An Intergenerational Story of Green Tomato Pie

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The Seed and the Story is a weekly column exploring folklife, oral history, and community in central Arkansas, particularly the Yell County area where the column originates. The column is published in the Post Dispatch and is syndicated in the Courier and on the Boiled Down Juice site. Topics included in the column are often also associated with the McElroy House: Organization for Folklife, Oral History, and Community Action. Thanks so much for reading!

Last week’s column was the first in a short series highlighting research projects from this past semester’s Folklife and Oral History class at Arkansas Tech University. The class is only a half semester, so there isn’t time for in-depth research projects. But the students are given a few weeks to engage in a research project of their own choosing, exploring living traditions and oral histories in their families and communities. The goal of the class is to encourage young people to take a closer look at the everyday world that surrounds them, thus gaining a heightened awareness of their own regions or communities and a chance to explore the stories that make up their worlds.

Many of the students interview their grandparents, and often students explore specific family recipes and the wealth of stories behind them. This was the case with Emily Rains who wrote about her family’s Green Tomato Pie, which is served every summer at the annual Smith family reunions. When Emily first began researching the pie she suspected it was a Depression-era invention, the product of creative cooking that came from strict rationing. But in speaking with her grandmother, Wauneta Smith, Emily Rains discovered the recipe was passed down from her great, great grandmother, Eva Stark, who came to Arkansas from Illinois in a covered wagon shortly after the Civil War.

Mrs. Stark passed on this recipe to her daughter-in-law, the woman who would become Wauneta Smith’s grandmother. “I never knew my grandmother,” said Wauneta Smith in a recorded conversation with her granddaughter, Emily Rains. “She passed away shortly before I was born. But I’ve heard many, many stories of her good cooking. But I’m so glad she taught my mother to make that pie because through the years that was what she was always requested to bring. So now when we have family get-togethers, it’s still traditional for someone in the family to bake the green tomato pie.”

Wauneta Smith talked to her granddaughter Emily Rains about her first memories of eating the pie when she was about five years old, how delicious it tasted with “pure cream” and together they discuss its tanginess and surprising similarity to apple pie. “It was actually my younger sister,” explains Smith, who kept the pie tradition alive for many years, perfecting the recipe they have today. Not long before her death she passed the tradition on to Wauneta Smith so she could keep the tradition going.

Traditions exist all around us, so much a part of our everyday lives that we don’t even notice them. Such is often the case with foods passed down among generations. In their recorded conversation Emily tells her grandmother that this is the first year she tried the pie and asked her why she hadn’t seen it at family gatherings before. “We have it at all the family reunions,” explains Smith, “You probably just had so many things offered you didn’t eat it.”

Thanks so much to Emily Rains and Wauneta Smith for allowing me to share their stories here. To read last week’s column featuring Allison McVey’s research about her farming family click here.

Does your family have a green tomato pie recipe? Some other family recipe you’ve recently discovered? We aren’t including the Smith’s exact recipe (it’s their top secret, of course), but here is a similar variation.

Ingredients:

  • 6 to 8 medium green tomatoes
  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 1 teaspoon grated lemon peel
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 3/4 cup granulated sugar
  • 2 tablespoons cornstarch
  • 1 tablespoon butter
  • Pie crust (best if homemade)

Preparation:

Wash the green tomatoes well; peel and slice. In a saucepan, combine tomatoes with lemon juice, peel, salt, and cinnamon. Cook tomato mixture over low heat, stirring frequently. Combine sugar and cornstarch; stir into tomato mixture. Cook mixture until clear, stirring constantly. Add butter, remove from heat, and let stand until slightly cooled. Line a 9-inch pie plate with crust pour in tomato mixture. Cover with top crust, seal edges, crimp, and cut several small slits in crust to allow steam to escape. Bake at 435° for 35 to 45 minutes, or until nicely browned. Serve warm or cooled. Tastes great with ice cream.