Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Fried Green Tomatoes: An Unexpected Culinary Superstar

Fried green tomatoes are a surprise culinary superstar of decidedly mysterious origins that Ralph Brennan's New Orleans Seafood Cookbook features in its appetizer section. Nilesh Parekh of Buzzle.com in a post dated September 10, 2007, states that the dish originated in southern India, while Wikipedia credits it as a traditional southern dish. Wikipedia also points out the differences between northern fried green tomatoes and its southern sister: the northern version uses white flour while the southern uses cornmeal or corn flour for the coating. Ralph Brennan's New Orleans Seafood Cookbook uses a combination of the three coatings.

Al Forno Charleston posted an interesting article dated August 19, 2007, that takes an in-depth look at the history of the dish. He points out that Fannie Flagg, author of the book Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, in her cookbook based on the novel states that the dish gained in popularity during the Depression when folks were forced to expand their subsistence strategies. Charleston argues that the dish is actually a Northeast or Midwest transplant with possible links to the Jewish community:
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 menu of the home-economics school of cooking teachers who flourished in the United States in the early-to-mid 20th century.
In 1987, author Fannie Flagg published Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, which Universal took to the big screen under the title of Fried Green Tomatoes in 1992. The story is inspired by Flagg's great aunt, Bess Fortenberry and her restaurant, the Irondale Cafe. At this time, the distinctive dish broke into mainstream culinary culture and began to be featured in restaurants across the South. Demand is such that 60 to 70 pounds of tomatoes are prepared daily, making for 600-800 slices, with more prepared on Sundays.

Ironically, then-owners of the Irondale Cafe, Bill and Mary Jo McMichaels were forced to develop a large-batch commercial batter for use in deep fryers in response to the overwhelming demand for the dish that the movie created. Mary Jo McMichaels tells of the vertiginous rise of the dish at the website, The Original Whistle Stop Cafe.

Ralph Brennan's New Orleans Seafood Cookbook offers a spicy version of this humble dish, dressing it with a flavorful ravigote sauce and hot butter sauce. The recipe also permits the use of very firm, newly ripened tomatoes just past the green stage as well as using the more traditional green tomatoes.

SOURCE: "Fried Green Tomatoes Recipe" 09/10/07
SOURCE: "Fried Green Tomatoes (food)" 02/12/08
SOURCE: "Fried Green Tomato Swindle" 08/19/07
SOURCE: "Irondale Cafe Restaurant History"
SOURCE: "Irondale Cafe Original Whistlestop"

photo courtesy of Clearly Ambiguous, used under this Creative Commons license

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