Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café
Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop CaféIntroduction
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. Hartman, who shows her photos of many of the people she had heard about there. Two years later Evelyn goes to the cemetery where Ninny has been buried to tell her how much happier she is with her life. While there, Evelyn finds a note from the "bee charmer" on Ruth's grave. One month later a family on its way to Florida stops at a roadside inn run by Idgie and her brother Julian. Idgie gives the couple's eight-year-old daughter a free jar of honey.
Eva Bates is "just an old redheaded gal that runs a joint over by the river…. A friend of ours." That joint is the Wagon Wheel Fishing Farm and it is where people go to forget their worries—a watering hole out in the woods. Eva doesn't know much about the world, but she knows how to love.
Frank Bennett is a man with an Oedipus complex. He adores his mother so much it riles his already abusive father. Everything changes for Frank when he comes home early from school to find his mother having sex with his uncle. Henceforth, he hates everyone. With inheritance and hard work, he prospers, but he also beats up, impregnates, and ruins many women in the area. Frank's left eye is a glass eye and he loves to ask strangers to guess which is the real eye. One bum guesses correctly and later tells the bartender, "The left one was the only one with even a glimmer of human compassion." Frank decides that Ruth is the woman to give him a son to carry on his family name. They marry, and he starts to abuse her regularly.
Considered an example of a lesbian relationship, Ruth and Esther are biblical figures who are heroes to the lesbian community. Ruth, in a twist on her biblical namesake, inspires steadfast loyalty. Ruth falls in love with Idgie the moment Idgie is covered by a swarm of bees. Sadly, she is engaged and must return home. Ruth marries Frank Bennett in order to ensure proper care for her mother, whose dying wish is that Ruth leave Frank. When Frank's abuse becomes too much, Ruth sends Idgie a message. Idgie comes to get her and they return to Whistle Stop. There, the two women run a café and raise Ruth's son, Stump.
Evelyn's husband, Ed, is a lazy man. Hence his family name, Couch, is allegorical and a shortened form of "couch potato." Ed works, drinks beer, watches the television, visits his mother, and "on Saturdays … would wander around the Home Improvement Center alone, for hours; looking for something, but he didn't know what." This humorous but pointless act is highly symbolic of the way shopping in the 1980s displaces real activity. Ed's view of life is very simple: He is the man, breadwinner, and ruler of his household.
Evelyn Couch is miserable, overweight, depressed, and growing resentful of her husband, Ed. The Couches are symbolic of all middle-class couples struggling to find meaning in the world without getting off the couch. Evelyn has a difficult time handling her dissatisfaction with life. At first, she escapes into a fantasy life wherein she is a superhero—like Wonder Woman—who single-handedly rights the wrongs of the world. Those wrongs mostly involve the mistreatment of women at the hands of men.
Her salvation comes through the dreaded weekly visit to Big Momma at the nursing home. Evelyn goes with Ed to visit Big Momma, but usually ends up sitting by herself eating candy in the lounge. There she becomes caught up in Mrs. Threadgoode's stories. Before she knows it, Evelyn has found a friend in Mrs. Threadgoode. Bonding with another woman and hearing her life story acts as Evelyn's therapy. As a result, she is able to deal with her anxiety and build her self-esteem.
Mrs. Threadgoode shows Evelyn that she is not worthless and, in fact, could be someone who is proactive and can enjoy life. Evelyn takes the encouragement and attends a "fat farm." She loses weight and starts selling Mary Kay products. Evelyn feels better about herself, feels empowered, and is no longer sitting on the couch.
Peggy is Stump's wife. She has to warn him against telling any "R-rated" versions of the tales of Whistle Stop when her granddaughter, Linda—who is nearly a grown woman—is present.
Local sheriff and head of the local Klan, Grady butts heads with Idgie a few times over her open servicing of blacks at the café. When Grady realizes he jeopardizes his welcome in the café, he puts the café under his protection (both legal and otherwise) and everything goes on as usual. Over the years, Grady and Idgie become fast friends and form the main muscle of the Dill Pickle Club. This club ostensibly gambles and drinks at Eva's place but often sneaks around doing good deeds. One of their favorite pranks is to send a person for liquor to the Reverend's place because he is a prohibitionist. Through such late-night bonding and law enforcement contacts, the outlaw Railroad Bill is able to avoid capture.
- Released by Universal Studios in 1991, Fried Green Tomatoes stars Jessica Tandy and Kathy Bates. The scriptwriters were Fannie Flagg and director/producer Joe Avnet. The script received an Academy Award nomination for best screenplay based on material previously produced or published. The film was shot in Juliet, Georgia. It received rave reviews for its actors as well as its ability to portray multiple historic eras with authenticity. Fannie Flagg makes a cameo appearance as a teacher.
- Fannie Flagg narrated the work for an audio edition in 1992. She received a Grammy Award for her recording of Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café.
Artis O. Peavey
Stump suspects that the cook's son, Artis, is Railroad Bill because he is the same size as the infamous outlaw. Artis, however, has a bigger secret. He is a witness to murder and he helps destroy evidence with his father. Artis is a stereotype of the way circumstantial luck turns decent black men in a racist society into criminals. He takes revenge for Willie Boy's death but is not caught. Ironically, he is sent to prison for "attempting to murder" two black dogcatchers while freeing a friend's dog.
Jasper's daughter, Clarissa, is light-skinned enough to pass for white. She takes advantage of this and sometimes rides the whites only elevator. While shopping one day, Artis—drunk and di-sheveled—greets her. She is startled. The saleswoman screams for security and Artis is thrown out.
