I am Tom Freeland, a lawyer in Oxford, Mississippi. The picture in the header is my law office. I'm on Twitter as NMissC

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A Response on the Subject of “The Great Fried Green Tomato Swindle”

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.

He updated this post because he got a positive link from a Smithsonian food blogger.

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.

9 comments to A Response on the Subject of “The Great Fried Green Tomato Swindle”

  • WaySouth

    Which came first, the chicken or the egg?

    Which came first, fried green tomatoes or tomatoes?

    Probably better to first discuss the introduction of tomatos to America. Here a short snippet from wikipedia.com:

    “North America
    The earliest reference to tomatoes being grown in British North America is from 1710, when herbalist William Salmon reported seeing them in what is today South Carolina[3]:25. They may have been introduced from the Caribbean. By the mid-18th century, they were cultivated on some Carolina plantations, and probably in other parts of the Southeast as well. It is possible that some people continued to think tomatoes were poisonous at this time; and in general, they were grown more as ornamental plants than as food. Thomas Jefferson, who ate tomatoes in Paris, sent some seeds back to America[3]:28.

    Because of their longer growing season for this heat-loving crop, several states in the US Sun Belt became major tomato-producers, particularly Florida and California. In California, tomatoes are grown under irrigation for both the fresh fruit market and for canning and processing. The University of California, Davis (UC Davis) became a major center for research on the tomato. The C.M. Rick Tomato Genetics Resource Center at UC Davis is a genebank of wild relatives, monogenic mutants and miscellaneous genetic stocks of tomato.[10] The Center is named for the late Dr. Charles M. Rick, a pioneer in tomato genetics research.[11] Research on processing tomatoes is also conducted by the California Tomato Research Institute in Escalon, California.

    In California growers have used a method of cultivation called dry-farming, especially with Early Girl tomatoes.[12] This technique encourages the plant to send roots deep to find existing moisture in soil that retains moisture, such as clayey soil.”

    If one were of the Sherlock Holmes persuasion, they might investigate the “frying” of vegetables, especially eggplant as the introduction of fried eggplant and fried green tomatoes are closely linked.

    Have a nice evening,

    WS

    ps: Did the cooks run out of green tomatoes to fry first or did they run out of eggplant to fry first? Some might want to investigate the origin of eggplant-just saying!

  • a friend of the law

    NMC, I’ve been inquiring about the BBQ pit concept where the meat is cooked directly over coals or wood or a combo of both. I’ve asked a couple of my friends who I consider to be “expert” amateur BBQ cookers. Each of them were concerned that such a concept would likely result in the meat getting burned/charred/”cook too fast” due to the fat dripping directly onto the heat source, even if the cooking grate were located well above the coals/wood. But, I know you are convinced that this method produces the best BBQ and I trust your knowledge on the subject. As I recall, what you were saying is that cooking over the direct heat from the right distance would produce a carmelization effect on the outside of the meat that is a good thing, not a bad thing, providing additional flavor that is missing in most MS BBQ.

    I have been wanting to construct some type of BBQ pit at my home —something different —something like you have discussed. I know that you have probably posted in the past a specific description of or plans for such a pit. If you have time (in all your spare time) to throw me a bone with some specifics (link, etc.), I would be very appreciative. I have lots of room on my property to construct such a thing, but need some general plans for ideas. I was thinking about sinking the pit down into the ground a bit, with the walls rising above ground level to about waist or chest level.

    Having something that my “expert” friends don’t even have (nor most BBQers in the state of MS) is intriguing.

  • NMC

    I think the distance is key to avoid cooking too fast– 24 inches works like a charm– and you want to be careful about how to fuel it.

    I will definitely exchange ideas about this and would be glad to talk to you about it.

