Ever since their national introduction via Hollywood in 1992, fried green tomatoes have had a deep, historical association with the American south. Before the explosion of its movie namesake, the crisp-coated unripe tomatoes were not considered an essential component of Dixie fare. The movie spurred consumer demand, effectively creating a new market out of thin air. This is not to say that the film “Fried Green Tomatoes” created a new dish. Fried green tomatoes have their roots in Jewish cooking and eventually spread to the Midwest and Northeast. The supposed staple of the South was served infrequently throughout America before 1992, becoming an integral part of southern culture after the movie’s release. Southerners experience a collective amnesia surrounding the origins of this food, with several menus and culinary blogs concocting elaborate creation tales.
Southerners have varying tastes but strong opinions on adaptations of this fare. Attempting to find the best representation on a recent visit to Savannah, Ga., yielded an overwhelming amount of different recommendations. Savannah is a restaurant town, and each one has their particular take on this frittered fruit. Uncovering the secret behind a good fried green tomato was more straightforward. Polling numerous native southerners on what determines the success of this dish resulted in one resounding answer: the batter. People discussed the crunch, consistency of breading, and overall lightness or heaviness of the crust. John, of Liquid Sands Glass Gallery and a southern native, waxed poetic on “…their candied sweetness and their crunch.” Kim, an employee an esteemed Savannah hotel, referred to the “…light, crunchy breading,” used at several waterfront restaurants as her favorite feature of this meal.
In the south, a green tomato is an un-ripened tomato. Some heirloom varieties are naturally green when ripe, but the creation of this dish calls for young, beefsteak tomatoes that have never turned red. Traditionally, slices of this adolescent fruit are dunked in a buttermilk and egg mixture, coated in a cornmeal and flour mixture, and then skillet fried in hot vegetable oil. Toppings vary, with most recipes leaving the main ingredient unadorned; however the enthusiasts interviewed in Savannah strongly recommend a sauce or chutney to pair with the star attraction.
After sampling different variations of this dish across the city, one preparation stood out. Belford’s is frequently cited as a top contender for the title of Best Fried Green Tomatoes in Savannah. Head chef Chris Adgate explains that Belford’s tomatoes are soaked in buttermilk for “…at least four hours before cooking.” Following this marinade, the fruit slices are coated in House-Autry Mills breading, an ingredient with deep Southern roots, before deep frying at 375 degrees. Adgate instructs his chefs to “… fry them till they’re done,” a process which usually takes about four minutes. Once removed from the fryer, the tomatoes are topped with a fresh, herbal arugula pesto and a side of spicy and creamy pimento cheese. The combination of House-Autry breading and deep frying instead of skillet frying results in an interpretation unlike any other in town. Rather than a coarse and textured exterior, the breading on these tomatoes is smooth and light. The clean flavors of the arugula pesto cut through the decadent, crispy breading while the cheese adds an unexpected kick.
John, a waiter at Noble Fare, and a self-described connoisseur of this dish, recommends several tips to ensure a successful at-home preparation. A double batter helps provide the desired crunch, and making sure the oil is hot enough keeps tomatoes from getting soggy. While toppings and sauces are important, “… batter is key,” and Fuller’s top piece of advice is to “…choose a good breading agent.” While Belford’s uses a finely milled breading resulting in a lighter, smoother coating, Fuller recommends Italian breadcrumbs. This approach is used by a number of Savannah restaurants, with panko or coarse Italian breadcrumbs replacing the traditional textured cornmeal. Vic’s on the River employs this technique, combining a golden fried panko coating with ripe tomato relish, fresh goat cheese, and mild green onions on top of traditional southern grits. The thick tomato slices are coated in an egg wash followed by panko and then skillet fried. While very tasty, the breading on Vic’s interpretation seems heavy and gummy compared to the exceptionally light coating at Belford’s.
All across town, chefs are making the dish their own with innovative batters and toppings. From beer-batter to shrimp remoulade, each tries to put a unique spin on this Southern ‘classic’. The South may not have created fried green tomatoes, but it has perfected them.