Every year, David Guas’ friends text him photos of their first tomato sandwich of the season. Think of it as sexting, but for chefs.
“I wait a long time for tomatoes you can eat like apples,” Guas says.
This anticipation is one of the reasons Guas recently added a savory pie starring ripe tomatoes to the menu at his New Orleans-inspired cafes in Arlington and Capitol Hill.
“For me it’s just an awesome summer pie,” he said.
To make the dish, Guas fills a cream cheese-laced crust (“It makes it flaky,” he says) with sliced heirloom tomatoes, shallots, olive oil, thyme and Dijon mustard. The filling is mixed with goat cheese and topped with seasoned breadcrumbs and baked until a delicate brown forms on top.
“My family didn’t necessarily serve tomato pie, but I knew it was a Southern thing,” Guas says.
Tomato pie dates back to the 19th century and has humble, rural beginnings. It was originally made with sliced green tomatoes that had been sweetened with sorghum. It was most often served as an alternative to apple pie when the fruit was unavailable.
“It was born from people making do with what they had,” says Emily Hilliard, a local folklorist who runs a blog about pies called Nothing in the House. “It was probably like, ‘We have these green tomatoes. We know apple pie is good. Let’s try it.’ ”
Over time, regions in the United States developed their own varieties: Southern versions are typically served savory with breadcrumbs on top, while New Jersey and Pennsylvania tomato pie is closer to cheese pizza.
Mark Furstenberg, founder and owner of Bread Furst bakery in Van Ness, remembers a version his grandparents’ cook, Bobalie, used to serve when he was growing up in Baltimore. “Bobalie’s tart appealed to people who really cared about food and seasonality,” Furstenberg says. “It was just a good pastry crust with nothing in it but good summer fruit.”
Following in Bobalie’s footsteps, the tomato pie Furstenberg serves at his bakery is pared down. It’s made with pie crust, a touch of basil oil, sliced tomatoes that have been oven-dried (to remove excess moisture) and a hint of salt and pepper. “That’s one of the pleasures of being in business: You can dot your business with little pieces of personal history,” Furstenberg says.
For the Pie Sisters — a sibling-run pie shop in Georgetown — the decision to serve a tomato pie was not born from a fond memory or an adherence to a tradition. Rather, the sisters wanted a savory option they could serve vegetarians. “It’s our own spin,” says co-founder Erin Blakely.
In place of sliced tomatoes, the sisters use diced beefsteak tomatoes (“They’re easier to eat that way, because the skin doesn’t pull the tomato out when you bite into it,” Blakely says) flavored with fresh basil and shallots and topped with shredded cheddar and mozzarella.
“When you’re in the kitchen so much you start creating things,” Blakely says. “We keep it very simple, and I think people appreciate that.”