Novels for Students

Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café

Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café
Fannie Flagg

Author Biography
Plot Summary
Historical Context
Critical Overview
For Further Study


Most often described as folksy, Pulitzer Prize-nominated Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café, written by comedian and actress Fannie Flagg, spent thirty-six weeks at number two on the best-seller charts. At heart a love story about Ruth and Idgie, Flagg's novel is often listed among the great novels written by women. Reviewers often compare the novel to Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegone Days or Alice Walker's The Color Purple.

In an interview with Samuel S. Vaughan, Flagg said, "Strangely enough, the first character in Fried Green Tomatoes was the café, and the town. I think a place can be as much a character in a novel as the people." The actual writing of the novel, however, began when Flagg received a shoebox full of items once belonging to her Aunt Bess who, like Idgie, owned a café near the railroad tracks. Flagg developed the story through countless hours of interviews with old-timers. The story of the town, composed of news clippings, narration, and Mrs. Threadgoode's reminiscences, is told to Evelyn Couch, a woman having a mid-life identity crisis and awakening to a sense of feminism. Evelyn finds therapeutic help in the stories of Mrs. Threadgoode about life in Whistle Stop during the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s.

Author Biography

Before Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café, Fannie Flagg was a famous character actress wishing she had more time to write. This changed when she attended a writer's workshop featuring her favorite author, Eudora Welty. Embarrassed by her lack of education and her dyslexia, Flagg hid in the persona of a twelve-year-old girl in the short story Daisy Fay and the Miracle Man. She won the workshop contest and the story became her first novel. With some success as a writer, she turned to a story dear to her heart: Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café.

Flagg was born on September 21, 1944, in Birmingham, Alabama. Her given name was Patricia Neal. Her parents, William (a small business owner and projectionist) and Marion Leona (LeGore) Neal, died when she was young. At the age of five, Flagg began her acting career by writing and starring in a three-act comedy entitled "The Whoopee Girls." She started working in theater at thirteen by writing skits. Her big break came when she sold some material for a revue at "Upstairs at the Downstairs" in New York. The following week, late in 1956, she began her ten-year association with "Candid Camera," on CBS-TV.

Flagg attended the University of Alabama on both the Pittsburgh and Pasadena playhouse scholarships in 1962. She did not finish her studies. Instead, she continued to study acting at the Pittsburgh Playhouse and the Town and Gown Theatre. After "Candid Camera," she produced the "Morning Show" in Alabama. Since then, she has written, produced, and acted in many popular television shows, including The New Dick Van Dyke Show, CBS-TV, 1971–73; The New, Original Wonder Woman, ABC-TV, 1975; and the Love Boat. She has also appeared in many films, including Five Easy Pieces (1970), and she played Nurse Wilkins in Grease (1978). In addition to television and film, she acted on Broadway in such productions as Come Back to the Five and Dime, Jimmy Dean, Jimmy Dean, 1979; and The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, 1980.

A politically conscious artist who tries to better the world through her stories, Flagg is an active supporter of the Equal Rights Amendment. Flagg has written comedy routines, recorded four comedy albums, and submitted articles to magazines and newspapers, including the New York Times Book Review. Her first novel, Coming Attractions: A Wonderful Novel, was reissued as Daisy Fay and the Miracle Man (1992). She has homes in New York and Santa Barbara, CA, and continues to write and produce. She likes spending time in the Midwest—southern Missouri—because she feels that the Midwest is more representative of the country as a whole.

Plot Summary

Part I

Flagg's Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café weaves together the past and the present in a story of the blossoming friendship between Evelyn Couch, a middle-aged housewife, and Ninny Threadgoode, an elderly woman who lives in a nursing home. Every week Evelyn visits Ninny, who recounts her memories of Whistle Stop, Alabama where her sister-in-law Idgie and her friend Ruth ran a café. These stories, along with Ninny's friendship, enable Evelyn to begin a new, satisfying life.

The novel opens with a 1929 column from The Weems Weekly, Whistle Stop, Alabama's weekly newspaper, announcing the opening of the Whistle Stop Café, run by owners Idgie Threadgoode and Ruth Jamison, with cooking done by "two colored women," Onzell and Sipsey, and barbecue by Onzell's husband, Big George. The narrative then jumps to December 1985 when Evelyn arrives at the Rose Terrace Nursing Home in Birmingham, Alabama, with her husband, Ed, to visit Big Momma, his mother. As Evelyn sits in the visitors' lounge eating candy bars, she meets Ninny, who begins to tell stories about the Threadgoode family. Flagg intersperses descriptions of the past, gained through Ninny's memories and columns from The Weems Weekly, with the story of the developing friendship between Ninny and Evelyn. Ninny explains that she grew up next to the Threadgoodes and married Cleo, one of their boys. Most of her stories focus on Idgie, who "used to do all kinds of crazy harebrained things just to get you to laugh."

