Tell any cook serving comfort foods in the Deep South that the first recipe for fried green tomatoes came from “up North,” and they’ll declare on their granddaddy’s grave that it isn’t so. However, historians have dug up recipes from an 1873 Ohio cookbook, a Chicago newspaper from 1877, and a Jewish cookbook from New York in 1919.
But let all minds be clear that once the idea of frying a green tomato migrated below the Mason-Dixon line, the perfecting process truly began. Northerners, after all, only tried this method as a way to use unripened tomatoes still on the vine when the first frost was predicted, while Southerners had the advantage of a lengthy harvest season for tomatoes of all varieties.
The rise of fried green tomatoes
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It's a perfect day for fresh fried green tomatoes! #irondalecafe #whistlestop #friedgreentomatoes
Admittedly, the recipe remained relatively obscure, even in the South, through the 1970’s. But in 1987, Fannie Flagg published her book, Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café. The movie adapted from that book was released nationally in January of 1992, and suddenly people were clamoring to try the tart, battered slices.
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The Irondale Café near Birmingham, Ala. – the real Whistle Stop Café – had to reformulate their recipe to meet the demand once the movie premiered. Previously, they were dredging the slices in cornmeal and frying them in a skillet, but after the movie, a deep fryer was necessary to meet the demand. Twenty-seven years later, Irondale Café uses 60 to 70 pounds of green tomatoes every day and even more on Sundays.
It turns out that green tomatoes hold up well to the process of being sliced, dredged and fried, and the slightly sour flavor pairs well with a crunchy, salty coating. The best tomatoes to use are firm and green throughout, with optimum slices of one-third to one-half inches wide.
After all, frying a ripe tomato is virtually impossible. For a family supper at home, the most common preparation method is to dip the slices in a mixture of buttermilk and egg, dredge them in an equal combination of flour and cornmeal, fry them in a large cast-iron skillet, two minutes on each side, then drain and sprinkle the hot slices with salt.
Fried green tomatoes now appear in upscale restaurants, as well as diners and cafes. They can be found served with fruit preserves and goat cheese puree, topped with pimento cheese or shrimp remoulade, stacked over or under eggs Benedict, or substituted for red tomatoes in a juicy BLT. In Italian restaurants, fried green tomatoes might even replace eggplant in eggplant parmesan.
A winning recipe
These fried green tomatoes were voted the best in Alabama — Photo courtesy of LuLu's in Gulf Shores, AL
LuLu’s in Gulf Shores, flagship restaurant of owner Lucy Buffett, recently won the 10Best Readers' Choice Award for the Best Fried Green Tomatoes in Alabama.
Listed on Lucy's menu since she opened 20 years ago, she expects they will always be served "because they taste so darn good!" Her slices are dipped first in a mixture of buttermilk and hot sauce, then double-dipped in what she calls "flour power," which is much better for deep frying than cornmeal.
Who was voted the best?: Best Fried Green Tomatoes in Alabama (10Best Readers' Choice Awards 2019)
In addition to all-purpose flour, sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, other seasonings in the flour mixture include garlic powder, onion powder, paprika, cayenne pepper, white pepper, dried thyme and dried oregano.
Lucy insists that her fried green tomatoes be served hot. They come out of the grease, are drained quickly, then servers run them to the table. Her Wow Sauce, which is a dip with jalapeños, olive oil, mayonnaise, Creole mustard and horseradish, accompanies the tomatoes and provides another tasty edge.
Use a candy thermometer to get the perfect temperature — Photo courtesy of iStock / jatrax
Lucy urges cooks at home to use a candy thermometer to check the temperature of the oil before frying the slices. She recommends peanut, vegetable or canola oil at 355 degrees and cautions that the oil needs to return to that temperature between batches. Her recipe for this award-winning treat, including the seasoning and dipping sauce, is in her cookbook, Gumbo Love.
LuLu’s uses 60,000 tomatoes every year, 40,000 green and 20,000 red. In 2018, there were 12,000 orders for fried green tomatoes at LuLu’s. Each appetizer order contains 7 slices for a total of 84,000 slices, and that doesn’t even include the slices served with shrimp salad or topping a specialty burger alongside bacon and pimento cheese.
Lucy Buffett, owner of LuLu's in Gulf Shores, Ala. — Photo courtesy of LuLu's in Gulf Shores, AL
Lucy Buffett and her team serve more than 4,000 people a day during the peak season in Gulf Shores. The buttermilk with hot sauce, the double dousing of seasoned flour, the perfectly-heated oil and the Wow Sauce explain why their fried green tomatoes rank at the top in Alabama.
Using a skillet or a deep fryer, with cornmeal or without, fried green tomatoes appear to have established a place in Alabama kitchens and restaurants with no plans to leave. We’re mighty grateful, Fannie Flagg.