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All About Fried Green Tomatoes

Libby Wiersema Libby Wiersema
Libby Wiersema lived in California and Alabama before settling in South Carolina 30 years ago, where she's covered the state's best culinary offerings and tells the stories behind the food.
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Every day seems like a celebration of fried green tomatoes when you’re dining in South Carolina. Served hot from the skillet, these crispy, spicy slices star as appetizers and in tantalizing entrees at restaurants across the state. Creamy gravies, dollops of soft, piquant cheeses, a scoop of creamy pimento cheese, fruity glazes and drizzles of balsamic syrup all make fine appointments to this beloved dish. Fresh, local shrimp and crabmeat can add a rich, crowning touch. Pair with a side of grits and you’ve got breakfast, lunch or dinner fit for South Carolina royalty.

Now for some shocking news about this rousing Southern favorite: It’s a Northern invention. According to food writer and author, Robert F. Moss, recipes for the dish first appeared far above the Mason-Dixon line, namely in cookbooks popular in the Northeast and Midwest in the early 1900s. Yep, that’s right—while we were swigging sweet tea, sweating and watching tomatoes ripen on the vine, farmers in Indiana, Ohio and other cold-prone places were furiously harvesting their unripened crops to save them from impending early frosts. Hence, it is theorized that fried green tomatoes were born out of frugality, the progeny of a dire thrift that frowned upon wastefulness.

Now to confuse you further: Fried green tomatoes are as embedded in Southern food culture as pimento cheese, and you can thank Hollywood for that. It all started with the 1991 release of the hit movie, “Fried Green Tomatoes.” The Southern setting and all those tantalizing fried green tomatoes served up at the Whistle Stop Cafe changed the way people think about them, leading almost everyone to believe that these beauties have always belonged to the South. Of course, a good many Southerners took a cue from their Northern brethren and had been cooking up green tomatoes for a long time before the big screen made everyone hungry for them. But the film’s success catapulted them squarely into our lap and we ran with it. To do otherwise would have been impolite, don’t you think?

Like with other dishes we’ve adopted, such as pimento cheese (read all about it here), South Carolina chefs and cooks have a knack for adding special touches to make them their own. When that hankering hits, you won’t find a more creative, mouthwatering lineup of fried green tomatoes than you will in South Carolina, where the dish is prepared as if its very roots are firmly planted in the state’s earliest farms, plantations and settlements. Whether you order them on a burger, as an elegant, seafood-topped entree, or just hot on a plate with a little gravy—or not, you’ll taste the South in every taste bud-titillating bite.

Ready to experience some ’mater magic? You can pull out your frying pan and give it a go (see recipe below), or try one of the many South Carolina restaurants known for great fried green tomatoes. Here are a few suggestions to get you started:

Betsy’s Round the Corner, Aiken
Big Mike’s Soul Food, Myrtle Beach
Cru Café, Charleston
Julia Belle’s, Florence
Lighthouse Lake Keowee, Seneca
Low Country Backyard, Hilton Head Island
Mr. Friendly’s New Southern Cafe, Columbia
Pump House, Rock Hill
Rivertown Bistro, Conway
Soby’s New South Cuisine, Greenville

Classic Fried Green Tomatoes
2 large green tomatoes, cut into ½-inch thick slices
1 cup all-purpose flour
2 cups cornmeal or cracker crumbs
2 eggs
½ cup milk
Oil for frying
Salt and pepper to taste
Cayenne pepper (optional)

Pat dry tomato slices with a paper towel. Season both sides with salt and pepper and a sprinkle of cayenne if you like a little spice. Create a fried green tomato station by lining up a plate of flour, a wide bowl to whisk the eggs with milk, and a plate of cracker crumbs or cornmeal. Now, you are ready to coat the tomatoes. Dust each slice on both sides with flour. Using a fork, dip each floured slice into the egg mixture and hold up to drain over the bowl. Set them into the cracker crumbs or cornmeal, carefully coating each side. Place coated tomatoes on a cookie sheet lined with waxed paper. Once all the slices are coated, fry in an inch of hot vegetable oil over medium heat until both sides are golden brown. Drain on a brown paper grocery bag, flipping them over to drain both sides. Serve alone or with your favorite accompaniment like pimento cheese or gravy.

Libby Wiersema
Libby Wiersema lived in California and Alabama before settling in South Carolina 30 years ago, where she's covered the state's best culinary offerings and tells the stories behind the food.