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The surprising story of Fried Green Tomatoes and Martha Stewart’s recipe for Not Fried Green Tomatoes

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            I love a little side of history when I am serving up a dish with roots as deep as Fried Green Tomatoes.  With the exception of grits and hominy, what’s more southern than this all-over crunchy firm tomato that’s been battered into a deep-fried delicacy?  Even though deep-frying makes almost everything taste better, this dish stands out.  The tartness of the tomato and the sweet cornmeal of the crust are a perfect combination–especially for tomato lovers like me.

Of course, they’re southern to the core, aren’t they?  There was that whole movie “Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café”.  Set in Alabama, this feel good film from 1991 was among the first ‘chick flicks’ and a huge hit.  I wanted to read up on the origin of the dish itself.   There on the website of the Smithsonian Institution, of all places, a woman named Lisa Bramen described her first encounters with Fried Green Tomatoes.  She too remembered the movie. In the late 1990s, she tasted her first Fried Green Tomato in New Orleans. So impressed was she that, on a southern road trip, she asked for them everywhere she went. Strangely, only once, in Memphis TN, did she encounter a pale imitation of what she had tasted in New Orleans.

       It wasn’t until Lisa went to a county fair in Upstate New York that she came across a variation at a corn farmer’s food stand. She describes that dish as being “more like a corn fritter with a slice of green tomato nestled inside.”  The New York discovery led Lisa to another fork in the tomato.
Not exactly Kosher but try a bacon topped
version of a Not Fried Green Tomato 

According to Lisa, Robert F. Moss, a food historian and writer in South Carolina told her, “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.”  You’ve got to be kidding!  Fried Green Tomatoes are Jewish?  Moss backed up his claim by finding fried green tomato recipes in several Jewish and Midwestern cookbooks dating from the late 1800s.  Meanwhile, he found nothing in Southern cookbooks and hardly any in Southern newspapers.  It appears that the link to the south is from that single 1991 movie and little else!  Of course this makes all kinds of sense.  In the north, where the growing season is short and where a dip in temperature means having to find something to do with unripe tomatoes before frost kills them, why wouldn’t someone have invented the Fried Green Tomato?.   
         At this point I need to tell you one thing:  Andrew doesn’t dislike fried green tomatoes he hates fried green tomatoes.  That being said, I wanted him to love the things so much that when I saw a photo of a stack of them and a Martha Stewart recipe for making them, I had to try it.  The recipe uses crushed cornflakes to coat the tomatoes and there’s not a drop of oil in the whole dish.  Perhaps my healthier version would conquer Andrew’s aversion.

By the time I got to cooking them,
my Green Tomatoes had started to ripen
and yes, I tried one ripe red one for Andrew.

I spied some big beautiful green tomatoes in Bridgehampton and brought them home. It took me a couple of days to get to them during which time they ripened slightly losing some of their green but not their firmness. They were a cinch to put together.  Then you oven bake them for a little over a half hour.  The crunch factor is magnificent and I served them with a side of ranch dressing. I was in heaven.  Andrew was not.  He still didn’t like them one little bit. He might have eaten all of two bites.  Okay, I failed.  But when I thought about it, I realized, that’s more for me!   And with my leftover tomatoes, I made something equally satisfying.  I took the not fried green tomato, put it in the toaster oven topped with some bacon bits I had on hand.  Once the tomato and bacon had gotten really toasted, I spooned some ranch dressing over the top.  My, was it good! Here’s the recipe which, by the way, Martha calls ‘a healthier take on the quintessential Southern dish’.  Fooled you too, Martha?

Recipe for Not Fried Tomatoes from Martha Stewart

     1/2 cup all-purpose flour
     2 large eggs, lightly beaten
     5 cups cornflakes, crushed
     Salt and pepper
     1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
     2 pounds firm tomatoes (any color), cut into 1/4-inch rounds
     Lemon wedges or ranch dressing, for serving
     1. Preheat the oven to 425 degree. Place wire racks in rimmed baking sheets.

2. Place flour, eggs and cornflakes in three separate shallow dishes and season
each with salt and pepper. Stir cayenne into flour mixture.

