A few years ago, Southern Living opened a recipe feature by declaring, "It doesn't get much more Southern than a plate of Fried Green Tomatoes." 25 years ago, that would have been dead wrong. But, thanks in part to the power of Hollywood myth-making and the speed at which we can collectively create new traditions, it's a spot on description today.
Like several other iconic foods we've looked into for this series, the roots of fried green tomatoes in the South don't run nearly as deep as one might think. What's unique about their story is that we know the exact day that fried green tomatoes were transformed into a Southern icon: January 24, 1992.
That was the date of the nationwide release of Fried Green Tomatoes, the Universal Pictures film version of Fannie Flagg's novel Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café. The relatively low budget movie turned out to be a box office sleeper, grossing $82 million in the United States. It earned Jessica Tandy an Oscar nomination for best supporting actress and it made fried green tomatoes an overnight Southern culinary star.
I'm not claiming that before 1992 no one in the South was eating fried green tomatoes—some people undoubtedly were. But, there was nothing particularly Southern about the dish.
The first published recipe I've been able to find for fried green tomatoes appears in the The Daily Inter Ocean, a Chicago newspaper, in 1877. The instructions are simple: "Cut a thin slice from top and bottom and throw them away, then cut the remainder in slices, roll in flour, sprinkle with pepper and salt, and fry brown in butter." The writer also notes, "These are delicious for breakfast."
By the 1880s, fried green tomatoes started appearing in a lot more newspapers, magazines, and cookbooks, and they're often presented as a practical solution to a specific seasonal problem. In an 1888 column for Good Housekeeping, Elisabeth Robinson Scovil, pointed out that "in some parts of the country all the tomatoes on the vines do not turn red before the frost puts a stop to the process of ripening." She provided three recipes to help housekeepers make use of those green tomatoes, and the first is to season them with salt, pepper, and, if desired, cayenne, and fry them in butter.
During the first half of the 20th century, fried green tomatoes appeared consistently in newspaper recipe columns all over the country—in Kalamazoo, in Denver, in Iowa City, in Pittsburgh. A few recipes popped up occasionally in Southern newspapers, like the Biloxi Daily Herald in 1901 and the Augusta [Georgia] Chronicle in 1924, but they were almost always in syndicated columns that were published simultaneously throughout the country.
Along the way, cooks started incorporating cracker crumbs or cornmeal into the breading. In 1933, Ann Barrett, a New York-based food writer, devoted an installment her syndicated column "What's Good to Eat" to "Fried Green Tomatoes: Favorite Dish for Now." She provided a recipe "that's so popular 'round about now the country over—fried green tomatoes with a rich cream sauce." That sauce was made after frying the tomatoes by mixing two tablespoons of butter and two of flour in with the pan drippings, then gradually adding milk or cream and cooking until thick.
The popularity of fried green tomatoes as a sort of generic American dish peaked around World War II, and appearances in cookbooks and newspapers started to trail off in the 1950s. By the 1970s, fried green tomatoes were lingering around as a fairly obscure recipe. If they were associated with any one region in particular, that region was the Midwest.
In 1975, a reader wrote to the Greensboro, North Carolina, Record's "Q&A" column, asking, "I've heard lots of older people talk about fried green tomatoes and how good they are. Does anyone have a recipe for this?"
A response was provided by "Mrs. C.G.," who identified herself as an Indiana native and noted that many people in her home state "know lots of things to do with green tomatoes because there are a lot of them left on the vines when the first frost hits in that area. And the greatest of these is Fried Green Tomatoes." Along with fried steak and gravy, mashed potatoes, and homemade applesauce, she wrote, fried green tomatoes make "a good Hoosier meal."
In 1988, Jan C. Snow wrote in the Cleveland Plain Dealer that "gardeners and green tomato eaters are two largely synonymous groups," for no one goes out looking to buy green tomatoes. Instead, in mid-October, when the first forecasts of frost are aired, gardeners dash out to their patches and "gather to safety all the remaining tomatoes, regardless of their hue."
"Generally," Snow concluded, "one comes to the eating of fried green tomatoes by simple accident of birth. Those of us who are born into gardening families do; the rest of the world does not, and there are few green converts."
By this point, fried green tomatoes were on a long slow slide into obscurity, known, but not necessarily loved, mostly by the families of gardeners who needed a way to use up an unwanted bounty of unripe produce. As home gardens declined through the second half of the 20th century, so too did fried green tomatoes.
A Star is Born
The Whistle Stop Café in Fannie Flagg's book was based on a real-life model, the Irondale Café, which Flagg's great-aunt Bess Fortenberry began running in the 1930s in the small town of Irondale just outside of Birmingham, Alabama. Flagg wrote about the real-life café in The Original Whistle Stop Café Cookbook, which she published in 1993 after the success of the movie prompted a flood of requests for her to provide recipes. She noted that Virginia Johnson, a cook who started working for Flagg's great-aunt at the age of eleven, 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."