Given away by his mother at the train station, Big George is one of the bravest people in the world, according to Idgie. When Idgie is little, she falls into a pen of boars. It is Big George who dives in and fights off the pigs so she can get out. It is also Big George who scoops up Stump and runs him to Doc Hadley's after a train cuts off his arm. Poppa Threadgoode teaches Big George the butchering trade and employs him at the family's store. Later he cooks the café's famous barbecue.
Jasper, son of George and Onzell, is the direct opposite of Artis. He has a family and a career aboard the trains. In order to survive, Jasper swallows his pride in the company of whites and becomes a celebrated porter. Yet he still fights in his own way. For example, when the Klan dynamites his and his neighbors' homes, Jasper refuses to move. His sacrifice enables his children to attend college just as the benefits of the Civil Rights era begin.
Naughty Bird Peavey
Naughty Bird is Big George's daughter. She grows into a pretty beautician who works at Opal's beauty shop. She falls for a man named Le Roy Grooms who works as a cook on one of the trains that passes through town. She has a daughter by him named Almondine. When she learns that he has moved in with a "high yellow octoroon woman in New Orleans" she becomes severely depressed and stops working. She decides that by appearing less black she will regain Grooms' love. She tries various methods of lightening the color of her face and straightening her hair, but to no effect. The problem does not resolve until Naughty Bird learns that Grooms is dead. Then, she recovers her smile and returns to work.
Onzell is married to Big George and works at the Whistle Stop Café. Mrs. Threadgoode says of Onzell, "I never saw anybody more devoted to a person than Onzell was to Ruth." Onzell acts as Ruth's nurse during her bout with cancer. As Ruth declines, Onzell, by being miserly with the morphine, is able to end Ruth's suffering with an overdose. When Dr. Hadley brings the ambulance to take Ruth to the funeral home, Onzell violates every Jim Crow statute in existence by marching past the good doctor and into the "whites only" ambulance. She lays Ruth out in the manner that Ruth would have liked best.
Sipsey is an employee of Momma Threadgoode, and is described as "a skinny little thing, and funny. She had all those old-timy colored superstitions. Her mother'd been a slave, and she was scared to death of spells…." One of her beliefs is that you must bury the head of the animal you are about to cook or that animal's spirit will make you insane. Consequently, the yard behind the café fills with heads and the garden is always bounteous.
Sipsey loves babies and will baby-sit for anyone who asks. A friend tells her that there is a woman giving her baby away at the train station. Without putting on a coat, Sipsey runs for the station, yelling, "I got to go get me that baby." She returns with the baby, whom she names George Pullman Peavey—"after the man who invented the pullman car."
Willie Boy Peavey
The "first colored soldier in Troutville" to fight in World War II, Willie Boy is the pride of the Peavey family. He survives the war and gains admittance to the Tuskegee Institute with plans to become a lawyer. At a bar in Newark, New Jersey, a soldier named Winston Lewis demeans his father. Although trained not to react to insults, Willie Boy breaks a beer bottle in his face. That night, Winston Lewis cuts Willie Boy's throat while he sleeps and goes AWOL.
Smokey, with his knife, fork, spoon, and can opener in his hatband, represents the many people who are homeless, unemployed, and wandering as a result of the economic downturns in the 1920s and 1930s. The Whistle Stop Café tries to feed the hungry a little something and, as a result, the hobos etch the name of the café on as many boxcars as possible from Whistle Stop to Canada. Smokey is singled out from all the other hobos, because "you could trust him with your life." He is given a home at the café and is staunchly devoted to Idgie while being secretly in love with Ruth.
Named for Idgie's deceased brother, Stump is the son of Ruth and Frank though he is legally made a Threadgoode. The raising of Stump by Ruth and Idgie is a focal point of the novel. Ruth is more of a disciplinarian while Idgie plays the role of indulgent father. Together, they form Stump into an athletic youth and decent family man.
Idgie, with her short blonde hair, is a "tomboy" who falls in love with Ruth. The pressures of normalcy would have squashed the relationship but Idgie's parents supported their obstinate daughter and she develops into her natural self. Idgie is able to relate and communicate freely with everyone, and she tries to treat everyone as human beings. In the segregated society she lives in, those practices may get her in trouble, but she refuses to treat people any differently.
Idgie is the most likely person to pull off the Railroad Bill stunt though she undoubtedly has help from the Dill Pickle Club. From one point of view, Railroad Bill is the ultimate joke on Grady. From another point of view, Railroad Bill presents Idgie as a modern-day Robin Hood. Idgie fails to uphold Jim Crow laws in other ways. She stages a miracle by bringing Miss Fancy to Troutville. She is also intolerant of abuse, especially of those she loves. Thus, without thinking, she publicly confronts Frank immediately after hearing that he beats Ruth regularly.
One of Idgie's most endearing qualities is her love of mischief and her joy for life. Like the rabbit of Uncle Remus' stories, Idgie tells wild tales, has a good heart, and tries to make the world a better place. She teaches by parable and by example, not by lecture.
Ninny is the one who tells Evelyn about Whistle Stop. She grew up in the town and married Idgie's brother Cleo. Her stories and yarns are "threaded good" but seldom involve herself as she has spent most of her life as a spectator. She is a wise old woman who teaches Evelyn what she needs to know to become a full adult and be happier with herself.
Dot Weems runs the post office in the town of Whistle Stop. She also publishes the town newspaper, The Weems Weekly. She represents the thousands of people who served as information conduits for news in small communities before the Internet, television, and radio.
