A New Southern “Classic”: Fried Green Tomatoes

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

I can still remember exactly where I was the first time I ate a fried green tomato. It was hardly a Proustian madeleine moment, for I was an adult, and the encounter occurred in a restaurant.

I grew up in Greenville, with parents and grandparents who had their own gardens and grew tomatoes by the bushel, but I don’t recall anyone in my family battering and frying tomatoes, green or otherwise. The first time I saw fried green tomatoes was in 1992. I had just graduated from college and was barely covering my rent and nightly bar tab by waiting tables at a seafood restaurant. Our kitchen manager served fried green tomatoes one day as an appetizer special, and I remember thinking, “Green tomatoes? Fried? How weird.”

I wasn’t the first diner discovering fried green tomatoes in 1992. That year, they burst onto the Southern dining scene in a big way, and within a few years they had become as iconic as cornbread and grits. Curiously enough, they were given their canonical Southern status not by chefs or home cooks but rather by Hollywood myth making. In fact, fried green tomatoes were launched to culinary stardom by a single movie, and you can probably guess its name.

Fannie Flagg’s novel Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café was published in 1987, and Universal’s screen version, called simply Fried Green Tomatoes, premiered in January 1992, the same year I was working at that seafood restaurant in Greenville. Was it just a coincidence that my first encounter with the dish occurred just a few months after the release of the movie that bore their name?

The question nagged at me for a while, and finally it drove me to the newspaper archives to see if I could figure out where fried green tomatoes came from in the first place. I found 11 recipes for the dish published in newspapers between 1900 and 1919. Curiously, all 11 appeared in Northern or Midwestern cities ranging from Fitchburg, Mass., to Lincoln, Neb. The southernmost was Frederick, Md. I pushed forward through time. During the 1920s, only two Southern newspapers published recipes (and one was a nationally syndicated column), while 11 non-Southern ones did. Between 1930 and 1970, I could find only a single fried green tomato recipe in a Southern newspaper. It appeared in the Dothan, Ala., Eagle in the 1940s.

I was starting to think I might have stumbled upon a little secret. What if fried green tomatoes, that quintessentially Southern dish, weren’t really Southern at all? And, if they weren’t, why did they show up in that café in Fannie Flagg’s novel?

As it turns out, Flagg’s café was based on a real-life model called the Irondale Café. It was started by Flagg’s great aunt Bess Fortenberry in the thirties in Irondale, a small town just outside of Birmingham, and she ran it for almost 40 years. Flagg noted in the Original Whistle Stop Cafe Cookbook that Virginia Johnson, a cook who at age 11 started working for Fortenberry at the café, could 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 history on the Irondale Café’s website tells it slightly differently. The restaurant, it notes, was well known in the early days for its sandwiches, meats, and vegetables. 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. And, curiously, the first time the famous dish is mentioned is in conjunction with the release of the movie in 1992. Right after the film opened, it seems, tourists from all over descended on the café. The crowds grew after the local newspaper ran an article headlined, “Seen the movie? Now taste the title,” complete with a picture of two cooks holding a big basket of green tomatoes.

Bill and Sandi McMichael sold the Irondale Cafe in 2000 and retired, but they retained the rights to the name “Whistle Stop Café” and continue to sell their fried green tomato batter mix in stores and over the Internet. This batter dates not back to Bess Fortenberry’s days but instead to the boom of business that occurred after the movie. Sandi McMichael explains on “Original Whistle Stop Cafe” website that, “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.”

Of course, this doesn’t mean that the Irondale Café didn’t serve fried green tomatoes before the movie came out, but they seem to have been at best a minor side item up until the movie fans descended and made them celebrities.

So, if fried green tomatoes weren’t an old Southern delicacy, where did they come from? Fanny Flagg offers her own version of the dish’s history in the Original Whistle Stop Cafe Cookbook. “It really started getting to be a popular dish during the Depression,” she writes. “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 one should always be wary of explanations that begin “it started during the Depression” when it comes to Southern cookery. The Depression did not have nearly the crushing effect on the lifestyles of people in the South that 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 side meat. 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.

Here is my best shot at the real 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 menus of the home-economists and 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 collection of kosher Jewish recipes. Entries 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, Ohio. 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 laid out for homemakers a complete week’s menu (breakfast, lunch and dinner).

I am not about to question Fannie Flagg’s memory and suggest that the Irondale Café wasn’t serving fried green tomatoes as far back as the 1930s. But what they were serving was not an old Southern recipe but something the cook may have found in a syndicated newspaper column or a general-interest, national cookbook.

In fact, when I looked a little closer at the lone fried green tomato recipe I could find in a Southern newspaper between 1930 and 1960, I noticed something interesting. It’s an article on the front page of the September 28, 1944 issue of the Eagle from Dothan, Ala. 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, yes, fried green tomatoes. The headline 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, few self-respecting Southerners would dream of frying and eating a green tomato.

I now live in Charleston, S.C., where you can’t swing a dead cat in an upscale restaurant without hitting a plate of fried green tomatoes, and it will cost you anywhere from 10 to 20 bucks for what was once a low-rent economy food. It’s a testament to the fluidity and dynamism of our food traditions that a dish that, only two decades ago, was an obscure menu item can become a culinary touchstone.

Fried green tomatoes certainly have a long history in American cooking, even if there isn’t much of a Southern twang to the story. If the truth gets out, though, it may be bad news for roadside market vendors across the South who, as best I can tell, mark up green tomatoes and sell them for 30 cents more than ripe tomatoes for no good reason except that they can get away with it.

This is an excerpt from Going Lardcore, Robert Moss’ new eBook collection of Southern food writing. Moss is the senior food writer and restaurant critic for the Charleston City Paper and author of Barbecue: The History of an American Institution (University of Alabama Press, 2010), the first full-length history of barbecue in the United States. Let us know what you think: Email
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