“Fried Tomatoes and Milk Gravy” by Margaret Frey

Summer Tomato Production Slows Down

Mother called this meal Depression food. Can’t talk to that because I wasn’t around for FDR’s ‘crash and burn.’ I’m here for the rerun and know this: no matter how mean the world gets, people gotta eat. Listen up!

When in Jersey do as the Garden Staters do: pick the big reds when they’re firm and juicy. Can’t afford to grow or buy ‘em? Borrow them. Look at it this way—you’re doing gardeners a favor. By mid-season, they’ll be rapping on doors, begging neighbors to share the endless bounty. Jesus made a mega-mistake with the loaves of bread trick. A single Jersey vine could feed the world.

Basic recipe:

5 or 6 large, ripe Jersey Fresh tomatoes

¾ cup flour

salt & pepper to taste

¼ cup butter (½ stick)

1/3 cup cooking oil

1 cup milk

Keep the slices regular, ½ to ¾ inches thick. Get your hands on a cast iron skillet. Once it’s seasoned, cast iron is the best there is, even over an open fire. In a pinch, it’s an effective weapon. Smack a man’s head with a cast iron skillet? He’s unlikely to trouble you again.

Dredge the tomato slices in ½ cup flour, salt and pepper to taste, then drop the slices into preheated oil and butter, cooking until brown and crisp, both sides. You can substitute the cooking oil with Crisco, which is still cheap [but disgusting] at $5 a can. Turn the slices carefully so the flour coating remains intact, then plate the slices—all but one–and keep warm. With a fork, mash the remaining tomato slice in the pan. Mix with remaining flour. Add milk slowly then cook and stir over a high flame to thicken. Once done, drizzle the yummy gravy over the tomatoes. If you’re having a boom-boom day, sprinkle the plate with sugar and serve with sweet sausage.

Loved this recipe as a kid. Mother served fries on a huge tomato-shaped platter, something she bought at the A&P or traded for green stamps. I still love the reds, all sizes and shapes though Buddy, my man of good times and bad, complains he’s developing an acidic stomach.

Not me. I can’t eat too many because of the summers they conjure—my sister and I running along the Delaware, bare feet, wet hair, our hound Teddy panting, yelping, ready for adventure. Barbeque smoke wafted in the breeze, lacing everything with the taste of charred meat and hot peppers. Down river, sailboats bobbed. Blue-green dragonflies flitted over the shallows. Later in the season, we searched for cattails and ravaged swollen milk pods. Perched on the river wall, we’d watch the pale seeds take to the air, a thousand tiny parachutes.

In the season of fried tomatoes, the world was full, expectant, stretching out longer than a freight train. I could eat fried tomatoes until the day I die. Maybe after.

So dig in, child, before they get cold. Let summer rush your veins.