Even if you’ve never seen the movie Fried Green Tomatoes or the book it’s based on, you probably think of fried green tomatoes as a southern food. While they certainly are popular down there, the tasty slices did not originate in the south. They actually came from the north. What happened? Why does everyone associate this food with Southern culture?
Thank Midwestern and Jewish cooks
According to the authority on the subject of fried green tomatoes – author Robert F. Moss – the dish first appears in the 19th century in cookbooks from the Northeastern and Midwestern states. This means the dish was most likely made for many years before it got written down. In the early 20th century, fried green tomatoes started sprouting up in Jewish cookbooks on kosher foods. Eventually, the recipe must have just migrated south, where tomatoes enjoy a long growing season. Green tomatoes frequently have to be picked early so they don’t weigh the plant down.
Green tomatoes take the leap from movie to the table
People didn’t start associating fried green tomatoes with the south until Fannie Flagg stepped in. In 1987, she wrote the book Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Cafe, which told the story of an elderly woman reflecting back on her younger days. Flagg based the Whistle Stop Cafe on her aunt’s Irondale Cafe in Alabama where she ate the fried dish as a child. In 1991, the book was adapted into a movie starring Kathy Bates and Jessica Tandy. It was nominated for two Academy Awards and made an impressive $119 million dollars on an $11 million budget. People showed up in droves to the Irondale Cafe, eager to turn their movie experience into a real one. Before then, the cafe hadn’t made a big deal of the side dish, but as soon as the book and movie highlighted it, it became their centerpiece.
Make your own
Fried green tomatoes are one of the easiest side dishes to make. First, a little food science: green tomatoes are just unripe tomatoes. The green comes from chlorophyll, and as the tomatoes get older, the chlorophyll dissipates and makes room for lycopene and carotene, which turn the fruit/veggie red. The tomato also goes from tart and firm to sweet and soft.
To make fried green tomatoes, you pick a tomato while it’s still green. As you’re slicing it, just make sure it’s green all the way through, though you might see a little color in the center. To prepare, dip the tomato in an egg wash and coat with something dry, like white cornmeal, all-purpose flour, almond flour, or even panko breadcrumbs. There are lots of recipe variations out there. That dry mix will also have seasonings like cayenne, paprika, garlic, and of course, salt. Fry in hot oil in a skillet until the coating is golden and crisp. To serve, choose from a cool buttermilk-based dipping sauce or spicy remoulade. It’s up to you to get creative! Try them in a fried chicken sandwich in place of pickles, since the tartness can cut through the fattiness. As a side to anything barbecued (beef ribs, pork tenderloin, shrimp), green tomatoes are also delicious.
Speaking of pickles, did you know that Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans were enjoying them thousands of years ago?