Race and Racism
Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café explores the width and depth of race and racism. While the evidence of racism is obvious, discussion of the situation is hushed and never crosses the color line. In fact, the only person who successfully crosses that line is Idgie, who simply doesn't understand the world in those terms.
Mrs. Threadgoode and Evelyn discuss race in terms of fear. "You know, a lot of these people resent having colored nurses out here. One of them said that deep down, all colored people hate white people and if those nurses got a chance, they'd kill us off in our sleep." Evelyn later realizes that her mother raised her to fear blacks. The novel, except to hint that time is the best teacher, provides no solution to racism. If people like Evelyn can realize that, despite their liberal opinions, they are squeamish, then perhaps they can make an effort to at least cease propagating fear to their children.
A major step in Evelyn's progression toward being a self-possessed adult is being aware of society's prescribed gender coding. She realizes for herself what the feminist movement of the 1970s had been trying to tell her—it's a man's world. She had been terrified of "displeasing men" her whole life. Consequently, she walks on tiptoes, as if in "a cow pasture" in order to avoid the words a man might say to her. One day, by accident, it happens. A boy at the supermarket hurls abuse at her. Bruised but not dead, she realizes she has survived her worst nightmare and sets about examining it. Her first reaction, and an important step in terms of her growth, is to realize that "Evelyn Couch was angry." The second is to be carried away by her superhero fantasy of Towanda.
In the midst of a Towanda episode, she talks back to Ed when he habitually asks her to bring him a beer. The inadvertent outburst leads to more reflections. She surmises that having "balls" "opens the door to everything." When she realizes how silly these gender roles are, and in this she believes she has Idgie's backing, she finds herself a little more confident about herself.
There are other ways the novel explores gender roles. The physical abuse Evelyn fears has happened to Ruth. However, the reverse happens to Mr. Adcock. He eventually leaves his wife after he has fulfilled his duty to his children. The positive examples come from the old-timers, like the Weems, or from the rebels, like Idgie and Ruth. The message is that love and happiness allow people to make up their own roles.
According to the novel, wealth, in the form of money, is not an end in itself. In fact, a happy life, a healthy family, good food, and good friends are more important than savings. Thus, when Cleo complains to Idgie that their father ruined himself by his generosity and that Idgie is bound to do the same, he receives a wise response. "Listen," says Idgie, "money will kill you," and then she tells a parable about a man who is squashed in the mint by hundreds of pounds of coin.
The discussion of sex, like race, is done in hushed tones. Men don't discuss sex at all except in joking and embarrassed tones (and usually in reference to Eva Bates). Evelyn wonders if her virginal discomfort with sex is unique. To her delight, Mrs. Threadgoode admits to the same position. "But Cleo was so sweet with me, and by and by, I got the hang of it." As with gender roles, sex is a happy thing when the act is not repressed or forced and there is respect for the other person. Helen Claypoole, who is a drunken buffoon used by men, represents the alternative approach. She doesn't respect herself, and no one respects her.
Topics for Further Study
- Flagg was a spokesperson for the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). What is the status of the ERA today? What happened?
- Does Flagg criticize capital punishment in the novel? Is it an effective or just criticism? What is your view of the death penalty? Conversely, does the novel argue in favor of justified homicide?
- Who is the Tommy Thompson to whom Fannie Flagg dedicates her book? How do you think he influenced Fannie Flagg? Who are some of her other southern influences?
- Compare the experiences of the Peavey children. How do they handle the challenges of living in a racist society?
- Try a recipe or two of Sipsey's included with the book. While cooking, consider the allegorical role of food in the novel. For example, consider the significance of the community—from Georgia and Alabama—eating a murdered wife-beater cooked into a black man's barbecue.
- React to the following statement Flagg made in an interview with Samuel S. Vaughan: "I tend to rail against the current fashion in American culture of glamorizing only very young, pretty girls and completely ignoring the most wonderful and sexiest of women, those who are adult. I find there is nothing more attractive than a genuinely adult man or woman."
- What is domestic violence? How has society's view of domestic violence changed since 1929?
Sex education is a tough topic but Idgie broaches the subject of sex with her son in a straightforward, pragmatic, and enlightened manner. Stump, who dreads being incapacitated by his missing arm during sex, has insulted Peggy rather than face her interest in it. Stump's fears, like Evelyn's, are not unique to him: "I'll fall on her or lose my balance because of my arm and maybe I just won't know how to do it right…. I might hurt her or something…." Idgie takes her son to an easy woman, Eva, for his first time.
Evelyn, on the other hand, is incapable of dealing with her daughter's budding sexuality. On the day she purchases her daughter's diaphragm, she locks herself in her sewing room with a second pint of Baskin-Robbins chocolate ice cream, remembering that she had waited until her wedding night. "She still didn't enjoy sex."
An episode is usually a brief segment of action within a larger work that can be separated from that larger work. It is similar to a parenthetical remark. The term comes from the Greek word epeisodion, meaning "following upon the entrance." In Greek drama, an episode occurs between choric songs. While the chorus began as an ensemble of fifty or more men, by the time of Christopher Mar-lowe (Doctor Faustus, 1604) the chorus had shrunk to a single man reciting a prologue and epilogue.
In Flagg's novel, there are several choruses and a multitude of episodes narrated by a third-person omniscient narrator. The most objective chorus is composed of news clippings. The other chorus is the exchange between Evelyn and Mrs. Threadgoode, who, in proper choric fashion, comment on the characters' heroic actions. In between the choruses, the stories of the people of Whistle Stop are filled in. Only by taking all three components together can the reader understand the full drama of Whistle Stop.
