How nice to discover someone who was writing about gardening, cooking, country living, the coziness of home and family and the beauty of nature—and was doing it decades ago, during the suburbanizing 1950s, the plasticine 60s and wrapping up her career in the 70s, when there was finally a turnabout in the appreciation of Mother Earth. (Remember natural-eating Euell Gibbons, and Johnny Carson doing funny skits about Euell Gibbons eating twigs and leaves?)
Gladys Taber came from an era of literary nonfiction, where writers could muse and observe rather than write a stream of how-to pieces. (I am guilty myself of spending the 90s writing “how to get flat abs” and “build big biceps” for men’s fitness magazines). Her column “Diary of Domesticity” began in Ladies Home Journal in November 1937, and she wrote a similar column, “Butternut Wisdom” for Family Circle from 1959 to 1967. Writing about gardening, raising animals, pets and cooking dominated the themes of her columns, much like these very blogs on Grit.com.
Most of the time she lived in Stillmeadow, a 1690 farmhouse near Southbury, Connecticut, a home she refurbished over many years, the amusing progress--or lack thereof--appearing in her writing.
She wrote more than 50 books. Among the most known are Harvest of Yesterdays (1976) and Country Chronicle (1974). Of her cookbooks the best is Gladys Taber’s Stillmeadow Cookbook (1965). Many of her narrative books contain recipes, too, written like this: “Then I add a cup or so of carrots cut in pieces, quartered onions or small white ones, half a parsnip, and, if I have it, a wedge or so of turnip. On my next trip through the kitchen I add some celery and quartered potatoes…when I get around to it, I add some tomato paste…”
Her cookbooks are reflective of an earlier era, and curiously contain instructions like “Accent can improve anything,” when any good cook now knows that Accent is pure MSG. But for home cooking, the recipes can’t be beat. She had an ample garden and created a bevy of great vegetable recipes.
This recipe springs from her “Fried Tomatoes” recipe, which has a gravy made from the drippings, flour and “top milk.” Another similar recipe, “Fried Tomato Bake,” she recommends for a dinner party because “who wants to stand watching frying tomatoes when the guests are in the living room having fun?” Hmm, I don't recall ever having that dilemma. Her recipe says to use green or red tomatoes but with red, ripe tomatoes and tarragon, it’s a tantalizing side dish. It seems very simple, but it tastes complex.
She’s right, it is best to stay close by when you’re making these. They are worth it.
FRIED RED TOMATOES
2 large or 3 medium ripe red tomatoes, sliced about a half-inch thick
1/4 cup (half-stick) of butter, plus additional 2 tablespoons (additional needed if frying more than one panful)
1/3 cup heavy cream or half and half
1 cup cornmeal
1 tablespoon dried tarragon leaves
1 teaspoon coarse salt
Heat butter on medium low heat in a heavy skillet. Mix cornmeal, tarragon leaves and salt in a shallow bowl and stir to mix thoroughly. Pour cream into another shallow bowl. Dip each tomato slice into cream, then dip into cornmeal mixture and coat thoroughly on both sides. Once butter is hot, place tomatoes in a single layer in pan and fry, uncovered, until golden brown, approximately 7-10 minutes. Gently turn each with a large fork to fry on the other side. Fry an additional 5-7 minutes, testing with fork to see if tomatoes are tender. Transfer to a platter. Add another 2 tablespoons of butter to pan and heat butter to repeat the process for additional tomatoes, if needed. Serve immediately.