On a hot summer day in Kanawha County around Charleston, West Virginia, twelve-year old William “Billy” Dissen was sitting outside a friend’s house. Her father pulled two German Johnson tomatoes off the vine and began cooking bacon.
Billy’s request for a simple bacon and lettuce version was flatly rejected by his friend’s father — who, as a man growing up in the fertile hills of West Virginia, knew what was best for his daughter’s friend. Her father was omnisciently, perhaps forcibly courteous:
“Son, it’s July.”
After he dutifully sat down and ate his first BLT, an immediate love of everything tomato hit little Billy like, well, a tomato to the face.
“I talk about food memories — pivotal points in my life. That was the moment for heirloom tomatoes,” says Dissen.
These days, his love of the summer tomato continues. “We’ll get 60 pounds at a time,” says Dissen, speaking solely of the demands of his kitchen in Uptown Charlotte, Haymaker.
Every season, Dissen buys tomatoes from Piedmont farms like Newtown Farm in Waxhaw, Harmony Ridge Farm in Tobaccoville, and Fair Share Farms in Pfafftown, both outside Winston-Salem. Because of his purchasing power between his two restaurants in Asheville and Charlotte, many farms now deliver to him directly. And while he, like many farm-to-table chefs of his sort, would love to spend each Saturday putzing around the local farmers market, Dissen is a working chef with his eyes on everything that carries his name.
Dissen’s philosophy holds that some ingredients don’t need much manipulation — that the most difficult part has already been done by the time it reaches his door.
“Our farmers and the land and the ecosystem is doing the hard work. So when something is super fresh, I really don’t want to do too much to it. You have that tomato in January and you have that tomato in July. Which one do you prefer? Literally slice it, put red wine vinegar on it, pinch of salt crack of black pepper. Let it sit for a minute or two to get juicy and it tastes like candy.”
In his book Southern Provisions, David Shields describes how an urban center, like Charlotte “creates its style elaborating the bounty of the surrounding countryside” while also incorporating non-local products.
In the case of Charlotte, there is no bigger urban center in the Carolinas than the Queen City.
“We are a farm to table restaurant. Does that mean we don’t use ingredients that come from 1000 miles away? That would be a lie. But peak season we’re probably eighty to ninety percent local. And to me, does that mean 10 miles, 50 miles, 100 miles away? It means eat within your foodshed.”
And nothing represents local seasonality — the marriage of home and professional cookery — better than an heirloom tomato pie.
“It’s a classic Southern dish,” said Dissen.
“We always made them at home during the middle of tomato season. Roll out a pie, blind bake it, mayonnaise, shredded cheddar, maybe some parmesan if we’re feeling crazy. You eat that with a little bit of salad for a really nice lunch.”
To modernize the dish for Charlotte eaters, Dissen didn’t want to stray far from the classic.
“When we were putting it on the menu here we said, ‘Let’s do it as a tart.’ It’s not this big-ass piece of pie. It’s a slightly smaller piece — more refined. Because the ratio is more crust to tart, that cornmeal really comes through.”
Dissen uses a cornmeal crust in lieu of the standard flaky pastry dough. His pate brisee contains a blend of seventy-five percent landrace white Tuxapeño and twenty-five percent orange Cateto cornmeals with the addition of whole butter. And it’s the inclusion of corn which brings this dish closer to the heart of the Piedmont.
“I worked for a long time with Dave Bauer from Farm & Sparrow out of Asheville. He actually grinds us a custom blend of cornmeal. You get this beautiful orange speckle — and I think it’s really, really flavorful — like popcorn.”
The filling is pretty standard but wouldn’t be the same with inferior tomatoes. “Mayonnaise and cheese — we do roast the tomatoes so it doesn’t get soggy, and to concentrate the sugars. It’s just good. To me, it’s like eating an heirloom tomato sandwich with Duke’s mayonnaise and salt. I could eat ten of them a day.”
For heirloom tomatoes, Dissen referenced the old term “rested on its shoulders.” It’s the way to store a heavy tomato to prevent it from collapsing under the weight of its own sweet juice.
In Charlotte’s past, the term could also be used to describe the city’s reliance on its neighbors — from Charleston to Asheville to Atlanta — to help define its culinary identity. Kris Reid, of the Piedmont Culinary Guild, says the goal of Charlotte eaters should be “to know exactly where you are and in what season — to taste the Piedmont. That is our identity: showing time and place on the plate.”
In other words, it’s up to us to reject that January tomato and to embrace the July one — to know the hard work behind such an easy decision that even a child could make it — and realize how lucky we are that we can do it all again next year.
• Haymaker [Official]