Flagg, a successful comedian, utilizes humor in her writing. She does so in Fried Green Tomatoes to lighten the dark and depressing passages. Obvious examples include Idgie's stories or Sipsey's superstitions. However, comedy enables Flagg to cover very dangerous ground and successfully shows both sides of a conflict. The best example of this is the confrontation between Grady and Idgie. He tells her to stop selling to "niggers" and she confesses that she "ought to" just like Grady ought to stop cheating on his wife. This exposure of hypocrisy is possible only because it is done with a smile between two friends.
As Flagg told an interviewer: "Oh yes. I suffer from what most humorists do, a deep need to be taken seriously. And I have to grab her by the neck and shake her and say 'Oh, shut up,' just tell the story and stop preaching. But writing humor is very serious and hard. Still, I find a novel without humor is not interesting to me. Life is, after all, very funny. If I did not really believe that I would jump off a building tomorrow."
According to E. M. Forster, there are flat and round characters. The difference between them is that flat characters remain uncomplicated while round characters develop depth through the course of a novel. Flagg tells a story full of characters who are round. She is able to describe the development of an impressive array of characters in a very short span of time. For example, only two pages are required to tell the whole tale of the Adcocks and leave readers knowing their entire life. With a comedian's sense, Flagg describes Mrs. Adcock as the president of the "I'm Better Than Anyone Else Club." Unfortunately, the reader doesn't need too much more information to understand this character completely, because everyone knows someone like Mrs. Adcock.
Assisting Flagg in her narration is the running commentary provided by Mrs. Threadgoode. Mrs. Threadgoode is not an alternative narrator. Instead, she is an example of character zone, as formulated by Mikhail Bakhtin. Character zones are created by the encroachment of a character on the author's voice to the extent that she and Flagg filter each other's words. Flagg's story concerns a café, while Mrs. Threadgoode, as her husband points out, is only concerned with Idgie.
The trickster is a universal character who behaves in the same manner whether in the context of the Pacific Northwest or in Australia. The trickster has been symbolized as a Loki in Norway, a hare in Sudan, a spider, turtle, or human in Africa, and a coyote or raven in America. Sometimes a supernatural being who can become other shapes, the trickster is a cyclical hero—now creator god, now duplicitous fool, now destroyer. The trickster tale normally involves the trickster, in whatever form, on a picaresque adventure. That is, the trickster is "going along," often in the company of a companion who is either a lackey or a foil, when a cir-cumstance is encountered to which the trickster can respond with wit or stupidity. If the former, victory is achieved, but the latter brings violent death. The most famous example in the American South is Joel Chandler Harris's tales about Brer Rabbit from the mouth of a fictitious Uncle Remus.
In Flagg's novel, the journey is life and the trickster is Idgie. She tells tales, pulls pranks, and laughs. She sets Smokey Lonesome at ease with a ridiculous story and teaches Ruth's son what he needs to know through stories and example. She shape-shifts into Railroad Bill in order to redistribute some wealth. Through cunning and high alcohol tolerance, she brings an elephant to Naughty Bird. She also has the amazing talent of charming bees, or tricking them into giving her honey.
The Great Depression
Flagg's novel refers to several historical eras but primarily to the period after the café's opening, the summer of 1929. "By the way," reports Dot Weems on October 15, 1929, "is it just my imagination or are times getting harder these days?… Five new hobos showed up at the café last week…." The hard times she refers to are the result of what John Galbraith describes as a "fundamentally unsound" economy. A mere five percent of the American population receives thirty percent of all personal income. The booming economy is the result of an over-productive industrial sector. Two weeks after Dot Weems's report, the stock market crashes on "black Tuesday," October 29. Millions are thrown out of work and soups made of dandelions and catsup pass for a good meal.
In the 1930s, people clog the highways looking for work while overhead new airplanes are tested. The railroad business booms from all the travel. The Great Migration is in full swing as blacks move from the rural South to the factories of the North. Many who take to the road stay transient for a long time. Socialism becomes an acceptable ideology among the majority of people who are profoundly affected by poverty. Franklin Roosevelt is voted into office on the basis of his innovative social programs. The economy starts to hum again but it is World War II, and the boom years of Truman and Eisenhower, that brings prosperity to America and the world again.
In the 1980s, the American Civil Rights era is considered over as a backlash comes from the conservative right. Civil rights leaders are caught off-guard. White middle-class voters express their anxiety that the previous decades of change were too abrupt and elect conservative candidate Ronald Reagan. Disagreeing with the view that Reagan saved the nation, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thur-good Marshall said that in terms of equal rights for blacks, "Honestly … I think he's down there with Hoover and that group … when we really didn't have a chance."
A dark sign of the times is the rise of hate crimes throughout the decade. Neo-Nazi groups and the Ku Klux Klan gain new members after a long decline. There is a race riot in Miami and Ver-non Jordan, head of the national Urban League, is shot and wounded in 1980. Between 1985 and 1987, the year in which Fried Green Tomatoes is published, the Southern Poverty Law Center reports forty-five cases of arson and cross burnings. From 1986 to 1988, there is a rise in racially motivated incidents on campus to 163 a year. The Reverend Jesse Jackson, considered a successor to Martin Luther King Jr. by some, is a Democratic presidential candidate while David Duke, former grand wizard of the Klan, wins a seat as a Republican representative in the Louisiana legislature.
