Sunday, August 19, 2007

The Fried Green Tomato Swindle



Not too long ago, a visitor named "Former South Carolinian" left a request in a comment:

Could you do a segment on Fried Green Tomatoes? Every time I come down to South Carolina, I'm amazed that something that was rarely on *any* (rich man, poor man-they all have it) menu is now on them all. I seem to remember that fried green tomatoes were something that appeared on the menu at a certain time at certain "low end" (typically a meat, three and tea) restaurants, but only when the tomatoes were in season. Now I see them on the menus in the finest restaurants and almost every upper crust restaurant has fried green tomatoes on the menu. So much for the movies. (the movie did get one thing right - the secret is in the sauce when it comes to many barbecue eateries.) But this little change of pace in southern cooking tradition just bothers me greatly. Who says Hollywood doesn't influence popular culture?


The Hollywood reference is to the movie Fried Green Tomatoes, the 1992 film version of Fannie Flagg's novel Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, which was published in 1987.

I probably would have looked into it anyway, since I was flattered just to get a request to write on a particular topic. But, Former SCian's comment intrigued me even beyond that. I grew up in South Carolina with both parents and grandparents who had their own gardens and grew tomatoes by the bushel, but I never once remember anyone in my family battering and frying tomatoes, green or otherwise. The first time I remember seeing fried green tomatoes was after I had already graduated from college and was waiting tables at a seafood restaurant. Our kitchen manager served them up one day as an appetizer special, and I remember thinking, "how weird."

Perhaps not so coincidentally, I was working at that restaurant in the spring of 1992. The movie Fried Green Tomatoes premiered in January of that same year.

Intrigued, I decided to look into it.

The Internet wasn't much help. An old article on the University of Georgia's College of Agrictulture and Environmental Sciences web site provides a nice capsule summary of the scholarship on the topic to date: "No one really knows the origin of fried green tomatoes. But a movie from Georgia really put them on the national culinary map." Clearly there's was room for a little original research here (and the movie takes place in Alabama, not Georgia).

The first stop was the newspaper archives. I found eleven recipes for fried green tomatoes published in newspapers between 1900 and 1919, but interestingly all eleven of were in Northern or Midwestern cities--ranging from Fitchburg, MA, to Lincoln, NE,--the southernmost being Frederick, MD, which is a border state at best. During the 1920s, two Southern newspapers (one in Danville, VA the other in Fayetteville AK) published recipes while eleven non-Southern ones did. And the Danville VA recipe was from a nationally-syndicated column. No Southern newspapers I could find ran recipes in the 1930s, and only one (the Dothan AL Eagle) in the 1940s, and none in the 1950s or 1960s.

I was starting to wonder whether there might be a little secret here. What if fried green tomatoes, that quintessentially Southern dish, aren't really Southern at all?

But, wasn't that cafe in Fanny Flagg's novel based on a real-life model?

Indeed it was. Flagg reveals the fictional cafe's origin in The Original Whistle Stop Cafe Cookbook, which she wrote in 1993 to respond to "thousands of requests from all over the world asking for recipes from that cafe." Here's her explanation:

The Irondale Cafe was started by my great aunt Bess in the thirties . . . just outside my hometown of Birmingham. The good news is that it is thriving, doing a roaring business, with people coming from miles around to enjoy those same hot delicious meals. Not only that, Virginia Johnson, that fabulous cook who first went to work for my aunt when she was eleven, can still be found in the kitchen, happily frying up a fresh batch of fried green tomatoes every day, the same kind that I, along with generations of others, have enjoyed since we were children.


The Irondale Cafe has a website, and the history on the site indicates the cafe was well known in the early days for its sandwiches, meats, and vegetables. But, there's no mention of fried green tomatoes until well after Bess Fortenberry sold the cafe in 1972 to Bill McMichael, who worked for the Southern Railway and was a regular diner there. The first time the famous dish is mentioned is in conjunction with the release of the movie:

In January 1992 the movie Fried Green Tomatoes premiered at the Cobb Galleria Theatre in Birmingham, and Fannie Flagg, Bess Fortenberry’s niece and author of the book by the same name, came to the opening with many of her friends and associates. Right after it opened, tourists from all over started coming to the Café. The local newspaper ran an article that asked: 'Seen the movie? Now taste the title.' The crowds grew. Everyone who comes to the café for the first time orders our fried green tomatoes! We fry 60 or 70 pounds every weekday, and more than that on Sundays.


