America is a melting pot that was formed by the hard-working people who migrated here from lands as far east as China and Japan, as far north as Russia and Europe. They utilized American supplies and prepared them in ways that they had prepared them in their homeland. True American food is a collection of these culinary traditions passed down from generation to generation”.Each culture brought its cooking methods, food, and spices to America. They farmed the soil, hunted game, and incorporated their ways into the food of America.
The first time most Americans heard of fried green tomatoes was when a movie by that name came out in 1991. Based on a novel by Fannie Flagg called Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe.
According to the Smithsonian spokesperson:
They took us to a neighborhood hole-in-the-wall that served simple Southern fare. The whole meal was delicious, as I recall, though the only dish I can remember clearly was the fried green tomatoes. Now, I know that most things that taste good taste even better when battered and deep-fried. But something about this dish was extraordinary—the combination of firm-fleshed tomato with crunchy cornmeal coating, the slight tartness of the unripe fruit balancing the oiliness of the exterior. I was smitten.
The New Orleans visit was our first stop on a road trip to Chicago. (Now, why didn’t I remember this story for Inviting Writing, instead of my sad tale of food-borne illness?) I kept looking for fried green tomatoes everywhere we went. Although I ate lots of other good things on that trip, I found my new favorite food only once more, at an upscale restaurant in Memphis. They were a disappointment—over-seasoned and overcooked.
The next time I encountered fried green tomatoes was almost a decade later at a rural county fair in, of all places, upstate New York. Served at a corn farmer’s food stand, they were not what I had come to believe was traditional Southern-style—they were more like a corn fritter with a slice of green tomato nestled inside—but I have enraptured once again.
The reason I say “ostensibly Southern” is that it turns out, fried green tomatoes may have been as unusual in the South before 1991 as they were everywhere else. In fact, according to Robert F. Moss, a food historian, and writer in South Carolina, “they entered the American culinary scene in the Northeast and Midwest, perhaps with a link to Jewish immigrants, and from there moved onto the menu of the home-economics school of cooking teachers who flourished in the United States in the early-to-mid 20th century.”
Recipes in several Jewish and Midwestern cookbooks of the late-19th and early-20th centuries, but none in Southern cookbooks and hardly any in Southern newspapers. You can read the whole entertaining and informative account of how a movie changed (or distorted) culinary history at his blog.
Robert F. Moss, a food writer, and culinary historian from Charleston, South Carolina, said he doesn’t remember anyone in his Southern family who battered and fried green tomatoes. He researched the topic and found 11 fried green tomato recipes published in newspapers between 1900 and 1919. Surprisingly, all 11 newspapers were in Midwestern and northern cities. None were Southern newspapers.
During the 1920s, records indicate recipes for fried green tomatoes appeared in Frederick, Maryland, and Danville, Virginia, papers, but the Danville column came from a nationally syndicated source.
Moss found no recipes for fried green tomatoes in Southern papers in the ’30s and only one in the ’40s. There were none in the ’50s or ’60s, which intrigued him, leading him to ponder whether fried green tomatoes were a truly Southern dish.
The real-life Alabama cafe, upon which the fictional Whistle Stop Cafe was based, was owned and operated for 40 years by Flagg’s great-aunt. There is no evidence the cafe ever served fried green tomatoes. Archived menus make no mention of fried green tomatoes, although they may have been served as an occasional side item.
It wasn’t until the movie came out and fans descended upon the cafe requesting fried green tomatoes that they became popular. The new owners developed a batter mix for the more than 60 pounds of fried tomatoes they were selling every weekday. The cafe’s signature dish was invented after the movie premiered.
Based on his research, Moss concluded fried green tomatoes are not a Southern dish, but originated in the Midwest and northeast, possibly linked to the cuisine of Jewish immigrants. A recipe appears in the 1889 addition of “Aunt Babette’s Cook Book” and “The International Jewish Cookbook” from 1919. Other recipes appeared in Ohio cookbooks in the late 19th century.
