Mary Randolph’s The Virginia Housewife may not be the first cookbook published in America, but many consider it the first truly regional American cookbook – with recipes that were forged out of necessity and using local ingredients.
During the colonial period, cookbooks were imported or brought with immigrants to the New World. Cookbooks printed in the colonies during this time were imprints of books published in other countries. One of the first cookbooks published in the newly formed United States was Amelia Simmons’ American Cookery (1796), which was one of the first to include recipes for cornmeal and other new foods. I’ve explored her work before when I tried her recipe for Pound Cake, which – true to its name – uses a pound each of flour, sugar, butter and eggs.
But Randolph went particularly local with the Virginia Housewife, setting the standard for what southern (and in particular, Virginian) cuisine would taste like. It includes recipes for Okra Soup and Barbecued Shote (a young hog). 175 years later, the book is still in print and is a frequent inspiration for chefs today.
In honor of the anniversary of Randolph’s birth on August 9, I thought it’d be the perfect time to try out one of her recipes. Tomatoes are in season right now through much of the country and so I followed her advice “To Scollop Tomatos.”
Tomatoes have a long and rich history in global food traditions. Scientists generally agree they come from South America originally. They were brought to Europe by the Spanish in the 16th century where, believing they were poisonous, they were cultivated as curiosities from the New World. They started appearing in recipes in Southern Europe (Spain, Italy, Southern France) during the 17th century.
According to Andrew Smith in his book The Tomato in America, the English herbalist William Salmon identified tomatoes growing in present-day South Carolina as early as 1687 – likely introduced to the area by Spanish settlers in Florida. By the time Randolph published her cookbook, tomatoes were being grown and consumed along the entire east coast at least as far north as Massachusetts.
To “scollop” or scallop, is a French culinary term to bake something with a creamy sauce and breadcrumbs. The recipe highlights the influence French cuisine already had on America – being our closest allies during the American Revolution. Third President Thomas Jefferson was an enormous fan of French cuisine and helped to popularize it this country during the early 19th century. Randolph would have been heavily influenced by this, as her brother married Jefferson’s daughter Martha.
Most store-bought tomatoes have been genetically engineered to be perfectly round and red. This process has also stripped tomatoes of almost all their flavor. Try to get some heirloom tomatoes for this dish if you want to taste anything other than the seasoning. Smell them before you buy them. If the tomato doesn’t smell like tomatoes, it won’t taste like them either. The amount you’ll need depends on the size of your dish, because you’ll want at least two layers. I had about 4 lbs which seemed just right.
If you’ve never skinned tomatoes, fear not. It couldn’t be easier. The best way to skin tomatoes is to cut a small x through the skin of the bottom of the tomato with a paring knife. Drop them in boiling water for about 5-10 seconds, or until you begin to see the skin peeling away from the cut you made. Lift it out immediate with a slotted spoon. You may want to speed this process by dropping them all in the boiling water at once, but even after you remove them, the heat will be retained in the tomato until you peel it, so unless you work awfully quickly, you’re going to end up peeling mushy tomatoes by the end.
To make your own bread crumbs, slice a loaf of bread in thick chunks, and bake them at a low temperature until they dry out – about 325F for 30-40 minutes depending on the kind of bread and the thickness you cut it. Use a hand grater or, if you’re feeling more modern, run it through a food processor.
Given that ovens didn’t have temperature gauges, recipes from the time might only refer to the oven as “quick” meaning very hot or something like it. This does not include any mention of temperature, as the cook was simply to know how to bake things and how to handle their fire or oven. In this case, I’d recommend 375F for about 30 minutes, keeping a watchful eye to prevent burning.
I admit, first and foremost, that this recipe reminded me very quickly that I really detest large hot pieces of tomato – a fact I’d completely forgotten. Which is unfortunate, because I really wanted to like it. Something about the texture and flavor reminds me of cooked watermelon. Tomato soup? Awesome. Tomato sauce? I’m a happy camper. Fresh cool tomatoes? Heaven. But this…
Perhaps some of the fault also lies with the butter. It certainly imparts the creaminess one would want in a ‘scalloped’ food, but it combines with the tomato juices and, well, really – lets just say it’s a bit heavy.
Now, all this being said, I would happily cook a variation of this recipe where the tomatoes would be chopped smaller, the breadcrumbs would be seasoned more, some chopped basil and garlic were tossed about, perhaps a light drizzle of olive oil substituted for the butter and some shaved parmesan scattered on top.
I realized this even while I was assembling the food and fought the urge to doctor the recipe, because I really do feel it’s important to try it the way it was meant to be prepared before I go making wild adjustments. Unless you’re a food history stickler like me, perhaps you will allow my sacrifice of some beautiful heirloom tomatoes so that you won’t have to.
Whether you change the recipe or not, the dish goes well as a side for beef or lamb roasts, or as a compliment to pasta. However, unless you change the recipe, it is a bit too heavy as a stand-alone dish.