Bill and Sandi McMichael sold the Irondale Cafe in 2000 and retired, but they retained the rights to the name "Whistlestop Cafe" and continue sell their fried green tomato batter mix in stores and over the Internet. But how authentic is this mix? Sandi McMichael spills the beans in the history posted on the "Original Whistlestop Cafe" website:

When we started frying so many tomatoes, we knew we had to have a batter mix that would be good to use in a deep fryer. We experimented, and my husband developed the Fried Green Tomato batter, which is now available around the country.

So, the special recipe at the cafe was invented AFTER the movie! This doesn't mean that the Irondale Cafe didn't serve fried green tomatoes before the movie came out, but they appear to have been at best a minor side item up until the movie fans descended.

*-*-*

So where did fried green tomatoes really come from?

Fanny Flagg provides her own explanation of the dish's history in the Original Whistlestop Cafe Cookbook: "Like most of this [Southern] food, it really started getting to be a popular dish during the Depression. People would fry up most anything and pretend it was meat or fish, and actually as it turned out, a pitcher full of sweet iced tea and a plate of fried green tomatoes turned out to be a delightfully tasty and light summer supper on nights when it was so hot you didn't feel like having a big heavy meal."

This sounds pretty good on the surface, but you have to be wary of the "it started during the Depression" school of food origins when it comes to Southern cookery. The Depression did not have nearly the crushing effect on the lifestyles of people in the South as it did in the rest of the nation for the simple reason that the Southern economy was already crippled from the agricultural disasters of the 1920s and had been, in fact, a wreck since the Civil War. From the very beginning, when Alabama was frontier country, Southern cookery was founded on hard-times staples like corn meal and sidemeat. If people in the South weren't already frying green tomatoes long before the Depression, there'd be little reason for them to start then.

Based upon my research to date, here's my best inferences on the true history:

Fried green tomatoes are by no means a Southern dish at all. By all accounts, they entered the American culinary scene in the Northeast and Midwest, perhaps with a link to Jewish immigrants, and from there moved onto the menu of the home-economics school of cooking teachers who flourished in the United States in the early-to-mid 20th century.

A recipe for "Fried Green Tomatoes" appears in the International Jewish Cookbook (1919), recommended as "an excellent breakfast dish," and in Aunt Babette's Cookbook (1889), another kosher Jewish recipe book. Recipes for "fried tomatoes" (though not necessarily green ones) appear in several Midwestern cookbooks from the late 19th Century, including the Buckeye Cookbook (1877) and The Presbyterian Cookbook (1873) from the First Presbyterian Church of Dayton, OH. By the early part of the 20th Century, recipes for fried green tomatoes were appearing regularly in newspapers throughout the northeast and midwest, usually in cooking columns that were widely syndicated and often as part of canned pieces that offered to layout for a homemaker a complete week's menu (breakfast, lunch, and dinner).

I am not going to question Fannie Flagg's memory and suggest that the Irondale Cafe wasn't serving fried green tomatoes as far back as the 1930s. But, if it was, it seems they were serving up not a common Southern favorite but something the cook may have found in a syndicated newspaper column or a general-interest, national cookbook.

In fact, if you look a little closer at the lone fried green tomato recipe I could find in a Southern newspaper between 1930 and 1960, you'll notice something interesting. It's an article on the front page of the September 28, 1944 issue of the Dothan (Alabama) Eagle. The text mocks a leaflet from the U.S. Department of Agriculture that advocates all Americans start the day with a sound, nutritious breakfast, and recommends items such as shortcake, baked beans, and fried green tomatoes. The title makes the Alabama editor's opinion clear: "No, Thank You, Suh! Our Culinary Tastes Won't Permit It, Suh!" The implication is that, as of the 1940s at least, no self-respecting Southerner would dream of eating a fried green tomato.

One can only conclude that Flagg's book and movie were responsible for taking fried green tomatoes from the world of obscure home-ec fare and injecting them into the pantheon of classic Southern dishes. Flagg herself noted the effect her novel had on the restaurant biz in the South: "One night we were in Atlanta," she writes in her cookbook,

and my friend, Dan Martin, took me to an exclusive, decidedly elegant restaurant. The captain, after announcing a long list of exotic entrees, announced that no dinner would be complete without their specialty, fried green tomatoes.

Dan whispered to me: 'I wish you had a piece of the tomato market--I heard that prices have quadrupled and restaurant buyers are having fistfights trying to get the best green ones.' I can't help feeling a little bit guilty, however. I have caused thousands of poor little green tomatoes to go to an early picking.

This wasn't just a passing fad, though. Fried green tomatoes have persisted ever since as one of the signature dishes of Southern cooking. Here in Charleston, you can't swing a dead cat without hitting a platter of fried green tomatoes in some upscale restaurant, and you'll spend anywhere from $5 bucks to $16 for what was once a low-rent economy food.

