A Mess of Greens

By Elizabeth Engelhardt

Toward the end of a project I was working on about my home region—the mountains of Appalachia—I stumbled across repeated references to something in the 1890s called the “Beaten Biscuit Crusade.” That turned out to be an effort to get local women to stop making their staple bread, corn bread, for their families and start making a specific (and complicated) biscuit recipe.

I was intrigued because I, like many of us, grew up eating both biscuits and corn bread, and associating them equally with a kind of comforting home cooking. But at the turn of the century, the choice between the two breads was one that revealed a lot about race, gender, class, modernity, ideas of sanitation and hygiene and place. A Mess of Greens really took off from there—with each of its chapters exploring a different food practice in the Southern food story, from moonshine, tomato clubs and mill food to farmers markets and cookbooks.

Near the end of researching the girls’ tomato-club movement, I stumbled across something very personal in the archives, something no one in my family remembered: a photograph of my great-grandmother in Quebec, North Carolina, on the steps of her general store, surrounded by the canning club she was leading. I now have a copy of that photograph on my desk to remind me that food is both social and personal, and that talking about it helps us understand ourselves as well as the societies in which we live.

The excerpt that follows is taken from Chapter Three, “Canning Tomatoes.”



An excerpt from A Mess of Greens by Elizabeth Engelhardt,
Copyright © 2011 by the University of Georgia Press.

Tomato Club. Tomato Club.
See how we can. See how we can.
Give us tomatoes and a good sharp knife—
This is the place to get a good wife.
Did ever you see such girls in your life—
As the Tomato Club?

In 1909, Marie Samuella Cromer sat in the audience at a teachers’ meeting in South Carolina. A rural schoolteacher in the western South Carolina town of Aiken, Cromer heard a speech about Dr. Seaman A. Knapp’s boys’ corn clubs that were transforming southern crop yields. According to her own retelling, Cromer raised her hand to ask, “But what are we doing for the farm girls?” She was not the first audience member across the South to ask such a question; but what made Cromer different was what she did next. She headed back home and, by 1910, had organized a girls’ tomato club so that “girls will not learn simply how to grow better and more perfect tomatoes, but how to grow better and more perfect women.” Before long, more than five hundred thousand girls across the nation were in tomato clubs, mostly in the South; they wrote songs (like the one above), designed labels, adopted mottoes, created uniforms, won scholarships, traveled to conferences, and made hundreds of thousands of dollars in total profits. Although short in duration, the tomato club movement was long on potential; the South really had never before seen “such girls in your life—as the Tomato Club.”

Because the original organizers left such good records, tomato clubs give us the rare opportunity to listen to girls’ own voices. Cromer’s scrapbook quoted her prizewinners; Susie Powell’s Mississippi archive included handwritten reports from local club presidents. Most vividly, nestled in the collections of the North Carolina Division of Archives were dozens of brightly painted, beribboned, and bound tomato club reports. Sent to “Mrs. McKimmon” from rural girls all across North Carolina, the earliest ones dating from the 1911–1912 season, each report documented the experiences of a ten- to twenty-year-old girl and her one-tenth acre of tomato plants. Some were poetic, like the one that began “I once was a little seed and I was in an envelope and some one carried me to Maggie Ray” and the one from Katie Poovey that read “Plant a little seed / Very small indeed. / Put it in the ground / In a little mound. / And wait to see what / It will be.” Others were practical; some used nineteenth-century scrapbook techniques of cutting and pasting bright images into a whole, and others employed striking watercolors to illustrate the story within. One even existed in two versions: the first with a story of boys seeing Ethel Baggett’s bare ankles after a mishap with a kettle of hot water and the second with that story excised in favor of a more formal recitation of her final canned results, evidence of the gap between what girls found funny and what teachers found appropriate. It was a rare intervention, however; for the most part the reports give an unedited glimpse into early twentieth-century farm girls’ cultures.