In the 1980s, the Christian fundamentalist movement challenges many of the social changes of the 1950s and 1960s. Mainline Protestantism is superseded and high-school science classes are forced, in some states, to present the biblical story of creation as an alternative to evolution. The fundamentalist movement hits a snag, however, in the mid-1980s. Televangelist Jim Bakker, head of PTL Ministries, misuses church funds to pay off his mistress, Fawn Hall. He is replaced by Jimmy Swag-gart, who later confesses to adultery and resigns. As a result of the scandals, fundamentalist churches lose nearly five billion dollars. With the fall of the Iron Curtain at the end of the 1980s, Christian broadcasting massively expands its global reach.
Critical commentary on Fried Green Tomatoes has been enduringly positive. The most typical reactions involve comment on Flagg, the comic tele-vision personality, writing serious literature. Critics also deem her portrayal of a lesbian relationship as tactful-in case anyone might fear the novel with its mainstreet cover could be steamy and lewd. There are also comparisons between her work and Garrison keillor's amusing tales.
"What, Fannie Flagg write a novel? That lady with the gorgeous body and the Southern accent who seemed for a while to live her life only on or in the television set, saying kindly, witty, but certainly not very profound or serious things?" comes the question from Carolyn See, in a review for The Los Angeles Times. See then presents a summary of Flagg's accomplishment, which she views as a deft encapsulation of the American South, the Great Depression, and John Steinbeck. Through Flagg's Mrs. Threadgoode, according to See, "this past, this Alabama, is magically spun … into vivid myth."
Carolyn Banks, in The Washington Post, describes the novel as "funny and macabre." She emphasizes the psychological plight of Evelyn Couch as, at first, a failure to perform "The Ten Steps of Happiness" and be a "Complete Woman." Banks is also impressed by Flagg's style with "the segues and the juxtapositions [that] … are sometimes amusing, sometimes touching, sometimes sad."
Compare & Contrast
- 1930s: Blacks are treated as second-class citizens. In the South, a legal regime of "separate but equal" enforces this status.
1980s: Civil Rights legislation and affirmative action have opened up opportunities to blacks and enabled legal recourse for those who suffer the effects of racism.
Today: Affirmative action has been successfully overturned in some parts of the country. Other legislation is under attack and Congress refuses to pass a federal hate-crimes statute.
- 1930s: Warren Harding keeps a mistress and illegally transfers naval oil reserves at Teapot Dome, WO, to the Department of the Interior. From there, they are leased to Harry G. Sinclair of Sinclair Oil. A Senate investigation finds that Sinclair and Edward L. Doheny had loaned large sums of money to Albert B. Fall, Secretary of the Interior. In 1927 the Supreme Court restores the oil fields to the U.S. government.
1980s: The Reagan administration illegally sells drugs and weapons to Iran, through Israel, to fund the Contras in their bid to oust the leftist government of Nicaragua.
Today: The sexual affair between President Clinton and intern Monica Lewinsky nearly results in the President's impeachment.
- 1930s: Iraq, no longer under Turkish rule, is a British mandate.
1980s: The West helps Iraq in its war against Iran.
Today: The West maintains sanctions on Iraq until it destroys its weapons of mass destruction.
- 1930s: Roosevelt creates the "welfare state" with the Social Security Act of 1935.
1980s: Republicans begin to advocate an end to the "welfare state" by disseminating a myth of welfare queens who drive Cadillacs.
Today: Welfare "as we know it" has been ended but, ironically, no funding was allocated for tracking former welfare recipients. Consequently, nobody is quite sure how successful the end of welfare is, but homeless shelter use is up.
- 1930s: Apartheid, a system of white rule, is implemented in South Africa.
1980s: The opposition group, the African National Congress, increases its military assault on the apartheid government.
Today: Apartheid has ended and Nelson Mandela is the current president.
A southerner named Jack Butler, who was prepared to dislike the novel because the title made him "flinch" from "yokel exaggeration," found that this "is a real novel and a good one" with "scores of tossed-off hilarities." In his review for The New York Times, Butler finds the characterizations to be true from the portrayal of blacks to "the unusual love affair between Idgie and Ruth, rendered with exactitude and delicacy, and with just the balance of clarity and reticence that would have made it acceptable in that time and place." However, Butler faults Flagg for a prose style that "is serviceable, often good, but sometimes baggy and careless." The mix of medium and narrative voice, however, "are on key and fetching." Finally, Butler finds that at a time in American culture when there is so much that is "merely trendy experimentalism," he must "admire a writer who can end with a genuinely productive innovation" and a great recipe for fried green tomatoes.
Gayle Kidder focuses on Flagg's anxiety over "saying some things I really believe." Kidder reveals that Flagg took a page out of Eudora Welty, "who told [Flagg] you must write what fascinates you. And I think Southern writers, like Jewish writers, have always been fascinated with themselves and their own culture." The portrayal of blacks, like the stereotypical Artis O. Peavey, causes Flagg to be self-conscious and disconcerted. Flagg is ready to defend herself but unlike the reception of Alice Walker, she has received nothing but praise from white and black reviewers alike with a, "oh, yes, I knew people like this."
At first, Orlando Ramirez thought Flagg's publishers were being too calculating with their folksy attempt to capitalize on the success of Garrison Keillor's Lake Wobegone Days, which takes advantage of "big-city boulevard brats" who "love to lap up local yokel yarns." Ramirez then finds that his "cynicism evaporated … by this surprising tale of two lesbians and their family and friends." Flagg's novel, according to Ramirez, does succumb to the "'feel-good' syndrome" but, fortunately, not to "Keillor-style irony." There is depth and intellect that is almost ruined by the "pretentiously unpretentious packaging."
