When I asked Kim Finholt, chef of the Whistle Stop in Long Beach, why she decided to serve fried green tomatoes at her new-revival burger shack, she laughed. "The movie, of course!"
She's talking about Fried Green Tomatoes (1991), which chronicles the tear-jerk journey of two Southern women in the 1930s who open their own Whistle Stop Café, as told half a century later to timid, overeating Evelyn Couch (Kathy Bates). Inspired by these independent, tomato-frying ladies, Couch ends the film with a job at Mary Kay and a trampoline exercise routine.
It's the film that launched green tomatoes out of the compost pile and onto the plates of the elite. Historically, fried green tomatoes were eaten by farmers and their families, who needed a way to make their trimmings palatable. In his book The Fried Green Tomato Swindle, Robert Moss suggests that Southerners reclaimed the dish as a regional favorite only after the success of the film. He even goes so far as to suggest that the dish isn't actually Southern — a claim that seems questionable considering that the West African technique of frying came to the United States through the South via slavery — and the sheer amount of green tomatoes that the Southern climate forces its farmers to trim (food historian Victoria Rumble does a good job poking holes in Moss' theory).
Tracing the origins of a dish like fried green tomatoes is exceedingly difficult; cookbooks weren't popular in the United States until the mid–19th century, and even then they were mainly the purview of the upper middle class and women who traveled West, leaving behind the friends and family who would have shared their recipes. For the most part, a recipe for fried green tomatoes would have been transmitted orally, or written by hand in a personal recipe collection. But whether the South "invented" fried green tomatoes or not (it probably did), it certainly has claimed them.
Chef Terri Wahl serves her cornmeal-crusted fried green tomatoes with scrambled eggs every weekend for brunch at Auntie Em's Kitchen in Eagle Rock. She first tried them 15 years ago in Georgia, while on tour with her all-girl punk band, The Red Aunts. She says that at Auntie Em's, the green tomatoes are "always super popular." To keep up with the demand, Wahl asks farmers such as Tutti Frutti in the Santa Rita Hills to save their unripe tomatoes — in the Central California heat, they trim their tomatoes year-round. "I've always leaned toward Southern comfort food, and I keep that in the back of my mind when I'm walking through the farmers market," Wahl says of her cooking philosophy.
Both Wahl and Finholt channel Southern cuisine with their fried green tomato dishes, but the truth is that Angelenos have enjoyed fried green tomatoes since as early as 1908. That was the year chef Fred Guyer first cooked in Los Angeles. He went on to become the chef for Santa Fe Railway's California Limited line, which ran from L.A. to Chicago. In 1910 he shared the following recipe in Santa Fe's employee magazine:
Fried Green Tomatoes. Cut into thin slices some large, perfectly green specimens (they must not have begun to show any sign of ripening, and those freshly pulled are really best for the dish). Sprinkle with salt and dip in cornmeal until covered. Fry in a little butter until a nice brown. Cover the frying pan throughout the cooking process to keep the tomatoes tender. Serve either plain or with a brown sauce.
1908 is also the year that fried green tomatoes first appeared in the L.A. Times, as a suggestion for Saturday breakfast — "Melons, cereal and cream, bacon and fried green tomatoes, hominy muffins, toast, tea and coffee" — in a syndicated column by Virginian Marion Harland called "School for Housewives" (proof that both Southerners and Californians were eating fried green tomatoes more than eight decades before the film). Green tomatoes were fried in Los Angeles in 1928 by DTLA-based A.L. Wyman, who coated hers in breadcrumbs rather than cornmeal and served them with tomato ketchup.
Although fried green tomatoes don't appear on early Los Angeles restaurant menus, "fried tomatoes" do. In 1933 they were served at the Biltimore with "Broiled Calf's Liver, Sauce Fines Herbs, and Julienne Potatoes ($1.00)." The Globe Coffee Shop served "Fried Tomato" alongside "Grilled Veal T-Bone and Bacon" for $0.60 in 1937. And at the Cocoanut Grove in 1944, one could order "Fried Tomatoes" as a side dish for $0.65. While it's possible that the fried tomatoes in question were red and not green, ripe tomatoes (with their juicy, liquid flesh) are much more difficult to fry.
None of these recipes describe the dish as Southern. But there's a reason fried green tomatoes became the title of a book and then a popular film: It's an unusual, specific food, with the power to instantly return you to a place or a memory. The scene where Evelyn brings Ninny fried green tomatoes topped with a candle in lieu of a birthday cake exemplifies the power of food. When Ninny bites into the fried tomato, her eyes shut and we watch her travel back in time.
Finholt taps into this sense of nostalgia at the Whistle Stop, a Long Beach institution since 1952, which she recently reopened. The coincidental shared name with the movie-famous café is what inspired Finholt to put green tomatoes on the menu, and they've become a best-seller.
"Not many places have them, so they get them here," Finholt says.
The mythology surrounding fried green tomatoes is part of what makes them so exciting — but as the largest tomato-producing state in the country, California shouldn't let Southerners have all the fun. Try making your own fried green tomatoes — it's a Los Angeles tradition.
Fried Green Tomatoes & Eggs
(from The Auntie Em's Cookbook)
This is a great use for those last unripe green tomatoes before they get pulled from the garden to make way for your fall planting. You can also get green tomatoes at the farmers market. Of course, there's a difference between an heirloom tomato that's green when ripe, like the Green Zebra or Aunt Ruby's German Green, and a plain, old unripe tomato. You want the latter for this recipe. Because they are still very firm, they hold up well to frying, plus they have a nice tang. I slice the tomatoes thick to give them meatiness. You can also use fried green tomatoes on a BLT instead of ripe red tomatoes, or as an appetizer served with homemade ranch dressing.
2 large eggs, lightly beaten
1/2 cup whole milk
2 teaspoons sea salt, divided
1 cup flour
1 cup cornmeal
1 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 teaspoon finely ground pepper
4 large green, unripe tomatoes, sliced into 1/2-inch thick slices
1/2 cup vegetable oil, divided, or as needed
8 eggs, scrambled
2 teaspoons finely chopped chives
Sea salt and freshly ground pepper
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In a medium bowl, whisk together eggs, milk, and 1 teaspoon salt. In a small bowl, combine flour and 1/2 teaspoon salt. In another small bowl, mix together cornmeal, remaining 1/2 teaspoon salt, cayenne, and pepper. Mix all together well.
Dip tomatoes first in flour mixture, then egg mixture, and finally dredge in cornmeal mixture.
In a large skillet, heat 1/4 cup oil over medium-high heat. Add breaded tomatoes, 4 to 5 at a time, or as many that will fit in pan without touching. Cook until tomatoes begin to brown on the bottom, about 3 minutes. Flip and brown on other side, 2 to 3 minutes. Drain on paper towels and set aside. Repeat with remaining tomatoes.
Arrange 4 tomatoes on each of 4 plates in a slightly overlapping fan pattern. Place scrambled eggs directly on top of fried tomatoes. Sprinkle with chives and season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve immediately.