There was so much to learn at the Atlanta History Center‘s annual Folklife Festival, but of course one of my favorite demonstrations took place in the Smith Family Farm kitchen. Run by slaves, the kitchen (located in a small out building behind the house) was the heart of the farm where Mrs. Smith’s job was to merely present menus, provide recipes and supervise those cooking and preparing the meals for the family and their guests. These slave women worked in the kitchen from before sunrise to long after sunset doing everything from gathering ingredients, to prepping the food, to cleaning the dishes. Meats, vegetables, fruits, even cheeses were all grown and harvested on the farm like a little self-contained ecosystem. So what did they eat regularly? Turns out, fried green tomatoes.
Fried green tomatoes were a farm staple due to the abundance of tomatoes, easy preparation and quick turn around time. As I stood listening, I quickly realized the small kitchen was filled with visitors from beyond the South who innocently misunderstood one of the most recognizable Southern foods. “So wait. This isn’t a variety of tomato?” one woman asked, clearly taking mental notes. “Really?” another person chirped with astonishment. Shaking her head and stating a polite, yet emphatic “No”, the docent explained that fried green tomatoes were simply unripened red tomatoes plucked from the vine early. The sweetness has yet to fully settle into its meat giving it a somewhat tangy taste. Once picked, the tomatoes are sliced into rounds, dipped in milk (or buttermilk which was typical) and egg, dredged in cornmeal then shallow fried in a skillet with a little butter or bacon fat to a crispy golden brown. “Just as we do today,” she pointed out “you got to serve ’em hot!” Maybe with a little goat cheese and bacon on top.
I was happy to learn that the tasty treat I love so much really hasn’t changed over the last 150 years. So the next time you bite into a fried green tomato, just think, you’re tasting the past, transporting you back to the farm, back to a simpler time when local wasn’t local, it was just a way of life.