Erica Bauermeister, in 500 Great Books by Women: A Reader's Guide, asserts that "this gem of a book almost could have been shelved as just another light romantic comedy." Instead, Flagg's novel is a deep story told by several female voices about being a woman. There is a great deal of wisdom here, states Bauermeister: "Fannie Flagg mixes direct and empowering confrontations with racism, sexism, and ageism with the colorful and endearing language of the depression-era South and the café's recipes for grits, collard greens, and, of course, fried green tomatoes."
Perkins is an associate professor of English at Prince George's Community College in Maryland and has published several articles on British and American authors. In the following essay, she explores the gift of storytelling and its link to friendship in Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café.
When an interviewer asked Fannie Flagg about the powerful sense of friendship that often appeared in her novels, she admitted that the theme was an important one to her. She explained, "Being an only child and losing both my parents at an early age, I have found that the friends I have made over the years are the people who help me get through life, good times and bad." In Flagg's Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café, several strong friendships form among the characters. The central relationship, between Evelyn Couch, a middle-aged housewife, and Ninny Threadgoode, an elderly nursing home resident, develops through the art of storytelling. As Ninny narrates the stories of her past, the residents of Whistle Stop, Alabama, come alive for Evelyn, and the process provides comfort and a sense of purpose for both women.
As Evelyn shares her candy with Ninny in the Rose Terrace Nursing Home, Ninny reciprocates with the gift of her stories. Ninny's tales of her hometown provide models of living for Evelyn, who, at the start of the novel, appears crippled by a feeling of uselessness and an inability to take control of her life. The stories that have the most impact on her are the ones centered on Ninny's sister-in-law, Idgie Threadgoode, and Idgie's interactions with others. Evelyn's visualization of these episodes helps her face and eventually overcome the serious obstacles that have impeded her search for a sense of self.
When Evelyn and Ninny begin their relationship, Evelyn is a lonely, lost woman who has turned to food for comfort. Her husband and her grown children have become indifferent toward her, and she experiences a growing sense of hopelessness. She feels cut off not only from her family but from her time period as well. "She had been a good girl, had always acted like a lady" but now "movie stars were having children out of wedlock" and "the best people were waltzing into the Betty Ford Center" getting help for their addictions. As a result, she decides she got "lost along the way…. The world had become a different place, a place she didn't know at all." She admits that "the quiet hysteria and awful despair had started when she finally began to realize that nothing was ever going to change, that nobody would be coming for her to take her away." When she begins to feel "as if she were at the bottom of a well, screaming, [with] no one to hear," she contemplates suicide as a way out. Ninny's stories, however, soon begin to pull her out of the well of her despair.
One way Ninny's stories accomplish this is through her descriptions of Idgie, who "used to do all kinds of crazy harebrained things just to get you to laugh." Idgie's pranks also make Evelyn laugh. Ninny tells her about how Idgie one day put poker chips in the church's collection basket. Once in April, the menu in the café offered fillet of possom, prime rib of polecat, goat's liver and onions, bullfrog pudding, and turkey buzzard pie a la mode. "An unsuspecting couple, who had come all the way from Gate City for dinner, read the menu and were halfway down the block when Idgie opened the door and yelled April Fool's at them." Idgie's tall tales included stories about the time she found a ten-dollar bill in one of her hen's eggs, and how a flock of ducks got frozen in a nearby lake and "flew off and took the lake with 'em." She used her best tale to help prove her point that "money will kill you." Idgie explained to Ninny that "a man … told me about his uncle, who had a good-paying job working up in Kentucky at the national mint, making money for the government, and everything was going fine until one day he pulled the wrong lever and was crushed to death by seven hundred pounds of dimes." At least she thought it was dimes; it could have been quarters. Ninny's humorous stories of Idgie's pranks and tall tales help to alleviate Evelyn's suffering.
Most of Ninny's memories about Idgie, however, fall into a problem/solution format. They begin with a serious predicament faced by one of Idgie's family or friends and end with Idgie engineering an effective solution through her strength of character and her genuine concern for others. Idgie showed her strength when she confronted Frank with his abusive treatment of Ruth and ultimately removed her from harm when she brought her back to Whistle Stop. She also stood her ground and risked her own safety when she continued to allow blacks to eat at her restaurant after the Ku Klux Klan threatened her. According to Idgie, "nobody was gonna tell her what she could and could not do." Ninny explains, "As good natured as she was, Idgie turned out to be brave when push came to shove."
Idgie's influence on Evelyn becomes apparent as she thinks about her run-in one day with a teenaged boy in a supermarket. At that point Evelyn had lost some weight and had started to feel "in complete control of her life." However when the boy's abusive and insulting invectives make her feel "old and fat and worthless all over again," she concludes, "I wish Idgie had been with me. She would not have let that boy call her names. I'll bet she would have knocked him down." As a result, Evelyn becomes angry, "a feeling that she had never felt before." She unleashes this emotion through an imaginary self she calls "Towanda the Avenger," who in her fantasies fights the injustices of the world. Yet when Evelyn starts to have visions of attacking her husband, Ed, she recognizes that Towanda is threatening to "take over her life." 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."
What Do I Read Next?
- Flagg's latest novel, Welcome to the World Baby Girl! (1998), is a long way from Whistle Stop. The novel tells the story of Dena Norstrom who makes it big in New York. On the way, Dena achieves an ulcer, a psychologist, and ethics.
