A Slice of Southern Literary History in Irondale
Get a taste of Fannie Flagg’s famous fried green tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Festival in Alabama this Saturday.
by Emily D. Wood
It’s almost time for Irondale, Alabama’s 21st annual Whistle Stop Festival, scheduled for Saturday, September 29, in the town’s historic district. Each year, the festival presents live music, arts and crafts and train rides for the little ones, but one of the most important attractions of the festival is the Irondale Café. The restaurant’s doors were opened in 1928 by Emmett Montgomery as a hot dog stand. Hamburgers, barbecue and sandwiches were added to the menu by Maggie Prentice shortly after. But it’s not barbecue that the cafe has become famous for, it’s tomatoes.
In 1992, “Fried Green Tomatoes” premiered at the Cobb Galleria Theatre in Birmingham, Alabama. Fans of the movie started showing up at the café to taste the fried green tomatoes, and The Birmingham News ran a photo of a couple of the cooks holding baskets of green tomatoes with the caption: “Seen the movie? Now taste the title.”
How did this little town outside Birmingham and its cafe become so famous? Author Fannie Flagg and her great-aunt Bess Fortenberry are to thank for that. Fortenberry bought the hot dog stand in 1932 and gave it the name Irondale Café. When her great-niece Fannie Flagg decided to write about a fictional town for her 1987 book “Fried Green Tomatoes At The Whistle Stop Cafe,” she based her fictional town on Irondale.
The cafe owned by Idgie and Ruth in the book is called the Whistle Stop and becomes quite famous for its fried green tomatoes. Let’s not forget the scene in the film where Idgie tells Ruth, “Here, try this,” and gives her a bite of a fried green tomato. “They’re terrible,” says Ruth, which causes Idgie to throw water in her face, and a food fight ensues.
Flagg’s great-aunt Bess and a couple of acquaintances, Sue Lovelace and Lizzie Cunningham, created a thriving business that became a prime dining spot in the area. The café didn’t have a large dining capacity back then, so most of the sandwiches were taken to go. When the ladies began getting up in age in the early 1970s, Fortenberry decided it would be best to retire and sell the establishment.
Billy McMichael had eaten at the café a few times and was interested when he heard that the place might be for sale. He and his wife, Mary Jo, bought the restaurant in 1972. The McMichaels eventually had to tear down the original building and rebuild the restaurant on the same site, but the business continued to grow, so they purchased the Daily Hardware store next door and expanded. The family has since taken the restaurant from about a 32-person capacity to seating over 200 people.
McMichael had no way of knowing that the little cafe he’d purchased would eventually become famous around the world for a food item that’s fried up in kitchens around Alabama, nor did Fannie Flagg know she’d cause fried green tomatoes to become a specialty on menus from Irondale to Atlanta.
Current Owner Jim Dolan bought the Irondale Café in June 2000 and has kept the menu the same. He also kept a few of the cooks who have been there for over 30 years and estimates that they serve about 600-800 slices of fried green tomatoes each day. That equals about 60 to 70 pounds of tomatoes a week and even more on Sundays. The annual Whistle Stop Festival is the only time patrons can get the delicacy on a Saturday.
Of course the cafe serves more than just tomatoes, all of it homecooked and prepared fresh daily. There’s fried chicken, sweet potato souffle, cornbread dressing, fried okra, creamed corn, macaroni and cheese, turnip greens and banana pudding, cobbler and buttermilk pie for dessert. Wash it all down with a glass of sweet tea, and you might almost forget about the tomatoes. Almost.
While you’re out enjoying the Whistle Stop Festival this year, be sure to stop by the Irondale Café and take advantage of being able to get a plate of fried green tomatoes on a Saturday. The early-picked fruit symbolizes a lot more than just festival fare to this small railroad town. Fried green tomatoes are a slice of Southern literary history in Irondale.
The Whistle Stop Festival is free to attend and starts on Saturday, September 29, at 9 a.m. and continues until 10 p.m. There will be live music, arts and crafts and plenty of food in addition to tomatoes. Live music will include performances by Mile Marker 7, Thick As Thieves, The Rescue Dogs, Once In A Lifetime and more.
Irondale Cafe does have recipes on its website, but the fried green tomatoes remain a bit of a secret. We found a version of them in “Fannie Flagg’s Original Whistle Stop Cafe Cookbook,” and the cafe graciously offered up their recipe for remoulade sauce to go with them.
Fried Green Tomatoes II
Don’t crowd the skillet when frying green tomatoes. Keep them in a single layer, with plenty of space in between slices. If too many are put in the pan, the oil temperature will be lowered and the food will absorb the grease rather than be seared by it, resulting soggy tomatoes.
1 egg, beaten
1 cup buttermilk
1 cup self-rising flour
1/3 cup cornmeal
1/2 Tsp salt
6-8 green tomatoes, cut into 1/4-inch slices
Bacon drippings, vegetable oil, or mixture of both
Mix egg and buttermilk in a shallow dish. Mix flour, cornmeal and salt in a shallow dish. Working in batches, dip tomato slices into egg mixture, allowing excess to drip back into dish. Coat with flour mixture. Fry in hot bacon drippings (375 degrees F) in a large heavy skillet until browned, turning once with tongs. Transfer to a colander to drain. Serves 6.
2 quarts mayo
4 oz. Ketchup 4 oz. Creole mustard
2 oz. chopped fresh parsley
2 oz. cayenne pepper
2 oz. lemon juice2 oz. horseradish
2 oz. fresh chopped garlic
1 1/2 Tbsp Worcestershire
1 1/2 Tbsp celery salt
1 1/2 Tbsp paprika
Combine all ingredients in a food processor and blend for 2 minutes. Makes over two quarts.
Fried green tomatoes photo by Judy Baxter, Old Shoe Woman on Flickr.
Hope / September 24, 2012
I was unaware of the festival. It sounds fun and delicious. This is one of my favorite books, especially since we in Fairhope claim Fannie Flagg as our own. But now I feel I must go visit the restaurant too. It’s sure to be a favorite!