If there’s one food Southerners know, its home-grown tomatoes whether they’re ripe slices served with a helping of fried okra and creamed corn, or fried green slices. With summer fast approaching let’s take a quick stroll down memory lane and see how and when our ancestors discovered the pleasure of a crispy golden brown on the outside, tender on the inside, fried tomato slice.
A Charleston food critic recently wrote in his blog that fried green tomatoes aren’t Southern at all because he only found one recipe for them in a Southern newspaper. While they weren’t strictly Southern, they were being eaten in the South as well as every region of the country by the mid-19th century as receipts are common from the 1870’s on, and fried tomatoes were discussed as early as the 1830’s.
“Lovers of tomatoes are very fond of them, sliced green as apples are sliced, and fried in butter. Some persons are fond of them sliced and fried after being dipped in butter. The green tomatoes, which the season will not permit to ripen, may be turned to good account by using them fried.” – The New England Farmer. Oct. 14, 1836.
The preceding passage by no means indicates they were only eaten as Jack Frost made his appearance or that frying them was the only option for preparing them.
“Where’s the batter?” you ask. By the 1840’s tomato slices were being coated in flour before frying them. “Fried Tomatoes. Have plenty of butter hot in a pan, cut ripe tomatoes (large or small), in half, and lay the cut side down, salt, pepper, and dust with flour; when brown, turn and soon as all are quite soft, serve on a meat dish. This is a suitable relish if you are hurried, and universally esteemed”. – Pennsylvania Farmer and Gardener. Vol. 2, I. 7. August 1861.
“Not fried green tomatoes”, you point out. True. To that, I ask, have you ever tried frying a ripe tomato slice? The flavor is excellent, but because a ripe tomato is juicier and softer, it is much more difficult to get that nice texture one gets when frying green tomatoes. I’m sure our ancestors were equally observant.
In 1874, John Cowan instructed his readers, “green or half ripe tomatoes fried, or rather browned, make a nice relish for breakfast, but they require care and patience. Wipe the fruit clean, cut in slices one-fourth of an inch thick, dip in corn meal, and brown on a griddle till tender, say ten or fifteen minutes”. – Cowan, John. What to Eat and How to Cook It”. 1874. NY.
Another example: “Fried Tomatoes. Cut in one-half inch slices the required amount of tomatoes, not so ripe as to be soft—green ones are good. Salt, turn in flour, and fry brown in hot olive oil or cotton-seed oil. Place in a platter and pour over them a ripe tomato sauce…” – Diet for Health With Favorite Recipes. 1913. New Jersey.
The previously mentioned blogger quoted Fannie Flagg who says her aunt was preparing them in her restaurant in Irondale, Alabama in the 1930’s, but he seems to question her account, further implying, “if it was”, that doing so was a fluke, something not common, but rare, that her aunt found in, “a syndicated newspaper column or a general-interest, national cookbook.” Shame on you, Sir. While you say you are not going to question Miss Fannie’s account, you did just that.
He went on to say that the 1944 article from the Dothan Eagle mocks a pamphlet from the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture which recommended fried green tomatoes for breakfast. “The title makes the Alabama editor’s opinion clear: ‘No, Thank You, Suh! Our Culinary Tastes Won’t Permit It, Suh!’ “ The implication is that, as of the 1940’s at least, no self-respecting Southerner would dream of eating a fried green tomato.
Once again, someone has misunderstood our culture, and mistakenly remarked upon it. Alabamians were eating fried green tomatoes, but not for breakfast. It is the custom of eating them for breakfast that was being commented on by the editor, not the eating of them in general.
Trust me (and Miss Fannie), they certainly pre-date the movie Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café, released in the early 1990’s.
Even though he quotes two Jewish cookbooks containing recipes and implies a Jewish origin, he should realize that doesn’t make them quintessentially Jewish either. The books he quoted were published in 1889 and 1919, a time when cookery books almost routinely carried receipts for fried green tomatoes. That didn’t make them a quintessentially Jewish dish anymore than being published in the 1904 Presbyterian Cookbook made them a Presbyterian dish. – Presbyterian Cookbook. 1904. Fostoria, Ohio.
Fried green tomatoes were certainly a staple in our family kitchens from the 1930’s and before, and like fried potatoes, grits, and a host of other dishes were so simple and easily prepared that a good Southern cook needed no recipe for them.
The difference in the way we prepared them during my childhood in the 1950’s and now, is that we sliced them, battered them, and put them all into a skillet to fry instead of frying them one slice at a time as most people expect today. We planted enough tomatoes in the garden, staggering the planting times, so that we had an abundant supply until frost at which time any green ones remaining were pickled or frozen to last through the winter.
While some early writers instructed the tomato should be picked just as it started to ripen, others cautioned readers to pick them before they showed any sign of color. Still others voiced no preference at all.
FRIED TOMATOES. Peel tomatoes and cut crosswise in large slices, salt and pepper, dip each slice into wheat flour, then into beaten egg, and fry at once in hot lard; serve hot. A cup of milk is sometimes thickened with a little flour and butter, boiled, and poured over them. – Wilcox, Estelle Woods. Practical Housekeeping. 1883. Minneapolis.