The lone fried green tomato recipe Moss found in the ’40s appeared in the Dothan Eagle. I was reprinted from a U.S. Department of Agriculture leaflet advocating Americans should begin the day with something nutritious, like fried green tomatoes. The editor of the Alabama paper mocked the recipe, saying “no self-respecting Southerner would dream of eating a fried green tomato.”
Today, fried green tomato dishes can be found in many upscale restaurants. They are a popular menu item at The Greenbrier’s Draper Restaurant. According to one source, fried green tomato sandwiches have iconic status as the distinctive dish of The Greenbrier Classic Golf Tournament.
Chef Brian Halstead said he and his staff were using 500 or more green tomatoes daily during the 2017 tournament. The fried tomatoes were topped with bacon, arugula, goat cheese, and black pepper aioli.
With the use of high tunnels to extend the growing season and hydroponic tomato production, locally grown green tomatoes can be found year-round, but, for me, green tomatoes still signal the end of summer and a time to salvage unripened tomatoes dangling on the vines before they get nipped by frost.
Whether you believe fried green tomatoes are a quintessential Southern dish or of Midwestern origin, I hope you will agree, they are a tasty summer dish. There are three different ways to cook this dish. Use the method that appeals to you.
2 to 3 medium-sized green tomatoes
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon Cajun spice
3/4 cup panko bread crumbs
1/4 cup cornmeal
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
1 egg, beaten
Place the flour mixed with Cajun seasoning in one shallow dish.
Add the egg to a second dish. Add a tablespoon of water and mix well.
Place the panko crumbs, cornmeal, salt, and pepper in a third shallow dish.
Cut the tomatoes into ½ inch thick slices and pat dry with paper towels.
Sprinkle the tomato slices evenly with salt and pepper.
Dredge the tomato slices in the flour, then the egg, and then in the panko mixture to coat evenly.
Place the breaded tomatoes on the prepared baking sheet.
To Deep Fry
Fry Tomatoes: heat the oil to 360º F and using a spatula or flat slotted spoon slide the coated tomato into the oil. Fry for 3 minutes on each side.
To Shallow Fry
Place a deep skillet with cooking oil about ½ inch deep; on medium-high heat. Heat the oil and place green tomato slices in hot oil and brown lightly on each side, careful not to over-brown the green tomatoes. I do mine in small batches.
Place on a paper towel-lined plate when done and serve immediately.
To Oven Bake
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Oil a cookie sheet.
Bake for 20 minutes, turning the tomatoes over with a wide spatula after 10 minutes.
Serve with your favorite sauce.
June 18, 2021 at 9:48 am
Good explanation Jovina.
June 18, 2021 at 10:23 am
Fried green tomatoes are such a unique American delight. I always thought that it started on the East Coast at the end of tomato season when they are on the vine but won’t ripen. Great recipe and illustrations on the different ways they can be prepared.
Dorothy's New Vintage Kitchen
June 18, 2021 at 10:38 am
Thanks for the background! Such an interesting history, and the recipe sounds really good.
For the Love of Cooking
June 18, 2021 at 12:09 pm
Pingback: America’s Culinary Stories-Fried Green Tomatoes — jovina cooks | My Meals are on Wheels
Karen (Back Road Journal)
June 21, 2021 at 7:10 am
They can splatter a lot when cooking so a splatter screen can help but the taste is worth the cleanup.
June 21, 2021 at 5:07 pm
Ever since I watched Fried Green Tomatoes in 2010, and ever since I read the book later and the accompanying cookbook written by the same author, I have always wanted to try fried green tomatoes. My mouth waters just thinking about it! I am so pleased you shared this recipe. I have been sitting on a recipe for fried green tomatoes for ages but sadly we do not have those green tomatoes here in the UK… they seem to be an American speciality! Your fried green tomatoes look AMAZING. If only I could reach through the screen and grab one haha!
June 22, 2021 at 11:44 am
I just love your reflection on fried green tomatoes. Of tomatoes are grown in the UK . you just pick them off the vine beg\fore tjhey turn red. Check into where your tomatoes coem from.
June 22, 2021 at 5:06 pm
I will certainly do that!