Aunt Mary's Slick Tomato Bake

Michael Sanford

My great-aunt Mary Bodenhammer, nee Moore, one of five sisters and two brothers, was born around 1895 in the Appalachian region of Western North Carolina, somewhere in the vicinity of Spruce Pine. She married Adolphus Bodenhammer, an aspiring plumber, around 1915. They lived with her family for several years, with Mary and her sisters doing the cooking and gardening. Canning and preserving also were their responsibilities.

Mary and Bodie began their migration when hard times loomed around 1925—first east to Greensboro, then north to Danville, Virginia. They eventually settled in Lorton, Virginia, a small community 15 miles south of Alexandria.

Mary and Bodie, a journeyman plumber, built a rustic, mountain-style log cabin on a 20-acre plot. They immediately started a large garden. Of the many recipes Aunt Mary shared with friends and family, the one she called "slick tomato bake" sticks in my mind. The ingredients came from her garden, with the exception of a couple of items from the Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company in Alexandria. The "slick tomato" is a reference to the unctuous pods of okra, cut into rounds.

4 cups stale, cubed bread—homemade or store-bought "light" bread—divided
3 tablespoons butter
1 medium onion, diced
2 cups okra, cut into ¼-inch rounds (or frozen sliced okra)
1 ¾ cups tomatoes, or a 14-ounce can, strained and juiced and set aside
1 ½ cups fresh corn cut from the ear or store-bought shoepeg, in a 12-ounce can
Salt and pepper to taste
1 cup grated sharp cheddar cheese

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Cut the stale bread into ¾-inch cubes and set aside. In a 10-inch cast-iron skillet, melt the butter and sauté the onion until lightly caramelized. Add the okra and sauté until the "slime" evaporates out. Add the tomato, corn, salt, and pepper.
Add 2 cups bread cubes gradually and work into the mixture until the bread absorbs the moisture. If the mixture becomes too stiff, add small amounts of the reserved tomato juice.

Let the mixture stand for 15 to 20 minutes before baking. Place skillet in preheated oven and bake, uncovered, for 45 minutes or until mixture bubbles.

Crush the remaining stale bread into crumbs in a bag with a rolling pin or wooden mallet. Combine remaining bread crumbs with the cheese and mix well.

Remove the skillet from the oven. Increase the oven temperature to 400 degrees. Sprinkle the bread crumb and cheese mixture over the top of the dish. Return to the oven, uncovered, for 15 to 20 minutes or until the top is crusty and brown. Let stand for 10 minutes prior to serving.