I must thank Former South Carolinian for suggesting this line of inquiry, and my ultimate reaction to reaching these conclusion was not outrage or disappointment or even sadness but rather a profound sense of relief. The truth of the matter is that, since the time I first tried them in 1992, I've thought fried green tomatoes are absolutely awful! The cornmeal batter when it cooks up crisp and golden brown is just fine, but it would be just as good if you fried up an old shoe sole or a cardboard beer mat. The last time I tried fried green tomatoes was as part of an Eggs Benedict special at the Sunflower Cafe. I ate the eggs, hollandaise, and crispy fried batter but left the nasty green disks behind on my plate.

Red-ripe tomatoes fresh from the vine are one of nature's great delights. Much better to have a plate of sliced red tomatoes and a hunk of cornbread on the side.

I never really admitted this green-tomato aversion to anyone until now. I am an unabashed fan of a wide range of Southern delights, from barbecue hash and liver pudding to Moon Pies and Sundrop. I've long felt guilty about disliking fried green tomatoes, since they seemed like such an iconic Southern dish that I should somehow be honor-bound to love them. No more.

I am well aware that many people love fried green tomatoes, and more power to them. They certainly have a long history in American cooking, even if there not as much Southern twang to the story. But it may be bad news for the roadside market vendors around Charleston who, as best I can tell, mark up green tomatoes and sell them for a thirty cent premium above ripe tomatoes for no good economic reason I can think of except the Barnum principle.

11 comments:

Sandi @the WhistleStop Cafe said...

Well I'll be...
It's amazing what you find when you google!
I will have to ask Mom and Dad, who owned and ran the cafe, about the fried green tomatoes. I do know that they were serving bushel baskets full of tomatoes before the movie ever came out. The batter mix you mentioned was developed so that people could make their own at home.

As far as the origin of the fried green tomato... I think you may be on to something. I have heard that they actually have a Jewish/Italian origin. Much like the fried artichoke- Jewish style.

So... I do appreciate the historical account of the cafe and the fried green tomato. I am just glad that Fannie Flagg didn't write about 'Mississippi Mud at the Whistlestop Cafe'. We may be in the mud business now!

Robert said...

Thanks for the comments, Sandi. I'm dying to know what your parents say about how far back the fried green tomatoes go at the cafe. And please pardon me if I opt for the chicken batter mix rather than the tomato variety!

cherbitrary said...

I don't know about the origins or the history, but I can tell you that my Dad made fried green tomatoes every year when I was growing up (which was in the 70's/80s). He always grew tomatoes, and he'd use the tomatoes he grew. He learned to make them from his mother. He grew up in Georgia, I grew up in Georgia and Fried Green tomatoes were pretty well known as a food many years before that book came out.

Greger said...

I been personally eating FGT since the fifties and my mom tells me that grandpa and great grandpa ate 'em too. When the vines died and there was nothing left but the green ones they had to something be done with em. They were pretty crappy back then with just corn meal and fried in bacon grease. Whistle stop batter mix is great, try it with fried green onions. Oh I'm a Florida Cracker but Great Grandpa Archibald was from Jersey and Grandma from Indiana so who knows where it started.

Enjay said...

My grandparents were from the so. IL/KY boarder and worked their way north to WI. They ate fried green tomatoes all the time, gramma had varieties that she liked better for frying green and only let a couple ripen for seeds. I think it was popularly used as a way to eat the tomatoes that weren't going to make it to a ripe enough stage for using/storing in the short northern growing season.
I've tried several fried green tomatoes at local restaurants (I'm in Summerville) and found them lacking. I think the varieties are too commercial and picked too green for shipping. I grow my own, and we find that they're best for frying when they're just showing a hint of color but are still hard, some people call them "breaking" or "dawning" at that stage. If you don't want to garden, ask around at the locally owned stands, if they don't have some they can usually get them within a day or so. Just in case you want to try it yourself sometime. ;)

susie said...

did you try them with katsup? they have to have it to be good.

susie said...

i slice them and put in a pan of boiling water for about 3 minutes. then dip in egg and corn meal and fry them , it mellows them a little.

Dirt Road said...

