Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Fried Green Tomato Swindle, Part II: A Clarification

Three years ago I wrote a post exposing what I termed "The Fried Green Tomato Swindle."  The gist of it is that although they're now considered one of the iconic Southern dishes, fried green tomatoes actually aren't Southern in origin at all.  Instead, they appear to have originated in the Northeast and Midwest, and may even have Jewish-American roots, and spread nationwide during the early part of the 20th century thanks to the domestic science movement.  Their identification as a prototypically Southern thing can be attributed to a single cultural event: the release of the movie Fried Green Tomatoes in 1992. (See the original post for full evidence.)

Since then, I've had great fun slipping passing references to fried green tomatoes not being Southern in other food pieces I've written, and a reader or two will almost invariably take the bait and comment that fried green tomatoes are indeed Southern because his or her grandmother was making them way back in the 1950s.

Lisa Bramen of the Smithsonian's Food and Think blog recently posted about fried green tomatoes and my they-ain't-Southern contention (thanks for the shout out, Lisa!), and if you read the comments on her post you'll see both the they-must-be-Southern-because-I-grew-up-eating-them line of thought as well as the contradictory point that people grew up in other places (California, Pennsylvania Dutch Country) eating fried green tomatoes, too.

So, it's probably time for a little clarification.  I am not saying that no one in the South ate fried green tomatoes before the Fanny Flagg novel and its movie version came out.   Clearly--as the frequent comments of Southerners who grew up eating them attest--Southerners did eat fried green tomatoes.  The real point is that there's nothing particularly Southern about fried green tomatoes--or, at least, there wasn't until the movie spurred half the chefs below the Mason-Dixon line to add them to their menus.  After all, I grew up in the South eating meatloaf and spaghetti with meat sauce about once a week each, but no one would claim those to be distinctively Southern dishes.

I think fried green tomatoes are interesting not so much because of their actual origin--there are many other now-stereotypically Southern foods that originated in similar ways--but rather because of the way a single movie was able to so strongly shape people's perceptions of a particular dish.  It underscores the strong emotional and psychological elements inherent in our relationship with food.  And, more than anything, it shows how fast-changing our food traditions are and how transitory regional foodways can be.


NMissC said...

Great blog, and thanks for the link to mine. I'm looking forward to the book. The blurb from Reed (about New England barbucue) reminds me of a photo I used in a long-ago post about why I think a pit is the be-all-and-end-all of barbecue. It was a stone pit with a roof over it in a state park, and looked like the same sort of set up Ricky Parker uses at B.E. Scott's in Lexington TN. And it was made in the 20s or 30s in Connecticut.

Further to the point of this thread: I've written a response with my thoughts (both the sort of memories you find slightly doubtful, but at least one involves a cook who died in the 70s, plus details from a number of old cookbooks).

NMissC said...

Forgot the link

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