I love community cookbooks. The great and broad recipe collections gathered together by Junior Leagues, Junior Auxiliaries, symphony groups, historic homes, garden clubs. I have a large and ever-growing collection of these treasures. Some of them are quite professional nowadays, with editors and trained photographers. But I particularly love the old-school cookbooks, from the Forties, Fifties and Sixties. Spiral-bound, ragged covers, hand-drawn illustrations and spelling mistakes. These to me are like a glimpse into the life and kitchens of the ladies of a community, how they fed their families and how they entertained. Little added notes like “good for a ladies lunch” or “feeds a crowd” or my favorite “the menfolk will eat this up.” Often, the recipes themselves lack detail or clear instructions – you can tell the person who submitted it just jotted down how she makes it, and it seems so second nature to her it doesn’t occur to explain in at any length. I’ve gotten pretty good at teasing out these recipes. I’ve tried some over and over that just never worked and others, with a little help, are standards in my repertoire. And isn’t it amazing how recipes seem to resonate around the world? I have old cookbooks from Detroit, from New Jersey and all over this region and the same recipes keep popping up – with the same unusual ingredients and colorful names.
Of course, my favorite community cookbooks are the ones from the communities I feel connected too. There are many great ones here in Memphis, and part of what I enjoy about these books is that they are familiar to so many friends and families. How often have I been at a party and someone comments on a dish and the hostess says, “oh you know, it’s that recipe from Heart and Soul” with that assumption that everyone owns the cookbook. Or asked a friend how she makes a dish and the answer is “I just use the recipe in Party Potpourri”. Some recipes do transcend ownership of the actual book. Everyone just knows a certain recipe and how it’s made – and can recognize it immediately when it’s served. I love that.
One recipe that has always been in my consciousness is Fire and Ice Tomatoes. How it got in my mind, I can’t imagine, because as I child I would never have eaten anything resembling a raw tomato. The original recipe, to the best of my knowledge, is from The James K. Polk Cookbook, produced by the James K. Polk Memorial Auxiliary of Columbia, Tennessee in 1978. Columbia is the town my mother grew up in, and President Polk had a home there that is now a historical site. My aunt served on the committee that produced the wonderful Provisions and Politics: Recipes Honoring First Lady Sarah Childress Polk, a follow up to the original Polk cookbook published in 2003. The book is a collection of new and fresh recipes, with a few old favorites thrown in. When she started with the project, my first question was “it will include Fire and Ice Tomatoes, right?” Both my mother and my aunt had no idea what I was talking about – they had to be reminded of the recipe. So how it became a part of my recipe memory bank, I will never know. But I do know that it is good. And it’s the perfect weekend recipe – not that it takes a weekend to prepare, but once you’ve made it, it can sit in it’s container in the fridge to be served up and snacked on all weekend. These make a great side to a grilled meal, a refreshing accompaniment to a lunch time sandwich, or an elegant first course salad.
Fire and Ice Tomatoes
The original recipe says these tomatoes will keep in the fridge up to 3 days, but I happily keep them up to five.
6 large ripe, red tomatoes
1 yellow onion
1 green bell pepper
¾ cup white wine vinegar
¼ cup cold water
1 ½ teaspoons mustard seed
1 ½ teaspoons sugar
1 ½ teaspoons celery salt
½ teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1/8 teaspoon black pepper
Cut the tomatoes into eight wedges each and place in a 9 by 13 inch glass or ceramic dish. Finely dice the onion and sprinkle over the tomatoes. Core, seed and remove the ribs of the bell pepper and cut into thin strips (if the pepper is long, cut the strips in half). Scatter the peppers over the tomatoes and onions.
In a saucepan, combine the vinegar, water, mustard seeds, sugar, celery salt, salt and peppers. Bring to a boil, stirring, and boil for one minute. Immediately pour the hot vinegar mixture over the tomatoes, then stir gently to combine. Leave the tomatoes to cool slightly, then cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate. Leave to marinate for several hours, stirring occasionally.
Serve on its own as a salad or a side dish or atop some lettuce leaves. You can pull out some of the tomato wedges and cut them into smaller pieces, stir in some of the dressing and vegetables and use this like a salsa as well.
Serves 6 to 8
Adapted from Provisions and Politics: Recipes Honoring Sarah Childress Polk