NEIN NEIN NEIN NEIN NEIN....

that research is nice and all, but you are being way to cerebral about this. and moreover, newspapers aren't the end-all be-all of research source material (which you seem to purvey)

i think that street knowledge is closer to the truth sometimes, and to genuinely perform that task you'd have to pore for years over journals and letters of people in the south and the north to form a picture, anecdotally, of what people ate regularly and which group used these first.

and it's splitting a hair anyway, who did it 'first'

i can tell you this, it may have originated in the north, 'officially' speaking, or in england (as i have heard) but... go back to ten years prior to the movie release, and take a poll of people on michigan or illinois, then alabama and georgia, and see how many people know about them and eat them. you'd see they are a southern dish, plain and simple. and it's true that the fine restaurants have bastardized this dish; it was a workingman's staple, farmers and such.

i am 45 years old and i remember my grandma cooking them as a very small child. (all three of my grandmas, actually, and my greatgrandma on dad's side, too) ...that would put my first memory being around 1969-70 (LONG brfore this book or movie, or the 'chic' restaurants added it to the menu. the OP was right, it was a staple in the meat+3 w/ tea diners across the south (my personal experience from the 70s and 80s)

now, it's everywhere. the movie has made sure of that. i think that's the main point here.

but yes it is a primarily southern dish. (all anthropology aside)

Maegan said...

Lawdamercy! I have to agree with one of the last comments...Just b/c you read about it in a newspaper doesn't mean it ORIGINATED there!

Did it occur to you that it would NEED to be printed in a northern paper b/c it was common enough in the south that you wouldn't need a recipe?? There aren't many recipes written down in my mother's family...b/c we all know how to make them from watching our mothers & grandmothers make them.

As far as I know...Green tomatoes is not just unripened tomatoes. They ripen to green...Maybe this link can enlighten you: http://www.tomatogrowers.com/green.htm

And I don't know a person in my family who hasn't made or eaten FGT as far back as my great-grandmother's days. My grandmother says their help used to make them. My grandmother was born in 1929, I believe. But she wasn't the oldest of her siblings...

Sweet tomatoes with a crunchy cornmeal batter...My mouth waters just thinking about it!

Where ever they are REALLY from...I don't think a lack of southern articles means a damn thing. ;)

irishbooks said...

I grew up in the mountains of western Pennsylvania and in the 1950s I was eating fried green tomatoes made my mother. She love them and so did I. I don't recall if her mother also made them. I was totally shocked when after the release of the book and movie (1987 and 1992, respectively), fried green tomatoes were being touted as a "Southern dish." I agree with the writer of the article and his findings and his research into cookbooks and newspaper articles. Even the one newspaper article from 1944 issue of the Dothan (Alabama) Eagle mocks the leaflet from the U.S. Department of Agriculture regarding serving fried green tomatoes.

One thing that is different is that the fried green tomatoes that I started eating over 50 years ago and continue to eat to this day is that I don't use cornmeal. It may be that just as Southerns use cornmeal more often than Northerns that cornmeal is the 'southern' part of the recipe. I don't recall how my mother made them but she may have just floured them and then fried. And while I did order the batter mix available on-line and found it to be good, it is just easier for me to make them my way: flour both side, dip in egg, and then coat them in breadcrumbs. Never been a fan of cornmeal.

Today is the first day that my mother-in-law, age 88, tried them. She grew up in Hungary and then lived in Germany after the WW 2 before coming here. Two large green tomatoes were so heavy they broke from the vine and my husband suggested she make them into fried green tomatoes by using the same method that she would for fried zucchini. She called after her lunch and said she loved them!

I also think the research the author did into cookbooks was very revealing. I am a bookseller and I sell many of the community and church cookbooks. Most of the ones that I sell are from the 1960s to the present. In a number of the Southern ones there will be a recipe for Fried Green Tomatoes but not that often in Northern ones, except for ones that Amish or Mennonite, who were Swiss-Germans. So using the logic of another poster, why would people be submitting a recipe for a dish that was common in the South whereas in the North they already knew how to make them! A friend of mine who is a scholar and writes on the subject of food pathways often turns to the very old cookbooks as source materials, just like the author of this article did.

I find this subject of great interest but in the end, it is not so much if it is a southern dish or not but the pathway it took. I suspect that fried green tomatoes (cornmeal or flour) is more a product of an ethnic group which then traveled to others.

On another site about the same subject, I read a comment from a Canadian who also grew up in the 1950s who ate fried green tomatoes. I would not be surprised if that 'pathway' were the folks who settled in the Appalachian Mountains, which extend from Belle Isle in Canada to Cheaha Mountain in Alabama.

Annie said...

I've enjoyed them for 60+ years in Virginia, both my parents before me for 80+ years and probably my grandparents before them. Although they are identified with the south, I have been served them for breakfast in London and as a side in Italy and a version in Spain. I don't think you can ID them as strictly a Jewish influence in America... surely other immigrants brought their own recipes, don't you think?