Sallie Jones’s Favorite Mechanical Canner

While today the prospect of lessons in canning could seem quintessentially domestic rather than public or career oriented, girls’ reports showed that in the early 1900s, tomato clubs represented the newest modern and public science and technology. That promise led to one report cover featuring a looming gray machine. Carefully detailed model numbers, brand name, and coloring gave the equipment weight on the page. Sallie Jones of Alamance County in North Carolina’s Piedmont—“Club No. 3, Member No. 7,” as she called herself—illustrated her tomato booklet with neither her crop nor her finished cans, but instead with a rendering of her club’s mechanical canner. With its sealed metal casing and impressive venting smokestack, the Standard Cannery she pictured emphasized the soldering, high temperatures, and chemistry mastered by tomato club girls. Jones lingered on the technology of the tomato canning—and her role as the scientist or engineer in charge. She precisely detailed the process, from lining up tomatoes in scalding trays to dropping “the tomatoes in the boiling water” and allowing them to “remain for one minute after which we put them in cold water to make them firm.” She reported the exact time to leave them in the canner after sealing (twenty-two minutes) and recommended turning the cans “up side down for twenty-four hours to prevent them from bulging.” Jones even imparted lessons on affixing labels, suggested recipes (with precise measurements), and calculated her personal yield: “Considering the drought this summer, my 1/10 acre of tomatoes has done remarkably well; the yield being 780 the total number of pounds 2340. There were five dozen tomatoes used at home, and ten dozen and a half sent to market.”

Around 1910, corn clubs, poultry clubs, pig clubs, and sewing or general homemaking clubs began occasionally opening their membership to girls. But tomato clubs were the ones that really took off in terms of membership, success, and enthusiasm of participants, supporters, and reporters. Some of the successes should be attributed to the tomato itself. Tomatoes grew well in the soil and climate of the South, where the agricultural work was focused. In the Carolinas, relatively few acres were planted in tomatoes when the clubs began. As a result, Cromer and McKimmon argued (and convincingly documented) that more profit could be made from systematically canning tomatoes than from other crops currently being grown. Mississippi, on the other hand, was already growing a surplus of tomatoes, but farmers there did not have the habit of canning so fruit lay rotting in the fields. Powell and her supporters could argue that tomato clubs reaped profit by turning those losses into easy gains. Further, tomatoes were acidic enough to be forgiving items to can; even under less than ideal circumstances (such as outside with wood fires and makeshift tables), tomato canning produced less spoilage than, for instance, sugary fruits or fresh meats. Tomatoes held up well for canning, and the end product tasted quite good, which meant that people were willing to purchase canned tomatoes. Finally, tomatoes were easy garden plants for young girls to handle. They did not require heavy machinery to plant or harvest (unlike, say, grains); therefore tomatoes did not necessarily challenge people’s ideas about appropriate gender roles on the farm. Ironically, by seeming so perfectly suited to girls, the tomato cleared plenty of space for radical challenges to gender, race, class, and science on the farm through girls’ club work.


Perhaps the lessons in technology and chemistry that canning in tin involved explain why southern girls were so enthusiastic about the tomato clubs’ domestic lessons…. Learning to can in a tomato club really was a challenging and new lesson in the machinery and markets of the public world. Sallie Jones’s Standard Cannery continues to bear witness to the knowledge of chemistry and technology the tomato clubs allowed her to gather.

Charlotte Yoder’s Checkbook
Charlotte Yoder took a different benefit from her tomato club experiences and documented it in her report. She tied her cover with a fuchsia ribbon and drew a large tomato on it with colored pencils. Yoder was only twelve years old when she became a tomato club girl, and she wrote like a girl whose thoughts moved faster than her pen: run-on sentences, underlined words, and sporadic punctuation. She was consistent, though, in her overall message: tomatoes equaled money—a new concept for this farm girl outside Hickory in the western North Carolina foothills. Money, in fact, was the subject of her opening sentence: “I joined the tomato club because I had never had any money except what my mother gave me and I did not feel like that was mine.” She continued on the same note: “When the tomato club agent came to our schoolhouse and told us about club girls making money I wanted to join.” Tomatoes were an attractive option for Yoder, because she was limited in what she could do to raise money: “I have lots of work to do at home helping mama and I have an invalid brother that I wait on most of the time.” Her report detailed her crop, the weather, and her battles with bugs. Nonetheless, that first year she produced “88 cans of tomatoes for sale.”

