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.