Tomato Pudding is a simple casserole-style side dish meant to accompany a rich Southern meal. Or maybe it’s a dessert. The recipe’s original author, Cincinnati restaurateur Barbara Bond, isn’t quite sure. This recipe comes to me by way of The Black Family Reunion Cookbook, a recipe book compiled by the National Council of Negro Women. While the cookbook itself is a professional affair from a national publisher, it retains the charm and intimacy of a community cookbook. Among the NCNW’s stated goals is the desire to empower African-American women and strengthen their families. In support of this mission, many recipes in The Black Family Reunion Cookbook are accompanied by personal stories. These stories provide cultural context and family history, tying individual recipes back to long held family traditions.
Ms. Bond provides the following story to accompany her Tomato Pudding recipe:
This recipe is from Gold Point, North Carolina. It was given to my mother by my father’s mother. There is an on-going “discussion” about how this “pudding” is served – as a vegetable or as a dessert. My father claims my grandmother served it as a dessert – she probably did. However, my mother always served it as a vegetable. Give it a try!
Much of the confusion likely stems from the generous amount of sugar in the original recipe. Tomatoes and sugar are not as strange a combination as it might seem. Anyone who’s grown their own tomatoes can tell you the utter joy of ripe-off-the-vine tomatoes with cream and sugar. (and if they can’t they haven’t lived life). Most home cooks think nothing of adding a tablespoon of sugar to a pot of pasta sauce, and we enjoy a variety of sugar-laden tomato-based condiments. With this in mind I chose to follow Ms. Bond’s mother’s advice: Tomato Pudding was a vegetable.
Preparation is straightforward but should be followed to the letter. Canned tomatoes are hand-mixed with stale bread, sugar, and melted butter. This messy concoction is poured into an ungreased casserole and baked until it has the consistency of stuffing or a soft spoon bread. I did little to deviate from Ms. Bond’s original recipe, other than to increase the proportion of bread to achieve my desired consistency. I will repeat Ms. Bond’s advice to not “get fancy” and use fresh tomatoes. Unless you have access to fresh, soft, almost overripe summer tomatoes it just won’t work properly. Canned tomatoes have plenty of sugar to begin with, and are the only practical fit for this recipe.
Tomato Pudding was generally well-received. I served it alongside a rich and tender brisket that was, unfortunately, also quite dry. The tomato pudding, along with the requisite barbecue sauce, helped to offset the lack of moisture. Most people at the table, my mother in particular, were not impressed with it on its own, perhaps because they were expecting a savory tomato dish. They seemed to enjoy it better as a “sauce” for the brisket or when mixed with a bite of the equally rich Macaroni and Cheese with White Sauce from the same cookbook.
Will I make it again? Absolutely. Tomato Pudding is easy to make a colorful novelty for a cookout or potluck. It would pair well with any roasted or barbecued meat, as well as fried chicken and meatloaf. It serves the same culinary purpose as a honey-sweet cornbread, but no one will remember your cornbread. They’ll remember your tomato pudding. Enjoy!
- 4-6 slices stale white bread
- 1 28 oz can whole tomatoes
- ¼ cup unsalted butter (melted)
- ¾ cup white sugar
- freshly ground black pepper
- Preheat oven to 350° F.
- Add four slices of bread to a large mixing bowl. Mix in remaining ingredients by hand, breaking up tomatoes while mixing.
- Add remaining slices of bread, if desired, if the mixture is too watery.
- Pour mixture into 2qt casserole.
- Bake at 350° F for about 45 minutes, until edges are lightly browned and center is set.