“But that recipe was published in Minnesota, not in the South”, you note. True, but the author included the same recipe in a book entitled The Dixie Cook Book published in Atlanta, GA, two years later (1885), so what do we make of that? Could fried tomatoes be both Southern and Midwestern? I think it will be impossible to determine exactly where and when they were first made, and from the abundance of receipts from all areas of the country, we must conclude that they were universally prepared and eaten throughout the U.S.
In 1907, Mrs. Frederick Sidney Ciger compiled receipts she claimed were used a century prior in Mrs. Goodfellow’s Cooking School, also famous old Creole and Moravian Receipts, “and some of the best formulas of our modern chefs”, including a receipt for fried tomatoes from Muncy, Pa. Unfortunately, she made no distinction as to which receipts were vintage and which were modern, so one can only guess based on additional research. – 1907. Philadelphia.
Sarah Tyson Heston Rorer’s 1888 Hot Weather Dishes contained three receipts for fried tomatoes. One was basically baked tomatoes with gravy, the other two were for sliced tomatoes, dipped into egg, then into breadcrumbs, and fried. One receipt was for ripe tomatoes, “yellow tomatoes are especially nice done this way”, and the other was for green tomatoes. The cook was free to use which one she preferred.
In 1902, Christine Terhune Herrick (pen name Marion Harland) joined several writers who instructed the cook to sprinkle the fried tomato slices with sugar, something few Southerners would find appealing. The sprinkling of sugar was probably to decrease the tanginess so much associated with the dish these days and more closely replicate the flavor of the fried ripe slices. – 365 Luncheon Dishes: A Luncheon Dish for Every Day in the Year. 1902. Philadelphia.
In another book, Mrs. Rorer included fried green tomatoes in her breakfast menus . – The Helping Hand Cook Book. 1912.
Chef Fred Guyer of Los Angeles was making them in 1910 and preferred cornmeal for battering the tomato slices. – Santa Fe Magazine. Vol. 4. Aug. 1910.
In conclusion, I offer one of the more interesting sources, Fifty Years in a Maryland Kitchen, originally published in 1881. If we count backward 50 years from the date of publication, we see that the author claims to have been preparing the dishes in the book between the years from 1831 through 1881. If we consider that Maryland was a border state that preferred to join the Confederacy during the Civil War, but was barred by force from doing so, we get the idea that the recipes were probably predominantly Southern in nature.
That hypothesis was strengthened when the book was updated and released again in 1913 with a note from the publisher saying it was being reprinted because of a constant demand for it. “The present edition includes a great many famous receipts, which have long been in use in Maryland and Virginia and other parts of the South; which were omitted by Mrs. Howard [the author of the original book] probably for lack of space.”
Both editions included a recipe for Fried Tomatoes, but neither specifies whether the tomatoes should be ripe, green, or either. I feel it is safe to assume, in the absence of further instructions, that either was considered acceptable and that both were being prepared according to personal preference, and in the South as much as anywhere.
Whatever you choose to believe about the origin and history of fried green tomatoes, one thing is certain – you’ll find them pretty much anywhere these days and they’re still as tasty as they were when they were discussed in the 1830’s. – Vickie Rumble, The Historic Foodie
The Blue Grass Cook Book’s versions were for both ripe and green tomatoes. The green slices were sprinkled with sugar, rolled in corn meal , fried in hot lard, and then seasoned with salt and pepper. There was no mention of battering the ripe tomato slices. “Cut fresh tomatoes in thick slices. Fry ½ hour in little butter and take out of frying-pan. Stir into what is left in frying pan 1 teaspoon of flour moistened in milk. Add a little milk. When consistency of cream sauce, pour over tomatoes. – Fox, Minnie. 1904. NY.
FRIED GREEN TOMATOES. Wash and wipe the tomatoes dry, cut into thick slices, dust with salt and pepper, dip each slice in the beaten yolk of an egg, roll in bread crumbs and fry in boiling lard.
FRIED GREEN TOMATOES. Slice the tomatoes and lay in salt water a half hour, drain and roll in corn-meal and fry in hot lard; salt and pepper to taste. – Housekeeping in the Blue Grass. 1881. Cincinnati.
FRIED GREEN TOMATOES. Wash and cut the tomatoes into slices about an eighth of an inch in thickness, dry each slice carefully with a soft towel, then dust with salt and pepper. Beat an egg in a saucer until light, add to it a tablespoonful of boiling water. Dip each slice first in this and then in bread crumbs. Put two or three tablespoonfuls of lard or dripping in a frying pan; when very hot, cover the bottom of the pan with the slices of tomatoes; fry brown on one side, then turn and brown the other. Take them up carefully with a cake turner, place on a heated dish and pour over them Sauce Hollandaise. Very good. – Rorer. – 1888. Philadelphia.
FRIED TOMATOES IN BATTER. A nice side-dish is made by dipping slices of ripe tomatoes in a batter made of flour, milk and an egg, and frying them a delicate brown. – Williams, Jennie B. Us Two Cook Book. 1909. NY.
FRIED TOMATOES. Cut fine, ripe, solid tomatoes in halves; dredge them with pepper, salt, and sifted cracker dust. Put three tablespoons of butter in the chafing-dish; when very hot, cook the tomatoes on both sides and serve. A little onion juice is an improvement. – Sawtelle, Henrietta. What One Can Do With a Chafing Dish. 1890. NY.