The place was jam-packed full of railroad men at lunchtime, so Grady Kilgore went to the kitchen door and hollered in, “Fix me a mess of them fried green tomatoes and some ice tea, will ya, Sipsey? I’m in a hurry.”
– Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe
As a child, part of me longed to live in the American south. I devoured novels like The Adventures of Tom Sawyer and Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. My grandpa’s favorite movie was Gone with the Wind; I remember spending many a rainy afternoon snuggled on the couch with my grandparents, feeling shock as Rhett declared, “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn!” My grandpa grew up in Texas, and on the paternal side my ancestry stretches back to the first royal governor of Virginia, so perhaps the south is in my blood– the warm, balmy nights, the endless green fields, the porch swings, the old fashioned gentility.
As I grew up, I learned that my romanticized view of southern life was flawed; there was a darker side to the idyllic landscape I’d imagined. I began to read novels that touched on the social issues of the old south– slavery, segregation, women’s rights. When I was 14 or so, I picked up a novel at the library: Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe by Fannie Flagg. I remember recognizing the theme of racial injustice woven throughout the story. As I became attached to the characters, the racial segregation that I’d read about in school seemed more real. I was immediately drawn into the friendship between Evelyn Couch, an overweight middle-aged housewife, and Ninny Threadgoode, an aging woman in a nursing home. Throughout the novel, Ninny shares her memories with Evelyn, recounting the adventures of her relatives and friends in Whistle Stop, Alabama. Most of the memories center around her sister-in-law’s restaurant, The Whistle Stop Cafe.
What I wouldn’t give for a plate of fried green tomatoes like we used to have at the cafe…
– Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe
One of the things I remember most about the novel is the food imagery. My mouth watered as author Fannie Flagg poetically described those rich and mouthwatering southern recipes– fruit pies, deep fried chicken, and of course those iconic southern fried green tomatoes.
Recently, I rented the movie Fried Green Tomatoes on iTunes. I’d seen it when I was 16 or so, a couple of years after I read the novel, and I felt ready to revisit the characters and the story. While the movie isn’t exactly like the book, it does a beautiful job of building the Whistle Stop Cafe as I’d seen it in my imagination. As I watched the movie a second time, I suddenly got the urge to cook up some fried green tomatoes… I’d never tasted them before, but I’d always imagined what they might be like. When searching for an authentic recipe, I stumbled onto a gem of a book– Fannie Flagg’s Original Whistle Stop Cafe Cookbook. There are, of course, multiple recipes for Fried Green Tomatoes in the book. I was ready to tackle something new (and vintage), so I went for it!
I had a heck of a time finding green tomatoes here in Los Angeles. For some reason, green tomatoes just aren’t as popular here as they are in the south. After searching in several grocery stores, I tried my luck at the Hollywood Farmer’s Market (yes, Hollywood has a terrific farmer’s market, believe it or not!). I finally found one stand with some green tomatoes for sale. Two dollars a pound, what a bargain!
I picked through to find the greenest tomatoes in the bunch and brought them home, planning to fry them up the next day. Imagine my surprise when I found a few of them already starting to turn red, just a day after I bought them:
I figured I’d better get to work, before all my green tomatoes went red! Some people prefer the pinkish-tinged green tomatoes, as they are slightly sweeter than the firm green ones. I wanted to taste the real deal, so I cooked up the greenest ones first.
There are three Fried Green Tomato recipes in the Fannie Flagg cookbook– Fried Green Tomatoes I, Fried Green Tomatoes II, and Fried Green Tomatoes with Milk Gravy. I couldn’t decide which one to try, so I combined elements from I and II, replacing the regular milk in recipe I with buttermilk, as suggested in recipe II. As I assembled the ingredients, my husband (who ate fried green tomatoes regularly when he lived in Virginia) suggested I serve them with some sort of sauce. The Fannie Flagg cookbook had a milk gravy recipe, but I wanted something with a little more color and flavor– something zippy. I invited my friend Tammy over, whose grandmother hails from the deep south. She suggested a creamy sauce with a mayonnaise base. I wanted to keep things simple, so I mixed mayo with a little ketchup and cayenne. I thought I’d leave it to Tammy to be the taste tester.
After battering the tomato slices, I fried them up. The result was great– crispy, tangy, with a light crunch from the cornmeal. They were best right out of the frying pan; the longer they sat, the more soggy they became. Tammy swore they tasted just like her grandma made. She liked the sauce, too, but suggested I cut down the sweetness a touch. I reduced the amount of ketchup slightly, and after that she gave a big thumbs up. That night, we dined on fried green tomatoes and sweet iced tea, a fun Southern meal for a hot summer night.
Keep in mind that the sauce recipe is my own creation. If you want to be more authentic, you might want to fry the tomatoes in bacon grease and serve them with milk gravy. Or you can serve them without sauce, au naturale. In my opinion, they’re better with some sort of an accompaniment. I’m thinking buttermilk ranch dressing would be great, too!
If you’re a fan of the book or the movie, be sure to check out Fannie Flagg’s Original Whistle Stop Cafe Cookbook. It’s packed with terrific recipes that will give you an authentic taste of the American south.
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Fried Green Tomato Ingredients
- 3/4 cup self rising flour
- 1/4 cup cornmeal
- 1/4 tsp salt
- 1/4 tsp pepper
- 3/4 cup buttermilk (or substitute regular milk)
- 3-4 green tomatoes sliced into 1/4 inch thick rounds
- Vegetable oil or bacon grease for frying (I used peanut oil)
- 1/2 cup mayonnaise
- 2 tbsp ketchup
- Pinch cayenne, or more to taste
- In a mixing bowl, combine the flour, cornmeal, salt, pepper, and buttermilk. Use a fork to mix the ingredients into a pancake-like batter. Use more buttermilk to thin the batter, if needed.
- Heat 2 inches of oil in a skillet until hot enough to fry. Dip tomato slices in batter, letting the excess batter drip back into the bowl. Put the dipped slices immediately into the frying pan. The oil should sizzle strongly but not pop when the tomatoes hit the oil-- if the oil pops or splatters, it's too hot. Let it cool down a bit before proceeding.
- Fry the tomato slices in batches of 4 or 5 at a time (don't crowd the pan) for 2-3 minutes per side, turning carefully with tongs when the coating turns golden brown.Transfer to a colander or wire cooling rack to drain. To keep the tomatoes from getting soggy before they're served, Fannie suggest standing them up like wheels in the serving dish instead of stacking them.
- To make the sauce, whisk together the mayonnaise, ketchup, and cayenne in a bowl. Taste and season more, if needed. Serve sauce over the fresh fried green tomatoes.Fried green tomatoes are best eaten fresh out of the frying pan, they will become soggy fast if you don't enjoy them within a few minutes of frying.