If you’ve never eaten fried green tomatoes, you’re missing out. This iconic dish is popular in the American South. They’re light, crunchy, and delicious. And despite being fried, they’re not as unhealthy as you might think.
But there’s a strange history behind this tasty snack–one that doesn’t start in the South. In fact, many people had never heard of fried green tomatoes until a movie by the same name came out.
Join us as we discover the history behind this classic American food.
What Are Fried Green Tomatoes?
Fried green tomatoes are a staple of Southern U.S. cooking. Made from “green,” or underripe, tomatoes, they’re often available at farmer’s markets during the summer. When fried, they take on a delicious, tangy flavor.
Traditional Southern recipes call for thinly sliced green tomatoes into one-quarter-inch rounds. They’re dipped in buttermilk or beaten eggs, then coated in cornmeal and fried in bacon grease, vegetable oil, or another fat. Many people serve them with ranch or other homemade dipping sauces.
The Pennsylvania Dutch communities also make them, although their recipes use flour instead of cornmeal. Fried green tomatoes are also popular in Louisiana Creole cooking. Though typically eaten as a side dish, they’re regular additions to po’boys and egg benedicts in Louisiana.
Are Fried Green Tomatoes Good for You?
When we think of healthy foods, fried dishes don’t usually come to mind. But fried green tomatoes may surprise you! Though less nutritious than the average salad or smoothie, they do offer some health benefits.
Green tomatoes contain beta-carotene, a vital nutrient for eye health. And they’re rich in vitamin C: one medium-sized tomato contains nearly 50% of the daily recommended amount for adults. These mighty fruits also contain vitamin K, which promotes heart and bone health. Consisting of almost 94% water, they’ll even help hydrate you.
But the green tomato’s best characteristic is its versatility. If you want to make a healthy version, be assured that it’ll still be delicious. Consider dipping tomato slices in egg whites or trading cornmeal for whole wheat or almond flour. You can even eat them with reduced-fat sauces to cut more calories.
Pro Tip: Learn more about What is a Hoecake (and Where Can You Get One) to uncover more about southern culinary staples.
What Is the Story Behind This Popular Dish?
The history of this iconic dish seems pretty straightforward as a Southern tradition. But, despite the American South’s affection for this fried treat, it didn’t originate there.
Before becoming popular in this region, people ate fried green tomatoes in the northeast and midwest. But they didn’t originate there, either. Instead, food historians think Jewish immigrants in the 19th century probably introduced this dish. You can find recipes in Jewish and midwestern cookbooks from this era.
So how did they gain a Southern reputation? Well, the 1987 release of Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe helped. Fannie Flagg’s novel is set in Alabama and features a cafe serving the fried treat. A popular film adaptation of the book came a few years later, cementing this dish in Southern folklore.
Are Green Tomatoes a Different Kind of Tomato?
Green tomatoes are simply underripe fruit. Despite their appearance, they aren’t any different from the ripe tomatoes you find in the supermarket. They haven’t softened or taken on their usual orange-red color. Instead, green tomatoes are smaller and firmer than ripe ones.
There are some varieties of heirloom tomatoes that remain green even when ripe. These include the Cherokee Green and Green Zebra varieties and a green grape tomato.
But whatever you do, don’t use these varieties to make fried green tomatoes. Although they’re great in salads, ripened green tomatoes won’t fry well. They’re soft and full of seeds, and frying them will result in a disappointing final product.
What About the Fried Green Tomatoes Movie?
When it came out in 1991, Fried Green Tomatoes took theaters by storm. The movie stars Kathy Bates, Mary-Louise Parker, Jessica Tandy, and Cicely Tyson. This adaptation of Fannie Flagg’s novel received positive reviews and did well at the box office. Additionally, it received two Oscar nominations.
The film tells the story of an unlikely friendship between a disillusioned housewife and an elderly nursing home resident. When she meets Ninny Threadgoode, Evelyn Couch is shy, unhappy with her marriage, and dissatisfied with life. Ninny thrills Evelyn with her life stories, including a story about two women named Ruth and Idgie. The pair become friends when Ruth flees an abusive marriage, but when Ruth’s husband goes missing, Idgie becomes a suspect.
Ninny’s story helps Evelyn in her own life. As she learns more about Ruth and Idgie, she gains the confidence to pursue her own happiness.
The Whistle Stop Cafe is at the story’s center, a restaurant Ruth and Idgie run together. One of the cafe’s signature dishes is fried green tomatoes.
Where Is the Home of Fried Green Tomatoes?
Fannie Flagg’s Whistle Stop Cafe was a fictional place. But after the movie finished shooting, the restaurant became real.
The production team shot most of the film in Juliette, Georgia. A building that once housed a general store became the set for the Whistle Stop Cafe. Once the film wrapped, two locals, Robert Williams and his friend Jerie Lynn turned the store into a functional restaurant. The Whistle Stop Cafe has been operating ever since.
The cafe serves Southern homestyle food like barbecue, catfish, and fried chicken. And, of course, fried green tomatoes. The restaurant is open to visitors weekly from Thursday through Sunday.
Pro Tip: Learn more about southern cooking by discovering What Are Chitlins (and Where Can You Get Them)?
A Dish With a Rich History
Fried green tomatoes are more than a tasty side dish. They’re a meal with a long, fascinating history. Brought to the U.S. by immigrants and adapted across regions, these golden-fried fruits became a popular American food. Thanks to the book, movie, and the Whistle Stop Cafe, fried green tomatoes are sure to keep their prominent place in U.S. culture for a long time.
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