3. Coat each tomato slice first in flour, then eggs, then cornflakes pressing
lightly to adhere.

4. Arrange tomatoes in a single layer on racks and bake until deep golden brown, about 15 minutes, rotating the sheet halfway through. Serve with lemon wedges or ranch dressing. 

10 thoughts on “The surprising story of Fried Green Tomatoes and Martha Stewart’s recipe for Not Fried Green Tomatoes”

  • The first time I had fried green tomatoes was with Andrew at the Almond in Bridgehampton. I love them but don't ever see any in the grocery stores in Dallas.

    Interesting blog, Monte.

  • Dear Kate, As we sit in the most horrendous weather you could ever imagine, I can't tell you how pleased we both were that you loved the Carrot Cake. Some credit has to go to Dorie Greenspan, let alone the "Bill" who first gave her the recipe. Although I could not agree more: it is THE BEST CARROT CAKE EVER!. Take care and say a little prayer for all of us on the East Coast.

  • I've been watching CNN all afternoon. The weather along the east coast looks HORRENDOUS indeed. I am sending all of you on the east coast positive thoughts and prayers!!!

  • Monte, this is probably the only way I myself will try fried green tomatoes, I have been a longtime fried zucchini gal. The recipe is very simple and healthy! Interesting note, the first time I read of Fried Green tomatoes was in a Laura Ingalls Wilder book. They would make these when they lived in Wisconsin and one year when the frost came in early, Mother Ingalls prepared a green tomato pie and Papa Ingalls thought it was apple! I thought it made sense that is may not have been native to the South. Thank you and also, keep your chin up New York, this too shall pass!

  • Ana, do try this. It's absolutely delicious! I hope you can find green tomatoes in CA. The whole Laura Ingalls Wilder thing sure supports the view that this was a northern invention. However, I do think Papa Ingalls's taste buds may have been off. I've never tasted a tomato, green or otherwise, that could masquerade as an apple. And thank for your kind words about New York. We are pulling together as we always do in times like these and things are on the mend. Just pray that the storm predicted for this week goes away…far far away. You should see the number of dejected Marathoners we have literally running around New York. It's always a huge weekend here and everyone of them seems to bring along at least one other family member or friend. I think they should have cancelled earlier so that these runners could have changed their plans. It costs each one of them a whole lot of money to get here and to stay here. Ah well!

  • My understanding of the origins of Fried Green Tomatoes is that early settlers in the South were introduced to them by the Native Americans of the region who were already cooking them when Europeans settled in the South. So that makes their history go quite a bot further back than your northern Jewish history. It also makes much more sense, since tomatoes are native to the Americas, and Native Americans introduced them to Europeans.

  • Well, CoolRain SummerStorm, Sir or Madam, sure have a lot of chutzpah which is the Jewish/Yiddish word for ‘some nerve’. Going up against not only the Smithsonian but also a Food Historian clearly identified as being from South Carolina. Last time I checked South Carolina was about as southern as you can get. The good professor, Robert F. Moss, didn’t believe Fried Green Tomatoes were southern and “backed up his claim by finding fried green tomato recipes in several Jewish and Midwestern cookbooks dating from the late 1800s. Meanwhile, he found nothing in Southern cookbooks and hardly any in Southern newspapers.”  

    But you are correct: Native Americans were indeed responsible for the tomatoes use as a food. However, these Native Americans were nowhere near the American South. The tomato’s use as a food originated in Mexico and spread throughout the world following the Spanish colonization of the Americas starting in 1519 AD. The Nahuatl (Aztec) word tomatl gave rise to the Spanish word “tomate’ from which the English word tomato originates. Finally, there is no question that Native Americans in the South contributed mightily to South cuisine. But nowhere is there evidence that this extended to tomatoes. First of all, tomatoes were thought to be poisonous in Europe so our European ancestors would have avoided them until they received European approval. The first seeds for domesticated tomatoes were introduced to this country by none other than Thomas Jefferson who had eaten tomatoes in Paris sometime after 1785.

    For all these reasons, you will have to live with the fact that the Northern Jewish story holds water while your oddly anti-Semitic comment does not.

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