Ninny tells Evelyn about the untimely death of Buddy, Idgie's popular brother, and Idgie's generosity to hobos, like Smokey Phillips, who often stopped at the café for a hot meal. When Idgie started selling food to blacks who came to the back door, the local sheriff warned her that if she continued, the Klu Klux Klan would come after her. Idgie, however, refused to stop. At home Evelyn recalls her own past, deciding she became "lost along the way…. The world had become a different place, a place she didn't know at all." Her feelings of uselessness and her inability to stop eating fill her with despair and thoughts of suicide.

When, in 1924, twenty-one-year-old Ruth came to Whistle Stop to take charge of activities at the local church, Idgie promptly developed a crush on her. One day while Idgie and Ruth picnicked by a stream, a swarm of bees covered Idgie as she extracted wild honey from a beehive. After they flew off, Ruth collapsed in tears, voicing her fear that Idgie would be harmed. Both then admitted their love for each other, which prompted Ruth's decision to go back home and marry her fiancé, Frank Bennett. Idgie, wild with grief, found comfort with Eva, a woman Buddy had loved. At night, Evelyn imagines herself at Whistle Stop with all the figures from Ninny's past, which helps her forget about her problems for a while and fall sleep.

Part II

Ruth married Frank, a vain man filled with hatred and bitterness after discovering his mother's affair with his uncle. When Idgie heard rumors that Frank was beating Ruth, she threatened his life. In her fourth year of marriage, Ruth sent Idgie a note suggesting that she was ready to leave Frank. Idgie and Big George then returned a pregnant Ruth to Whistle Stop and learned of Frank's brutal treatment of her. A few years later when Frank was reported missing, sheriffs questioned everyone at the café, but no one would admit to knowing or seeing him. One sheriff later returned and let Idgie know she was heard threatening Frank. He admitted that no one would care if Frank were dead, but whoever did it should cover her tracks.

Evelyn feels "in control" after being on her diet for nine days, but when a boy is rude to her at a supermarket, she crumbles, feeling "old and fat and worthless all over again." In response, she establishes an imaginary self she calls "Towanda the Avenger," who in her fantasies destroys all the mean people in the world. One day two young girls steal a parking spot Evelyn had been waiting for. When the driver won't give up the space, declaring, "I'm younger and faster than you," Evelyn rams her car, explaining, "I'm older than you are and have more insurance." Evelyn admits that she is always angry except when she is with Ninny "and when she would visit Whistle Stop at night in her mind. Towanda was taking over her life … and she knew she was in sure danger of going over the edge and never coming back." In an effort to find guidance, she goes to church where she finds the churchgoers' joy contagious. As a result "the heavy burden of resentment and hate released itself," and she is able to forgive everyone including herself.

Part III

Ninny concludes stories of some Whistle Stop residents. Willie Peavey, Onzell's and Big George's son, was killed by a black man in a bar, just before he was to come home from serving in World War II. Willie's brother Artis found the man and killed him. Artis was sent to jail after he was seen freeing a dog caught by the dogcatcher, but Idgie and Grady helped get him out. Years later, Artis died in a Birmingham flophouse lobby. After watching Ruth endure excruciating pain from terminal cancer, Onzell, who had not left her side during the entire ordeal, gave her enough morphine to end her suffering.

When Frank's truck was discovered near Whistle Stop about twenty-five years after he was declared missing, Idgie and Big George were accused of his murder. At the trial, Reverend Scrog-gins, whom Idgie had harassed for years, told the court she and George were at a tent revival the night Frank was reported missing. The reverend lied for Idgie because she had helped get his son out of jail. The judge knew the testimony was a lie, but he closed the case citing lack of evidence. Ninny tells Evelyn that Sipsey killed Frank when he came into the café one night and tried to sneak out with Ruth's baby. Afterwards, Big George cooked Frank's remains in his barbecue and served them to the two detectives who came looking for him.

Ninny's friendship and support help Evelyn develop a new faith in herself. She begins a successful career with Mary Kay Cosmetics, a position suggested by Ninny, and spends time at a "fat farm" in California where she loses weight, makes friends, and gains more confidence. While Evelyn is away, Ninny dies. When she returns, Evelyn visits Whistle Stop, where she meets Ninny's next-door neighbor, Mrs. …