The Journey of Fried Green Tomatoes

Like a lot of women, I happen to enjoy the occasional “chick flick,” and one such movie is Fried Green Tomatoes. It came out in 1991, based on a novel by Fannie Flagg, about the women at the Whistle Stop Café.

Starring Mary Louise Parker, Mary Stuart Masterson, Kathy Bates, and Jessica Tandy, this is a feel-good story of female friendship and empowerment in Alabama.

This is also the first time many Americans heard of “fried green tomatoes,” and it was assumed the recipe originated in the Southern United States.

Actually, fried green tomatoes was not a dish served in the South before 1991 but was well known in the Northeast and Midwest.

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.” (https://alforno.blogspot.com/2007/08/fried-green-tomato-swindle.html)

While Moss found recipes in several Jewish and Midwestern cookbooks of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, there were none in Southern cookbooks or newspapers.

Due to the movie, the origin of fried green tomatoes became lost and re-designated to a whole new region of the United States. See, a good example why history should not be messed with!

A recipe for Fried Green Tomatoes appears in the International Jewish Cookbook (1919), recommended as “an excellent breakfast dish.” (Of course I have a copy; did you really have to ask?)

The recipe also appears in Aunt Babette’s Cookbook (1889), another kosher Jewish recipe book.

Recipes for “fried tomatoes” (though not necessarily green ones) appear in several Midwestern cookbooks from the late 19th Century, including the Buckeye Cookbook (1877) and The Presbyterian Cookbook (1873) from the First Presbyterian Church of Dayton, OH. (Ok, no, I do not have any of these others named.)

Basically, we have fried green tomatoes beginning the journey in the Northeast, primarily New York. It then begins traveling towards the Midwest, but only ends up in the Southern states due to a movie.

Which now ties into Good Things to Eat – From Old Nauvoo – and a copy of this little cookbook can be obtained at the Restoration Bookstore (https://restorationbookstore.org/collections/cookbooks/products/90209000).

What does this recipe journey tie into, you wonder? For those not entirely familiar with the Mormon religion, Mormonism originated in the 1820s in western New York during a reform period known as the Second Great Awakening.

Most of the population was none too happy with this new religion (so much for reform), so the members moved towards the Midwest.

Settling in Kirtland, OH there was hope to establish a permanent New Jerusalem, or City of Zion, in Jackson County, MO. However, they were pushed out of Jackson County in 1833 and forced to settle in other parts of Missouri in 1838.

What has this all to do with the Temple at Nauvoo and a cookbook? The church’s first temple was in Kirtland, OH, in 1836, and the only one completed in the lifetime of Joseph Smith.

Another Temple was built in Nauvoo, IL, but in the winter of 1846 the Mormons were forced out once again. This Temple received a double insult in 1848, when it was damaged by fire and a tornado before finally being demolished.

Now what I really want you all to see is the correlation of the traveling of Jewish immigrants from New York to the Midwest and the Mormon journey. Was there perhaps interaction going on, a sharing between two separately distinct religions?

Maybe not in religious doctrines, but when it comes to cooking and recipes, you know all the ladies were sharing and comparing! So, there is no wonder that a Jewish culinary recipe would find its way into a cookbook related to Nauvoo.

On page 62 appears “Fried Tomatoes,” and the batter for this recipe is versatile. It is thin enough to make crepes (take out the black pepper if not desired), or add more flour for deliciously, fluffy pancakes.

Oh, and there is also a recipe for “Summer Squash Pancakes” on the same page, and here is a great lead-in to harvesting.

So many tomatoes, so little time to get them red enough to create sauce or salsa. There they sit, all those green tomatoes on the window sill, hoping daily that the sun will ripen them up quickly.

I have the patience; I can wait, but...but...what do those green tomatoes taste like? They are firm (almost hard), moist, but not juicy, and sour (pucker up!).

No one wants to eat that. Well, except those who love sour. Now is the time to make yourself, your family, even friends, a real taste treat: Fried Green Tomatoes.

In the Nauvoo recipe, sugar is added to combat the sour of the green tomato. However, we enjoy dipping our slices into a mildly spiced Ranch dressing which enhances not only the tomato, but the fried batter around it.

For added crunch after putting the batter on the tomato slices, press Panko (Japanese bread crumbs) on before frying up.

Now this recipe seems to be for firm red tomatoes, but I have personally found them to still be too juicy for a good fry-up… and the way I am constantly making sauce, there are hardly ever enough around to be fried up anyway.

Fried Tomatoes
(Good Things to Eat – From Old Nauvoo – page 62)

Ingredients:
6-8 tomatoes; 1 cup milk; 1 cup flour; ½ tsp. salt; 1 tsp. sugar; ¼ tsp. pepper; 2 eggs, beaten; 1 Tbsp. butter

Preparation:
Wash tomatoes and cut them into ½ inch slices. Melt butter slowly in a skillet. Mix other ingredients together.

Dip the tomatoes in the batter, covering both sides. Sauté two or three minutes on each side, or until golden brown.

You may also use green tomatoes. (Yes, do this!!!) Add extra sugar. (No, you don’t have to!)

Even food has its own historical background, and I do hope you enjoyed this culinary journey.

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