The Vintage Tomato Pudding My Family Fights Over Every Thanksgiving

It's festive, funky, and we can't get enough.

The first time you see it, at a young and naïve age of five or ten, you're utterly repulsed. Five years later, at an awkward age of 15, you'd rather take a nosedive in the high school bleachers than give it a whiff.

Then just like that, you get it. Tomato pudding is the bomb.

This is a tale as old as time in my family. You want to hate it, and you hold on as long as you can, not understanding why all of the adults can't get enough—fight over it, even, throwing elbows in the sideboard line on Thanksgiving Day!—until your taste buds finally let it in. It's simple, funky, and inexplicably divine. Here's why tomato pudding is always on our Thanksgiving table.

Powell Potluck Spread at the Family Thanksgiving
The bountiful potluck spread features new additions and old favorites. Peter Frank Edwards

Is There a Recipe?

Turns out Dad—only he is allowed to make it, as a rule—isn't crazy, and my great-grandmother used to serve it every Thanksgiving at the family farm, which is where the passed-down recipe we still use today originally comes from (passed down through word of mouth; no recipe card). The only other time she would break it out was when there was a group of men in town for a hunt because it paired well with quail. And no, it's not anything like a tomato pie—neither in form or taste. There are plenty of tomato pudding recipes out there if you want specifics since many families have their own version, but our family version isn't on record.

What Is Tomato Pudding?

It's basically like bread pudding, but with tomato sauce. I'm not allowed to say how much of each ingredient to use, per chef's orders: "I can't believe you're giving out my recipe!" There aren't any to give, anyway; he eyeballs it.

In fact, it's all done rather haphazardly, but with inherent purpose, which is exactly how a true Southern cook runs a kitchen. Tomato pudding, after all, is a lost classic in the South. Ask your eldest family members, and they'll know what I'm talking about.

Where Did It Originate?

Tomato pudding evolved as a way to use up summer's bounty of garden tomatoes. The ripe fruit was combined with day-old bread or biscuits to create what is similar to a cobbler. Where the recipe originated isn't clear. A North Carolina county and an Ohio city stake claim, and the "pudding" in the name points to influence from British settlers. The recipe is also similar to those for baked tomatoes in communities settled by freed enslaved people.

What's in Tomato Pudding?

Tomato pudding starts with cubes of French bread, basted in a bath of butter and toasted until crispy like a crouton; next canned tomato sauce and brown sugar (and a little butter) come together in a saucepan. Then pour the mixture over the French bread cubes in a casserole dish. You bake it until "it bubbles some and browns just a little bit," he says. Like I said, not exactly rocket science.

There is no cheese, nor is salt or pepper used. After you taste it, you know there's simply no place for any of those. In casserole culture, it'd be a sin if it didn't turn out so well.

Will It Be a Hit?

You might still be skeptical, but just know that this casserole dish is scraped empty before the broccoli casserole and the squash casserole and the green bean casserole. Every. Single. Year.

The way I always describe our Thanksgiving tomato bread pudding to outsiders: You're not supposed to like it. Everything in your body tells you that you're not supposed to like it. But you love it. And that's that.

Disclaimer: This is not a tomato pudding cult, scout's honor. We just feel passionately about this long-forgotten Southern casserole.

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