Fried green tomatoes are real; and really good

BY RANDALL RIGSBEE, News + Record Staff
Posted 7/26/19

A few years ago, Fannie Flagg — well-known as a panelist on “Match Game” in the ‘70s, and even better-known a decade or so after that as the author of the popular novel “Fried Green …

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Fried green tomatoes are real; and really good

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A few years ago, Fannie Flagg — well-known as a panelist on “Match Game” in the ‘70s, and even better-known a decade or so after that as the author of the popular novel “Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe,” which was the basis for the popular movie “Fried Green Tomatoes” — came to Chatham County to promote her newest book.

Through Flagg’s publicist, I’d scheduled a Tuesday afternoon sit-down interview with the author/actress, but about an hour before we were to meet, she telephoned, with regrets, to say she was running late and couldn’t meet, though she had a few minutes to talk on the phone. We ended up having a brief, but very pleasant, conversation, talking mostly about her newest novel and touching a bit on her film work.

In a rush, via telephone, to get straight to the point with the busy celebrity, I didn’t have a chance, as I’d hoped to have in person, to offer Fannie Flagg a personal “thank you.”

But the opportunity never came up, so she never had the chance to hear me express to her my gratitude for introducing me to fried green tomatoes. I’m referring, of course, not to her book or the movie version of it, but to the side dish — actual fried green tomatoes — which, according to Wikipedia, is a dish “usually found in the Southern United States.”

Prior to around 1987, when “Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe” debuted, I’d spent all but only a few years when I was very young living in the South, which is also the region where I was born, but despite my Southern birth and upbringing, I’d managed to avoid — and not just avoid, but also be entirely unaware of — fried green tomatoes because they simply weren’t on the menu anywhere I dined.

My mother never made them. Nor did either of my grandmothers — both Southerners, and both fine cooks. They made fried zucchini, fried squash, fried okra. Those were standard fare during the summer, when we grew those vegetables in our garden, and they prepared them in their kitchens. But nobody I knew made fried green tomatoes or even went so far as to ever mention them.

Where fried green tomatoes were concerned, I’d lived a sheltered existence.

It was only when Fannie Flagg’s novel started getting notices in the press that I heard of the dish that lent the author the title of her most-read book; truth is, even then I didn’t think they were a real thing — I just thought Fannie Flagg was being fanciful — and this being the ‘80s, I had no Wikipedia to consult on the veracity of their existence.

It was only some time after 1991, after the movie “Fried Green Tomatoes” came out and I’d seen it, that I understood the unusual-sounding, heretofore unknown-to-me dish wasn’t a result of Flagg’s creative license and was something people actually ate.

And it was only when I came face-to-face with the fabled dish itself — it was at a K&W Cafeteria sometime in the mid-’90s — that I sampled some.

Now, though Fannie Flagg — due to time constraints — has no way of knowing her influence on me and my tastebuds, fried green tomatoes sit high on my list of favorite foods.

This is fortunate. The small garden I plant every year (don’t ever let anyone tell you optimism is dead) hasn’t yielded much this season. Whether it’s the extreme heat, the long stretches of dry weather, the position of my garden to the sun, or whatever factors may be at play with the soil, this year’s garden hasn’t exactly taken off.

So far, all my watering, fertilizing, weeding, tending and fretting has yielded a grand total of two green peppers and a handful — four or five, if I had to say — of banana peppers. We’ve consumed them. It just hasn’t been a bumper crop.

Our tomato plants have been more productive than our peppers, but — likely due to the previously-mentioned less-than-ideal growing conditions — the numerous tomatoes our plants have produced, despite their lengthy stay on the vine, don’t ripen. I’ve managed to cultivate what, for practical purposes, is a green tomato plant.

My springtime vision of growing red, juicy sun-ripened tomatoes this summer (I had my heart set on a couple of months’ worth of fresh tomato sandwiches and BLTs) hasn’t materialized.

But that doesn’t mean I haven’t improvised.

When life hands you lemons, make lemonade, they say.

The same logic applies, I’ve found, to tomatoes: When green tomatoes are all you can grow, fry them.

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