Food has a way of bringing people together. Coming together and sharing a meal is one of the most common occurrences uniting people throughout the world. In the south we refer to this as “southern hospitality.”
Southern hospitality is being polite, using good manners, being hospitable and sharing some good home cooking. In the south this way of life is an institution. Good food and good company go hand in hand in the south. A true southerner finds it difficult to make just one dish at a meal especially if they are entertaining and if guests go home hungry then it is their fault.
A couple of weeks ago Kenneth and I stopped by my friend Martha’s house on our way home from the store. As we walked through the front door, the most enticing smell hit me smack in the face. I walked straight into the kitchen to see her making fried green tomatoes and okra for dinner. While I have had fried okra on several occasions, I had only tried fried green tomatoes once before and I admit I did not like them.
As I stood there watching her, she immediately offered me one of those tomatoes and I accepted it. Why? Because refusing a southern cook’s offer is rude and disrespectful. I took a small bite of that tomato and much to my surprise it was sweet and tender inside with a light crispy outside. It was love at first bite for me with those fried green tomatoes. Even after I got home, I could not stop thinking about them. I had fried green tomatoes on my mind for a couple of days and I finally decided to call Martha and ask her to teach me how to make this delicious fried fruit. Yes, tomatoes are a fruit.
Martha and I met up one morning and made a trip to a couple of local farms where we picked green tomatoes and purchased okra for my cooking lesson. When I arrived at her house the following day, she had all the ingredients organized on her counter. She started with the fried okra first while I observed and took notes. Here is what I wrote down:
- To start set up a bowl with your breading mix (which is simply flour, salt, and pepper). Get a deep stock pot and put your oil in there. Use only canola oil and you need to heat the oil on high heat. Prefers Crisco oil.
- Okra (buy the small ones because they are more tender). Slice the okra (not real thin) and sprinkle water on them using your hand.
- Take the cut okra and using your hands toss them lightly in the flour. Put the breaded okra in the pan with the oil and start to fry them. Do not overcrowd them. Using a slotted spoon, remove them on to a cookie sheet covered with a paper towel to drain the excess. Sprinkle the cooked okra with more salt.
- Tomatoes – do the same procedure except you will use a mix of cornmeal, flour, salt, and pepper. Slice the tomatoes thin and sprinkle with water using your hand. Toss the tomatoes in the breading mix and fry in the same pot as the okra. Drain on a paper towel. Sprinkle more salt on them if needed.
Did you happen to notice anything missing from my notes? No measurements. I asked Martha and she said, “I do not use specific measurements”.
Martha and I met at Bible study at our church and I had heard from others she was an excellent cook. Let me share a secret with you. If you want to learn how to cook something or simply need a recipe, ask the church ladies. They are the BEST cooks! I enjoy cooking as does Martha and I knew this would be the start of a close friendship. It was over cooking fried green tomatoes that I got to know more about her.
Martha was born in North Carolina but later moved to Georgia where she spent most of her childhood. She remembers spending summers with her grandmother. When Martha was about 11 years old, her grandmother started to teach her how to cook. First, she learned how to make biscuits by sight and touch. The secret to biscuits with a soft fluffy inside and a crusty exterior is not to overwork the dough. Martha told me she was taught to cook by sight, touch, smell, and taste. Using your senses is one of the oldest and most recommended methods used by experienced cooks.
The truth be known, fried green tomatoes is not a real southern dish as it originated in Dayton Ohio. According to author Robert F. Moss, a fried green tomato recipe was first published in the First Presbyterian Church cookbook in 1873. It was after the 1991 movie, Fried Green Tomatoes that the dish increased in popularity. The movie was based on Fannie Flagg’s novel Fried Green Tomatoes and the Whistle Stop Café. The café was a real place in Irondale Alabama which occasionally served this on their menu and Fannie Flagg did eat them there. However, fried green tomatoes were not a regular menu item. It was the movie that turned fried green tomatoes into an iconic southern dish.
Traditional southern food is often fried, salty or both and has justifiably earned a reputation for being unhealthy. Why do southerners eat so much fried food? The reason for this reverts to the days before there was refrigeration. Pork was the predominant meat in the south and using salt was one way to preserve it. Families usually had salt boxes in their smokehouse. Salt brings out the moisture and keeps the meat from rotting. Deep frying food is another method of preservation. Not only does it cook the food quickly, but it also destroys any bacteria. Recipes for deep fried foods have been passed down for generations and has become part of the South’s unique food heritage.
That evening, Martha made us more than just fried green tomatoes and okra for dinner. Our gracious hostess treated us to grilled pork chops and a carrot casserole and we went home that evening with full stomachs.