by Damon Lee Fowler
author of Beans, Greens and
Sweet Georgia Peaches
Many of the vegetables we think of as essentially "Southern"—okra, tomatoes, collard greens, sweet potatoes, Florida Citrus fruits, turnips, black-eyed peas—aren't even native to North America. They're imported!
Tomatoes are from Central and Caribbean America and were once thought by Europeans to be aphrodisiacs. They are still known in France as "pomme d'amour" (love apples) and in Italy as "pomodoro" (golden apples).
Okra, when it's cut, releases a sticky substance that has thickening properties. This substance is useful in soups and stews.
Fried green tomatoes did not originate in the South. They were being eaten in Italy as early as the sixteenth century.
Mirlitons, also known as chayotes (especially in the Southwest) and vegetable pears, are actually a variety of American squash. They thrive year-round in Louisiana.
Though popularly associated with African Americans, collard greens are not an African vegetable. They are a variety of kale, which is native to northern Europe. The name "collard" is thought to derive from "colewort"—the old name for kale.
Georgia native Damon Lee Fowler preserves the great culinary traditions of the South in his new book, Beans, Greens and Sweet Georgia Peaches. Besides these and other Southern food facts, the book is laden with classic recipes, like this famous Southern dish, Fried Green Tomatoes.
There was a time when a certain so-called progressive element of Southern society was embarrassed by the whole idea of fried green tomatoes. Breaded in cornmeal and fried in bacon drippings, they were considered too countrified, folksy, and unsophisticated, and were relegated to the backwoods. Mind you, smart Southerners weren't bothered by all that and kept right on eating them. But ever since Fanny Flagg's lovely Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistlestop Cafe was made into a motion picture, fried green tomatoes are not only fashionable, they are the one Southern vegetable dish that everyone knows about. It's not a bad dish to be known by, either.
In some parts of the United States, fried green tomatoes are made only in the fall with the last of the crop, plucked from the vines before the first frost kills them off However, throughout the South, we start frying as soon as the vines produce the first fruit.
4-6 medium very green tomatoes
Salt and black pepper in a peppermill
2 large eggs, lightly beaten in a shallow bowl
1 cup fine-ground white cornmeal
1 cup bacon drippings or a mixture of vegetable oil and drippings
1. Preheat the oven to 150 degrees F, and have ready a wire rack fitted on a cookie sheet. Cut out the stems of the tomatoes and cut them crosswise into slices at least 1/8 inch thick. Don't peel them. Sprinkle them very lightly with sugar and salt, and lay them flat in one layer on a platter or cookie sheet for at least half an hour. Meanwhile, break the eggs into a shallow bowl and beat them lightly, spread the cornmeal on a dinner plate, and have both bowl and plate ready by the stove.
2. Wipe the tomatoes thoroughly with a cotton kitchen towel or paper towels. There should be no sugar remaining on them at all. Season them lightly with salt and a few grindings of pepper.
3. Put the fat into a well-seasoned iron (or nonstick) skillet and turn on the fire to medium. When it is hot but not smoking, dip the slices of tomato one at a time in the beaten eggs, letting the excess drain back into the bowl, roll them quickly in the breading, gently shake off the excess, and slip them into the pan. Fry the tomato slices until they are golden on the bottom, about 3 minutes, then gently turn them with a spatula and continue cooking until both sides are golden. Drain them briefly on butcher paper or paper towels, then transfer them to the wire rack in the oven while you cook the next batch. Repeat until all the slices are fried. The tomatoes cannot be reheated and must be served at once.
The classic taste can only be had with bacon drippings, but vegetarians can use peanut oil instead, as it comes closest to producing the right crispness, though the flavor is naturally in no way the same.
The sugar is not intended to add sweetness to the tomatoes, but only to help remove the bitterness that some green tomatoes have. It should in no way interfere with the tartness of the tomatoes. So use only the very lightest sprinkling, and be sure you wipe it thoroughly from the slices before breading them.
Beans, Greens and Sweet Georgia Peaches:
The Southern Way of Cooking Fruits and Vegetables
by Damon Fowler
Broadway Books, 1998; $17.50
Reprinted by permission.
This page originally published as a Global Gourmet Today column in 1998.
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This page modified January 2007
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