From the beginning, the women pioneering the tomato clubs wanted girls to realize a profit from their work. Although some of their harvest was destined for home use, which technically freed up family money that would otherwise have been spent over winter in local stores for processed food, most of their harvest was marketed and sold by the girls so they would end the season with cash in hand. To do this successfully, girls had to learn entrepreneurship, to price their goods, to research their markets, and to emphasize branding and standardizing their products.

The explicit goal of getting money into girls’ hands may have been the most provocative aim of the first tomato clubs.… A fellow audience member at the South Carolina meeting during which Cromer developed the tomato club idea argued that girls should not make practical money but should use their leisure time in dainty pursuits. She proposed that girls’ work be safely leisurely and gender appropriate. Cromer disagreed and “put aside as unfitting the suggestion of another of the teachers that she organize a ‘chrysanthemum club,’ realizing that what was needed was something which would be of vital usefulness.” In other words, growing flowers was not going to accomplish the economic transformation the tomato club organizers had in mind. Knapp himself suggested that the ultimate reason for choosing the one-tenth acre requirement for the girls was that planting a 40-by-100-foot plot that was too large for any one family to use forced the girls to market their product—it explicitly moved beyond home and domestic space and consumption and into public, economic production.



For southern girls, economic resources from tomatoes came directly from southern soil and their local communities. Because joining the tomato club did not mean trading self-sufficiency (or the belief in it) for cash, tomato clubs were radically different from the other economic options available to them: going to work in a nearby factory or a culturally distant urban workforce. Tomatoes generated value within individuals, and by extension, their communities, counties, and states.… Tomatoes were food items that lent part of their value to the very girls who produced them, enabling the girls and their families to celebrate rather than worry over the girls’ work and leisure.


Courtesy of Stephanie McClenny of confituras
Makes 4 to 5 pints

Savor summer tomatoes all year long with this versatile preserved tomato. Use in winter stews, chilis and quick pasta dishes.

5 lb. ripe San Marzano tomatoes (preferably organic)
5 t. kosher salt
5 T. fresh-squeezed lemon juice
Several large, fresh basil leaves, cleaned and dried gently
Special equipment: water-bath canner and 5 jars with lids and bands

Using a sharp knife, cut an “x” shape in the skin at the bottom of each tomato. Blanch them in simmering water for 30 seconds to 1 minute, then remove and place in an ice bath until cool enough to handle. Peel and core the tomatoes. In a colander over a bowl, crush them by hand—retaining the juices to fill your jars or use in cocktails.

Prepare the canner and sterilize jars, lids and bands. Simmer the tomatoes in a large, wide pot for about 5 minutes, until hot. Put 1 teaspoon of salt and 1 tablespoon of lemon juice into each jar, then ladle in the hot tomatoes, leaving half an inch of headspace. Remove the air bubbles and add reserved tomato juice as necessary to adjust for space. Tuck a basil leaf or two into each jar. Wipe the rims of the jars, apply the lids and rings and tighten fingertip tight. Process in a boiling water bath for 35 minutes (start timing once the water has come to a boil).

*If you’re new to canning please consult USDA’s Complete Guide to Home Canning, nchfp.uga.edu/publications/publications_usda.html


Courtesy of Stephanie McClenny of confituras
Makes 4 to 5 half-pints

This beautifully hued preserve is perfect with a farmhouse Cheddar, atop eggs or with roasted meats.

8–10 whole cloves
5–6 whole allspice
2 sticks good-quality cinnamon, broken up a bit
5 lb. heirloom tomatoes
2 c. light brown sugar
1 T. aged balsamic vinegar
3 T. lemon or lime juice
Special equipment: water-bath canner and 5 jars with lids and bands

Prepare the canner and sterilize jars, lids and bands. Place the spices in a tea infuser or a small piece of cheesecloth secured with  butcher twine. Place the spices in a pot along with the remaining ingredients and bring to a simmer.  Cook for 60 to 75 minutes, stirring frequently, until thick and jam-like (it will thicken a bit more as it cools, so don’t overdo it). Ladle into the sterilized jars, tighten fingertip tight and process for 15 minutes in a boiling water bath (start timing after the water begins to boil).


Join us at BookPeople on Friday, January 20, at 7 p.m. for an evening with author Elizabeth Engelhardt, along with Carol Ann Sayle from Boggy Creek Farm and Stephanie McClenny of Confituras. Curated by Edible Austin with tastings and beer.