Sweet Tomatoes (Old Fashioned Stewed Tomatoes)

Every so often my mother served a bowl of hot stewed sweet tomatoes for dinner. (Our ‘dinner’ was what we call ‘lunch’ today and today’s dinner was called ‘supper’.) I remember the sweetness of this tomato dish, the soggy toasted bread, and the aroma of cinnamon. I haven’t eaten it in decades, and I would wager that few would make it today. Unlike many fathers, mine never planted tomatoes in his garden, yet, every summer our kitchen table was graced with freshly sliced tomatoes my mother had procured from somewhere. I liked nothing better than to heap sugar across a saucer of sliced tomatoes that I then diced into bite-sized pieces. When my mother served stewed tomatoes, I used to heap ample amounts onto my plate and always made certain that I had taken some of the torn pieces of toasted bread that had been torn rather than cut and included in the dish. It was so delicious and so simple a dish!

As a young kid I refused to eat fresh tomatoes. I could not understand why others relished them so. Then, in 1950, we began to spend some weeks in the Ozarks of Arkansas each summer. My dad had bought large sections of land there. I am sure the mountains and forests reminded him of growing up near the Black Forest, and we spent hours walking up and down primitive logging roads. He loved it and often verbalized that this land should be a park someday. (His wish came true. The last of his 1,360 acres became the Smith Creek Preserve and contains Arkansas’ 4th largest cave and the winter home of Indiana bats. We crawled into that cave for some 50 yards on several occasions before being able to stand.)

We camped amid the towering trees of our lands. Our nearest neighbors along the mountainous dirt and dusty roads were real hillbillies. Some hadn’t been to a town in half a century and we often found them sitting on their front porches by ten o’clock in the mornings. No lights, no electricity, and few worries—save for game wardens. Some were industrious—even on our land. One had fenced in 10 aces to grow tomatoes. When confronted, he offered us some to eat. I declined, then relented and experienced one of the most incredible taste sensations of my young life.

The earliest mention of tomatoes in America was noted in 1710 when William Salmon, an English doctor, wrote a book about English herbals, including the tomato, which he noted “as an edible, often red, berry commonly  known as a tomato plant.” He also had noted its origins in South and Central America and that the Aztecs gave it its name, tomati and were using it in their cooking when Cortez arrived. The Spaniards brought them to Europe. The English brought them back to New England. The Spanish probably also introduced them to the Florida settlements. From there they likely were taken into what is now Georgia and the Carolinas.

Tomatoes were remarkably slow to win acceptance in the United States except as ornamental, medicinal or a curiosity. Everyone knew it was related to poisonous members of the nightshade family. Thomas Jefferson wrote of his tomato plantings at Monticello in 1782, but not of using it in his gastronomy. It was still not widely known as edible in the United States until about 1840. The same may not have been true in the Republic of Texas.

So, did Meusebach’s immigrants bring tomato seeds with them? Or did Indians bring them to Marktplatz to trade? It’s too bad that no diaries have revealed when our German ancestors first began planting them in their gardens. Joseph Campbell was still half a century away before introducing a condensed tomato soup to Americans, a move that set the company on the road to wealth, but it was Maria Parloa whose 1872 cookbook, The Appledore Cook Book included the first American recipe for preparing tomatoes. Parloa, incidentally, was the mother for teaching the subject of home economics in schools.

American author, Betty Fussell, Ph.D., now aged 93, and an author of many books on foods, noted that stewed tomatoes were one of the most loved and common dishes known in America. Simply heating tomatoes, adding butter, salt and sugar created simple dishes served with bread in American homes practically on a daily basis. Americans, incidentally, eat more than 22 pounds of tomatoes (about ½ bushel) every year—more than half of this amount in the form of ketchup and tomato paste.

A recipe for Spanish Tomatoes appeared in the 1916 publication of the Fredericksburg Home Kitchen Cook Book submitted by Mrs. Temple D. Smith, whose husband brought the railroad to Fredericksburg about that same time. Another appeared in the 9th edition (1967) submitted by Mrs. Felix Feller for Süsse Tomaten (Sweet Tomatoes) in a section beginning to be reserved for the more traditional local “German Recipes.” Hers was as simple as it could get, suggesting that to one pint of canned tomatoes, salt and pepper be added to taste and 1 tbsp of butter, ¾ cup sugar and a dash of cinnamon; then cooked, thickened with flour and served hot. Peeled fresh tomatoes would have been more likely used if it had been an old Fredericksburg recipe.

It is important to note that the tomatoes should be peeled. Incidentally, tomato peelings contain lectins which if eaten, cause animals, for example, not to feel so well. Yet, we eat it a lot. Legumes (beans, peanuts, cashews, etc.), grains, soy, and other vegetables like potatoes, peppers, and egg plants (also nightshades) contain lectin. One can easily remove a tomato’s peeling by dropping them into boiling water for 1 minute. The skins will easily slip off if then rinsed in cold water. If used unpeeled, the skins will separate from the meat of the tomato and can be found to remain as shriveled remnants in one’s sauce. The texture of the skin is undesirable in this recipe.

2 pounds peeled tomatoes, chopped
3 slices of toasted bread torn into pieces or chunks of stale bread,
¾ cup sugar
2 tbsp unsalted butter
¼ cup butter
Salt and pepper to taste
Dash of cinnamon

Grease 1 ½ quart baking dish
Stir the tomatoes, sugar, butter, toast, salt and pepper; pour into the prepared dish.
Bake about 30- 40 minutes in medium oven.
Serve hot.

By: Mark Wieser

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