I have just encountered an excellent food blog, Robert F. Moss’s al forno, and see that he’s just about to publish Barbecue: A History of An American Institution. He’s got some nice blurbs for the book:
Moss knows more about the history of barbecue than anyone I’ve yet encountered, and nothing like this book has ever before been published. To his great credit, he treats his subject seriously but not solemnly. Barbecue is simply a lot of fun to read about. At least it is in Moss’s hands. He has some good stories to tell, and he tells them well. I love it that aristocrats of the South Carolina low country established private clubs where gentlemen could eat ‘cue without having to mingle with the hoi polloi. Who knew that barbecue once flourished in New England?”
—John Shelton Reed, coauthor of Holy Smoke: The Big Book of North Carolina Barbecue
Amazing as it seems, in all the welter of barbecue books extant, there is not a single one that comes close to recording this history. The effort has been long overdue, but here it is, finally, and it fills some huge gaps in the long and colorful story of this food tradition. I venture to guess that if the word gets around that a real social history of barbecue is on the market, it will stir up some genuine interest among the tens of thousands of Americans who love this subject. It’s truly the first comprehensive history of American barbecue.”
—John Egerton, author of Southern Food: At Home, on the Road, in History
I am looking forward to reading it, and will be following his blog.
Elsewhere, Moss writes of his theory that, prior to the 1992 release of the movie Fried Green Tomatoes, that particular dish was not at all a particularly southern thing. He cites as evidence that he grew up in South Carolina and never encountered it before 1992 (and disliked it on first contact), that another South Carolinian had the same reaction, and that a survey he did of newspapers disclosed recipes only in the northeast and midwest prior to release of the movie. He discounts personal testimony on the order of “I ate them in the 50s and my grandmother cooked them” as not evidence the dish was particularly southern, noting that he grew up eating spaghetti with meat sauce and meatloaf, and that doesn’t make them particularly southern.
I viewed this with puzzlement, because I thought of fried green tomatoes as a particular kind of farm-family southern dish that you’d usually enc0unter at the beginning of or just before the tomato season. But southern. So I went to some pre-movie cookbooks to see what I’d learn. First, I grabbed Eugene Walter’s 1971 American Cooking: Southern Style from the Time-Life Foods of the World series. He talks about the dish in a section on Maryland:
The tradition of good eating founded by the colonists survives to this day, along with some rather special preferences. Marylanders stuff their hams with greens, serve roast turkey with sauerkraut, and breakfast on fried green tomatoes cooked with salt, pepper, flour and butter.
The next one was John Egerton’s Southern Food, from 1993, the year after the movie. Although it’s a year after the movie, I doubt if anyone would question its authority (see blurbs above). Egerton includes a recipe and writes: “Like grits and fried apples, fried tomatoes make a splendid breakfast companion for sausage or bacon and eggs. Whether green or ripe or in between, they are always welcome at the morning table.” His recipe fries them with seasoned corn meal in bacon grease. This second breakfast mention is interesting because Robert Moss’s one southern newspaper recipe is in an article about eating them at breakfast.
The Picayune’s Creole Cook Book first published in 1901 includes a recipe for fried tomatoes titled in French that uses egg wash, bread crumbs, and fries in lard. Not canonical, and not necessarily green, but it’s in there. Evan Jones’ American Food: The Gastronomic Story from 1975 has an “Old Kentucky Recipe” for fried green tomatoes (it has sugar with the salt, pepper, and corn meal, fries in bacon fat, and serves with “hot homemade chili sauce;” otherwise its is standard. The book describes the dish as standard harvest table farm fare.
Mary Land wrote a classic book, Louisiana Cookery, published in 1954 and containing a recipe that has one soaking the tomatoes in oil and vinegar, then dusting with salt and white pepper and sprinkle with mustard seeds, then fry in butter.
Mrs. S.R. Dull, who wrote a food column for the Atlanta newspaper for decades from the nineteen-teens to the forties published a book in 1942 called Southern Cooking. While it has recipes for pickles and relishes made from green tomatoes, it has no recipe for frying them. Finally, a cookbook compiled by the Home Economics Division of the Mississippi Cooperative Extension Service, The Mississippi Cookbook, contains no recipe for fried green tomatoes. This may do slight damage to Robert Moss’s theory that this dish was foisted onto us by the home economics folks.
Finally, my memories: My mother (whose roots are in Connecticut but went to high school in Jacksonville, Florida) did not encounter them until after she moved to Oxford, Mississippi in 1956. She learned them in local restaurants and made them at home thereafter. I know she was doing this by the 1970s. My father first encountered them in restaurants, well before the movie, and has no memory of either his mother (who was raised all over Mississippi and in Memphis but had family roots in Indiana and middle Tennessee) or his great Aunts (excellent cooks who grew up in the Port Gibson area and lived most of their lives in VIcksburg) ever making them. However, my grandmother’s mother, from near Columbia, Tennessee, made them (my father points out that she also was quite a cook who made many exotic things like pate and baked heart). My wife (whose family roots are in Western Alabama, Columbus, Mississippi, and Rankin County, Mississippi) remembers them all her life. She remembers it being a delicacies after months of wonderful tomatoes and, because they were tart, it was a change during the hot part of the summer. My personal association is with families with farm roots, and that they were most frequent either just as the tomato crop came in or at the very end, when frost was going to stop some green ones from fully ripening. I think (but I’m not sure) I’ve heard of them as a breakfast food.
My father’s reaction to a theory that they only recently became associated with the south would not be printable in a family forum. My wife disagrees equally but more politely.