- Flagg's first novel was reissued as Daisy Fay and the Miracle Man in 1992. The novel tells about the misadventures of twelve-year-old Daisy Fay in the Mississippi Gulf Coast region of the 1950s.
- The Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Bastard Out of Carolina, by Dorothy Allison, tells the tale of another Southern family with experiences very different from the Threadgoodes. The story centers on the coming of age of Ruth "Bone" Boatwright.
- Published in 1982, and winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1983, Alice Walker's The Color Purple tells the story of an abused woman who finally becomes self-empowered. This feminist novel is praised for its character depth and depiction of black vernacular.
- The 1985 novel by radio comedian Garrison Keillor tells the complete story of that special Norwegian utopia. Lake Wobegone Days mythologizes Minnesota in a quaint, and ironic, manner. Keillor's audio recording of the novel won a Grammy Award.
- The most famous novel by one of the best contemporary black authors is The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman by Ernest Gaines. Published in 1971, the novel is purportedly the story of a 110-year-old woman. Her story begins with the reading of the Emancipation Proclamation and ends in the 1960s. Gaines, like Flagg, spent many hours interviewing old-timers for this novel.
Eventually, though, Ninny's stories of Idgie's compassion, along with the peace Evelyn experiences during a church service, enable Evelyn to temper her righteous indignation and to forgive others and herself for her perceived shortcomings. Ninny recalls how Idgie solved problems by offering her time and support, as when she provided a homeless Smokey Phillips with a place to live and engineered an early release from jail for Big George's son Artis. When Naughty Bird, Big George's youngest child, was once ill with pneumonia, Idgie won the right in an all-night poker game with a trainer to walk his elephant over from a nearby park to lift Naughty Bird's spirits. Igdie also helped Ruth raise her son, Buddy Jr. After Buddy lost his arm in a train accident, Idgie en-couraged him to find activities, like sports, he could master. When he became frustrated with his disability, she helped him gain the confidence he lacked. Finally, she risked a prison sentence for murder when she refused to reveal Sipsey's and Big George's involvement in Frank's death.
The giving of food also figures prominently in Ninny's stories about Idgie. During the Depression, Idgie saved lives by giving food from her café to blacks and homeless men. Disguised as the infamous bandit Railroad Bill, she would sneak onto government supply trains at night and throw food and coal onto the ground where people could find them the next day. Her efforts saved half of the poor population of Whistle Stop from freezing and starvation. One November, the local paper reported that when Railroad Bill threw seventeen hams off of the train, "our friends in Troutville had a wonderful Thanksgiving."
Inspired by Ninny's sharing of her stories, Evelyn also gives the gift of food. "Food had become the only thing she looked forward to, and candy, cakes, and pies were the only sweetness in her life." At the beginning of every visit to the nursing home, Evelyn shares that sweetness with her friend Ninny, who is comforted by the food she brings. Sometimes Evelyn brings special meals, prepared like the ones Ninny used to enjoy at the café. Before she leaves for the "fat farm," Evelyn gives money to Ninny's aide at the nursing home to guarantee that her friend "got what ever she wanted to eat and anything else she wanted." Evelyn also supports Ninny by the act of listening. Ninny admits to Evelyn "that's what I'm living on now, honey, dreams, dreams of what I used to do." Ninny's reminiscences of the past and Evelyn's rapt attention to her stories provide Ninny with a sense of satisfaction.
Ninny's friendship and support help Evelyn develop a new faith in herself. Evelyn admits, "After all these months of being with Mrs. Threadgoode each week, things had begun to change. Ninny Threadgoode made her feel young. She began to see herself as a woman with half her life still ahead of her." Her newfound confidence allows her to lose weight, to begin a successful career, and to become closer to her family. When she discovers that Ninny died while she was away, Evelyn misses her terribly, but realizes "because of knowing Mrs. Threadgoode, she was not as scared of getting old or dying as she had once been, and death did not seem all that far away. Even today, it was as if Mrs. Threadgoode was just standing behind a door." All the residents of Whistle Stop also stand behind a door, ready to comfort Evelyn and to help her retain the confidence she needs to enjoy her new life. Ninny's storytelling had been her greatest gift to her friend.
Source: Wendy Perkins, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 1999.
Angeline Godwin Dvorak
In the following excerpt, Dvorak examines the importance of cooking and serving food as a form of nurturing in Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café.
The table spread with culinary delights easily triggers images of home, hearth and familial companionship. In southern culture, especially, food is nothing less than the social base of most interchanges of human experience and activity. The concept of "southern hospitality" has remained long after the demise of the antebellum era that birthed it. This graciousness surely began as much from logistics as generosity, for plantation and even tenant-farming neighbors, separated by hundreds of acres and miles of dirt roads, gathered at each other's homes for a gala "get together" that ultimately centered around food. Each plantation and homestead boasted its own specialties and secret recipes, which can still be enjoyed in eating establishments across the South. Barbecue, for example, was and certainly is a southern favorite. The role of cooking in southern culture, however, is even more relevant to everyday life in a common kitchen, shared by ordinary people, usually women, often mothers, frequently nurturers, but always southern cooks. It is what preparing food and feeding people mean to a southerner, especially "the cook," that makes "cookin' and eatin'" in the South an "in-culture" experience.