By 1993, though, Virginia Johnson and the other cooks at the Irondale Café were preparing their fried green tomatoes a little differently than they had before the movie came out. Bess Fortenberry had retired in 1972 and sold the Irondale Café to Bill and Mary Jo McMichael. In 1979, the McMichaels tore down the original frame building and replaced it with the long storefront-style structure that still houses the restaurant today, and a decade later they expanded it to incorporate the building next door.
A few weeks after the release of Fried Green Tomatoes, the Birmingham News 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. Before long, the kitchen was frying so many green tomatoes that the McMichaels had to reformulate their recipe, creating a mix that allowed them to batter the tomatoes and cook them in a deep fryer instead of in a skillet on the stove. These days, the Irondale Café website notes, "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."
The Irondale Café wasn't the only Southern restaurant that experienced a fried green tomato boom. In her Original Whistle Stop Cafe Cookbook, Fannie Flagg recalls that when the movie came out, "it suddenly seemed that every cafe, restaurant, and cafeteria started serving fried green tomatoes." One night she was dining out with a friend in Atlanta at "an exclusive, decidedly elegant restaurant." The captain rattled of a long list of exotic entrees before announcing that no dinner would be complete without the house specialty: fried green tomatoes.
Flagg's friend leaned over and whispered to her, "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."
The Canonization of Fried Green Tomatoes
So many of the fads and fashions launched by Hollywood movies prove ephemeral, but fried green tomatoes have had remarkable staying power, especially in upscale Southern-themed establishments. The dish burst onto the scene at precisely the time that chefs were rediscovering the more humble foods of the South and seeking to "elevate" them on their menus. In addition to having what a seems a genuine down-home pedigree, the simple crisp-fried disks provide a promising base that chefs can dress up in any number of creative ways. Often, they're paired with other classic ingredients from the region to create a sort of hyper-Southern dish.
At Chef and the Farmer in Kinston, North Carolina, Vivian Howard likes to serve fried green tomatoes with fruit preserves and creamy cheeses like a goat cheese purée. On the menu currently are benne-fried green tomatoes with goat cheese coulis and blueberry chutney, which incorporates a Lowcountry Carolina staple. Brought from Africa, benne—known most everywhere else as sesame—was a staple in the garden plots on rice plantations and its seeds were used to enhance the flavor of everything from rice to cakes.
Howard's mission at Chef and the Farmer is to "celebrate the culture and cuisine of Eastern North Carolina," but she when it comes to fried green tomatoes she admits some outside influence.
"That's not something I grew up on," she says. "The first time I ever saw a fried green tomato was in the movie. I think it must have been a thing somewhere, but not here."
In her part of North Carolina, people had a different way to use up the last of their tomato crop. "My grandmother had a big garden," Howard says, "and at the end of summer she would gather up all the stuff on the vine and make a big vat of relish."
Fried green tomatoes topped with shrimp rémoulade are now considered to be a classic New Orleans appetizer, one often described as a traditional Southern dish with a Creole twist. It was a favorite menu item at Uglesich's, the landmark New Orleans restaurant that opened in 1924 and closed its doors in 2005. But, owner Anthony Uglesich's version was inspired by the original served at the Upperline, which opened in the early 1980s.
In March 2006, Joann Clevenger told Kim Severson of the New York Times how she dreamed up her restaurant's now-famous appetizer. "The story of this dish starts in 1992," Severson wrote. "Ms. Clevenger, who owns Upperline Restaurant here, heard Hollywood was releasing the movie 'Fried Green Tomatoes.' Never one to shy away from mixing art, food and business, she started in on a plan to serve fried green tomatoes."
Here in Charleston, you can eat them at brunch (stacked atop crab cakes on eggs benedict at High Cotton, for instance). You can eat them for lunch (say, on a fried green tomato BLT with ancho chili lime mayo at Hominy Grill). You can eat them for dinner, too, at just about any restaurant in the city. At Magnolia's, they lay them over white cheddar cheese grits with country ham and tomato chutney. At Virginia's on King, they dress them with arugula, sweet pepper relish, and spicy aioli.
You can find the same things in down-home restaurants and upscale cafés all across the South, for fried green tomatoes have become an indisputable icon of Southern cuisine. In fact, the mere act of slapping a fried green tomato onto something is sufficient to transform it into a Southern-themed dish. Want to create a "Southern Hospitality" burger? Top it with a fried green tomato slice, and preferably a scoop of pimento cheese, too. Fried green tomatoes weren't always a marker of Southern cooking, but they sure are now.