Fried green tomatoes

By Tinky Weisblat

For the Recorder

Published: 10-18-2022 2:09 PM

I ran into a bit of a snag with this week’s column. I was supposed to visit a new restaurant to try its offerings. Unfortunately, staff members were sick, and they had to get better before I could go.

I scanned my kitchen to decide what I could make and write about in a hurry. Finding inspiration didn’t take long. On my kitchen table were a few green tomatoes given to me by neighbors.

Like many gardeners, Paul and Leslie Cooper picked a ton of green tomatoes from their garden last week just before the first hard frost. They were happy to give some to me since I didn’t cultivate much of a garden this year.

I thought about doing a variety of things with my green tomatoes. The great chef Edna Lewis liked to make a jam or to scallop them with bread cubes. My mother loved green tomato chutney. (Unfortunately, I don’t have her recipe.)

In the end, I decided to whip up a quick, if fattening, treat to share with friends: fried green tomatoes.

Most of us know this dish from the 1991 film “Fried Green Tomatoes” based on Fannie Flagg’s popular 1987 novel “Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café.”

The film and the book, both set in a hamlet in Alabama, tell an intergenerational tale of female empowerment and small-town community building, with a side order of Southern cooking.

The story presents fried green tomatoes, a specialty at the café owned by two of the protagonists, as a quintessentially Southern creation.

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When I decided to make fried green tomatoes a few days ago, I did some quick research and was surprised to learn that they weren’t always associated with Southern cuisine.

Flagg has said that she remembers being served fried green tomatoes by her grandmother in Alabama. Nevertheless, culinary historian Robert F. Moss contends that FGTs (as I call them) were first popular in the American North and Midwest.

In his book “The Fried Green Tomato Swindle and Other Southern Culinary Adventures” (Palmetto New Media, 2010), Moss writes:

“I grew up in South Carolina with parents and grandparents who had their own gardens and grew tomatoes by the bushel, but I never once remember anyone in my family battering and frying tomatoes, green or otherwise.”

After researching the dish in old newspaper archives and libraries, he found that in the early 20th century recipes for FGTs were common in northern, big-city newspapers and Jewish immigrant cookbooks.

He states, “One can only conclude that Flagg’s book and movie were responsible for taking fried green tomatoes and injecting them into the pantheon of classic Southern dishes.”

When one ponders the matter, it makes a certain amount of sense that green tomatoes were more common in the North than in the South. Southern states have longer growing seasons, but we Yankees often run into the Coopers’ situation in the fall.

Green tomatoes are better than no tomatoes, and green tomatoes are what we get at this time of year.

I consequently fried mine, as a proud Northerner and semi-Semite. Some recipes call for milk; others for buttermilk. I compromised between the two and soured some milk.

Some recipes use bread crumbs for crunch; others, cornmeal. I chose the latter because I had it in the house. The recipe is adapted from “Southern Living.”

I carried the warm FGTs to the house of some friends to serve as a delightful appetizer and conversation piece.

Fried Green Tomatoes

Ingredients:

1 egg, lightly beaten

1/2 cup sour milk (To get this, add a tiny amount of lemon juice or vinegar to milk and wait 10 minutes.)

1/2 cup flour, divided

1/2 cup cornmeal

1-1/2 teaspoons Creole seasoning (You may substitute salt and pepper if you like, but I like the slight zing of the Creole seasoning.)

3 green tomatoes, washed, cored, and cut into 1/3-inch slices

canola oil as needed for frying (I have a feeling Fannie Flagg’s grandmother would have preferred to use bacon grease.)

a small amount of salt or a little more Creole seasoning

Instructions:

In a shallow bowl, combine the egg and the sour milk. In another shallow bowl, combine half of the flour with the cornmeal and the seasoning. Place the remaining flour in a third shallow bowl.

In a heavy frying pan (classic Southerners would use a cast-iron skillet) pour oil to a depth of between 1/4 and 1/2 inch. Heat the pan until the oil reaches 375 degrees. (I often test frying oil for readiness with a kernel of popcorn. When the corn pops, the oil is ready.)

While it is heating, prepare the tomatoes. Dredge them in the plain flour and then dip them in the egg mixture; then dredge them in the cornmeal mixture to give them extra crunch.

Fry the tomato slices, a few at a time, until they are golden brown, turning halfway through. I find that estimating exactly how long this will take is difficult. It will be somewhere around 2 minutes per side … or not.

Drain the cooked tomatoes on a rack over paper towels. Sprinkle a little salt or Creole seasoning on top. Serves 4 to 6.

I like these treats all by themselves; the richness of the frying works nicely with the slight tartness of the tomatoes. You may also serve them with a dipping sauce like ranch dressing or hot sauce, however.

Tinky Weisblat is an award-winning author and singer. Her latest book is “Pot Luck: Random Acts of Cooking.” Visit her website, TinkyCooks.com.

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