will, when bitten into, send a stream of tomato juice and mayo out of the sandwich and down your arms,” writes Reece.
This is a man devoted to tomato and mayonnaise. And although I’ve had some good BLTs in my day, the bacon and the lettuce are, of course, major players. I’d never really experienced the glory of tomato and mayonnaise in one bite until I made North Carolina chef Ashley Christensen’s tomato pie. The recipe (from her 2016 cookbook) mingles layers of salted tomatoes with a creamy homemade mayo, thyme, mustard, sharp cheddar, and horseradish, and was the tastiest thing I’ve cooked this year. Savory and bursting with umami, it was a creamy, tomato-y revelation.
I spoke to Chadwick Boyd, a Southern food proponent and TV host who helps organize the annual International Biscuit Festival and Southern Food Writing Conference in Knoxville, Tennessee. Boyd skimmed Christensen’s recipe and quickly informed me that “Ashley’s is an elevated version of tomato pie.” He has family members, he laughed, “who wouldn’t eat this because ‘You’re too fancy, Chadwick.’”
Traditional Southern tomato pie, he explained, simply entails pie crust, ripe tomatoes, mayonnaise, salt and pepper, and sometimes cheese. “You would never see mustard or horseradish,” he told me, although you might see bacon. Mayonnaise is “a core ingredient in the Southern kitchen,” he went on. Boyd has spent a lot of time in North Carolina and Georgia, and thinks the tomato pie is closely related to what he called “the ‘mater sandwich,’” which is very popular in the South.
So, it seems, is tomato pie. Although I’d never encountered it in my four decades on the planet—mostly spent up north—it is apparently so common down south that, “Somebody will say, ‘I’ll make the deviled eggs,’ and somebody else will say, ‘I’ll make the tomato pie,’” said Boyd. “Somebody will always take ownership of it.” Indeed, a search for “tomato pie” on the (excellent) New York Times cooking site pulled up zero matches, while our sibling publication Southern Living boasts a bevy of them.
Want to try the pie at home? This is the right season for it, so use good fresh tomatoes. I loved Christensen’s recipe, for which a frozen pie shell shortcut worked fabulously, and dug the French vibe that Dijon and thyme contributed. Or you could try chef Vivian Howard’s version, which features Parmesan (a common addition, says Boyd) and fontina. Our classic tomato pie, which I have yet to cook, has a five-star rating, and would be a satisfying starting point. There even exists, because it's a slightly mad world, a paleo version.
Or you could simply ask around on social media. One of your Southern friends is probably making his grandma’s tomato pie this time of year, and all you have to do is ask.
Alex Van Buren is a food and travel writer living in Brooklyn, New York whose work has appeared in Gourmet.com, Bon Appétit, Travel + Leisure, New York Magazine, Martha Stewart Living, and Epicurious. Follow her on Instagram and Twitter @alexvanburen.