Hollywood to Houston: The Origin of Fried Green Tomatoes

Before the movie Fried Green Tomatoes hit the theaters in 1992, most Americans had never heard of, much less tasted, an actual fried green tomato. The success of the movie brought fame for the actors involved, including an Oscar nomination for Jessica Tandy.

It also threw a huge spotlight on the frying of green tomatoes. Why would anyone want to fry slices of an unripe vegetable? How long have people been eating tomatoes this way?

The First Fried Green Tomatoes

If you were to take a poll among chefs and cooks around the country, most would probably tell you that fried green tomatoes are a traditional Southern dish common to Southern tables since before the American Revolution. So, it would surprise most people to find that before the 1970s, you could rarely find fried green tomatoes offered on any restaurant menus or mentioned in recipe sections of newspapers and magazines.

According to food historian Robert F. Moss, fried green tomatoes were not originally a Southern dish. In his article “The Fried Green Tomato Swindle,” Moss relates that fried green tomatoes came to the Americas with Jewish immigrants to the Northeast and Midwest.

The 1919 publication of the International Jewish Cookbook offered fried green tomatoes as a breakfast dish. Before this publication, recipes for fried green tomatoes appeared in locally published favorite recipe collections from 1873 and 1877 put out by Dayton, Ohio’s First Presbyterian Church.

The one Southern reference Moss could find in his extensive research was a recipe mentioned in a 1944 Alabama newspaper. The recipe appeared in an article mocking the wartime dietary recommendations of the United Stated Department of Agriculture (USDA.)

Get the Grease Hot

Ask any person who is truly “Southern born and bred,” and they’ll tell you that when it comes to food in the South, frying is king. Hunters and fishermen are often sent off on their hunter-gatherer outings with the assurance that those left at home will “get the grease hot.”

In the local vernacular, this means that whatever the stalwart hunter/fisherman brings back for the family table will get fried up and served for the evening meal. That’s the traditional Southern way of doing things.

Fried green tomatoes, unfortunately, are not.

From a popularity standpoint, fried green tomatoes as a common dish served in a wartime household or low-end eatery began to decline in popularity by the mid-20th century. By the 1970s, they were more likely to appear in a Midwest menu at a local mom-and-pop eatery.

In the 1980s, fried green tomatoes were rarely prepared by anyone who wasn’t also a backyard gardener. With the decline of home gardens in the second half of the 20th century, the likelihood of fried green tomatoes appearing on the supper menu declined.

Enter Jessica Tandy’s portrayal of Ninny Threadgoode in 1992, and fried green tomatoes were back on the menu.

Fried Green Tomatoes in the 21st Century

Multiple recipe variations abound for the fried green tomatoes of the modern century. Whether you’re coating yours with a flower and breadcrumb mixture, seasoned to taste, or you’re battering them in a cornmeal and egg dip, this yummy dish is now firmly engrained in American culture as a Southern culinary delight.

Many espouse the importance of an appropriate dipping sauce to complete the dish. That is a personal preference that may or may not sit on the side for most generational Southerners. But personalization and experimenting with new variations is always encouraged.

If you’re looking for something truly unique, and you find yourself in the Houston, TX, area, try the Fried Green Tomato BLT at the Fork & Truck food truck in Houston.

Need the services of a truly original, eclectic food truck or local catering? Fork & Truck has the grease hot and is ready to get a-cookin.’

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