  • My first memory of green tomatoes, fried (I do not think they deserved the title ‘Fried green tomatoes’) was my Dad cooking them in our old iron skillet likely in the 50′s in Pittsburgh PA. No cooks my parents, the tomaotes were just that, naked and green and in some oil. I hated them. Dad’s only exposure to the south by then was in southern Louisiana and KY for world war II Army camps where I doubt any but mass manufactured food was available. I do not recall him making them into my adolescence(mid and late 60′s)
    I thought this was one of my manufactured memories till I read all this.
    Enjoy them now.
    NL

  • RazorRedux

    I would be suspect of Moss’ book if I were you and not tend to trust anything he says based upon this theory. This due primarily to the fact that I distinctly remember eating them as a child, which was well before any movie came out. I also called my Dad and asked when he remembers first eating them and he said something to the effect of it being one of the first solid foods he ever ate. My maternal grandmother died in 1978 so I’m pretty sure she never saw the movie. And she fixed them when available.

    I just now got off the phone with my Dad and he laughed and said he’d eaten everything one could eat fried, with the exception of watermelon and he pretty sure they’d tried that at least once with not much success. He also started it off with an expletive that rhymes with bovine feces and said to me, “I’m pretty sure Hollywood has introduced the rest of the United States to a lot of things. But how to fry stuff in the South ain’t one of them.”

  • RazorRedux

    Sorry for the double post but I can’t figure out the “edit” function. My dad was very familiar with the cooking habits of both my paternal and maternal grandmothers. Since they were cousins. Hey, its Mississippi.

  • JTE

    Funny, I’ve always been suspect of the deified fried green tomato. And have always planned to write about the suspect nature of the dish’s Southern deity. Earlier this week in San Francisco, I ate at Prospect, Nancy Oake’s new place. They were serving halibut with “green tomato cutlets.” Seems someone else is uncomfortable with FGT.

  • Former PD

    FGT are one of my earliest childhood food memories, and not a pleasant one. My dad, born and raised in Richmond, would talk about them all year and then have them morning after morning in the early summer. I will say this, however, about the forensics of the matter: they were always coated in cornmeal. Seems to me that provides a strong hint about the provenance of the dish.

  • WaySouth

    I found the following interesting regarding Southern fried foods.

    I often forget that so many fellow Mississippians have Scottish roots and the strong Scottish influence throughout the South.

    Here’s a snippet from an interesting website: http://www.foodtimeline.org/

    “ABOUT SOUTHERN FRIED CHICKEN

    “Southern fried chicken
    Chicken parts that are floured or battered and then fried in hot fat. The term southern fried’ first appeared in print in 1925…Southerners were not the first people in the world to fry chickens, of course. Almost every country has its own version, from Vietnam’s Ga Xao to Italy’s pollo fritto and Austria’s Weiner Backhendl, and numerous fricassees fill the cookbooks of Europe. And fried chicken did not become particularly popular in the northern United States until well into the nineteenth century…The Scottish, who enjoyed frying their chickens rather than boiling or baking them as the English did, may have brought the method with them when they settled the South. The efficient and simple cooking process was very well adapted to the plantation life of the southern African-American slaves, who were often allowed to raise their own chickens. The idea of making a sauce to go with fried chicken must have occurred early on, at least in Maryland, where such a match came to be known as “Maryland fried chicken.” By 1878 a dish by this name was listed on the menu of the Grand Union hotel in Saratoga, New York…”
    —The Encyclopedia of American Food and Drink, John F. Mariani [Lebhar-Friedman:New York] 1999 (p. 305-6)
    [NOTE: this book has much more information than can be paraphrased here. Ask your librarian to help you find a copy]

    “Seventeenth- and eighteenth-century descriptions of colonial foodways ignored the chicken for the most part. In the earliest manuscripts to enter America there are, of course, chicken recipes for roasts, stews, and pies, and none other than Governor William Byrd II was dining on the iconic southern dish of fried chicken at his Virginia plantation by 1709…” —Oxford Encyclopedia of Food and Drink in America, Andrew F. Smith editor [Oxford University Press:Oxford] 2004, Volume 1 (p. 226)”.

    WS

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