Southern fiction intimately captures the significance of cooking in a culture richly laced with a sense of community and Christian duty as well as a host of social facades and hypocritical masques. For the traditional, middle-class southern mother-woman, preparing food for the nourishment and enjoyment of other people plays a major role in her life. The act of cooking for and feeding someone—be it family, friend or total stranger—goes far beyond physical nurturance. Cooking is not simply a task or a chore; it is a mission that fulfills a sense of belonging as one earns a reputation for being, at least, a caretaker for her family, and at best, a very good cook. It is also a ministry that nurtures people's emotional and spiritual needs as much as their physical ones. Hunger of the soul and spirit drives the force behind the spoon and the skillet with the same intensity as a growling stomach. In southern culture, cooking can be an extension and sometimes a substitution for maternal nurturance, and even a token for martyrdom. Cooking serves the southern cook, likewise, as evidence of self-esteem and social status, moral soundness and spiritual faith, human compassion and community conscience.
Two contemporary southern writers, Clyde Edgerton in Walking Across Egypt and Fannie Flagg in Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café, feature characters for whom cooking food and feeding people form the central core of their everyday lives and the culture. Intimate communication and personal bonding accompany the physical as well as emotional and spiritual nurturance of a meal prepared, served and consumed. Ruth and Idgie Threadgoode, proprietors of the Whistle Stop Café, Whistle Stop, Alabama, and Mattie Rigsbee of Listre, North Carolina, dramatize the words heard by almost any troubled, lonely, injured or estranged person who happens to stumble into a southern home—"let me fix you somethin' to eat; it will make you feel better." Whether facing abandonment, marital infidelity, a bout with arthritis, a lost loved one or a spat with the preacher, that "somethin'" becomes the solstice, the balm. That "somethin'" also becomes the impetus of doing something for someone in a situation that makes everyone involved feel helpless, insecure or inadequate….
Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café is a novel of many stories, set in places from Whistle Stop, Alabama, to Chicago, Illinois, intricately woven into years from 1917 to 1988, told through many voices, including that of an eighty-six-year-old nursing home resident who links the past and present and that of the editor of The Weems Weekly, the Whistle Stop weekly newsletter. Characters, connected by time and place, migrate in, and sometimes out, of each other's lives; their individual stories become part of another's and so the links are formed. Mrs. Cleo Threadgoode, "Ninny," reaching into the past which seems much more real and more immediate than the present day, resurrects her family and friends of Whistle Stop. As she pieces together the lives of her husband's family, for she has none of her own, and those around them, these figures from the past become as approachable to the reader as Ninny herself.
One of the strongest narrative streams of the novel recaptures the devotion and love between two women, Idgie (Ninnie's sister-in-law) and Ruth. Idgie, an aggressive but truly brave individual, denounces femininity but retains a powerful, nurturing maternity. After Ruth's marriage to an abusive man, it is Idgie who saves her and makes a secure life—at the Whistle Stop café—where they can raise Ruth's son.
For the women of Flagg's novel, cooking is the focal point of much of their daily lives. For Ruth and Idgie, as well as the restaurant's cooks Sipsey and Onzell, cooking fundamentally serves them as a means to support themselves and thus to secure their independence. The café is a simple extension of the home where the "kitchen is the hub of social intercourse." Whether selling food or giving it away to the neighboring blacks and boxcar hobos from the back door of the Whistle Stop, both Idgie and Ruth carry on their own isolated yet fervent efforts to combat the injustices of the South in the days before the civil rights movement and after the Depression.
For Idgie, preparing food for her "front door" customers is only the superficial function of the restaurant, not her mission or ministry. A rebellious creature, she has spent most of her life grooming a relentless determination to live out her convictions. As a child of ten or eleven, Idgie simply stood up at the dinner table "and announced, just as loud … 'I'm never gonna wear another dress as long as I live!' And with that … she marched upstairs and put on a pair of Buddy's old pants and a shirt." Years later, she poses as Railroad Bill, thought to be a Negro man, who throws food off the government supply trains for the area's poor people, mostly blacks and hobos.
Ruth and Idgie share with less fortunates, even in economically strained years. With the Ku Klux Klan members paying visits, usually addressing themselves to the frank-talking, brassy Idgie, not the gentle, soft-spoken Ruth, the backdoor business of the cafe undergoes some modifications: "After that day, the only thing that changed was on the menu that hung on the back door; everything was a nickel or a dime cheaper." That humble discount seems more substantial when weighed against the menu prices on the grand opening on 12 June 1929, when for breakfast a customer could get "eggs, grits, biscuits, bacon, sausage, ham and red-eye gravy, and coffee for 25¢ … For lunch and supper you can have: fried chicken; pork chops and gravy; catfish; chicken and dumplings; or a barbecue plate; and your choice of three vegetables, biscuits or cornbread, and your drink and dessert—for 35¢."
Not only do Ruth and Idgie pursue their mission of cooking for people, but so does Sipsey, whose cooking talents brought the local consensus that "there wasn't a better cook in the state of Alabama." Sipsey, in turn, "taught Idgie and Ruth everything they knew about cooking." She makes a living working at the Whistle Stop Café, but more importantly, she spends her entire life nurturing and protecting the same people that she cooks for, including an orphan baby boy that she raises as her son. Sipsey works diligently in the café to feed people but also to support Ruth and Idgie. Sharing Sipsey's loyalty, Onzell nurses Ruth on her deathbed, accepting no one's help or allowing no interference of "Miz" Ruth's care. These four women, over many years and many hot stoves, make a life to sustain themselves as well as nurture other people. Moreover, no color distinctions interrupt or cloud their relationships.
As the novel shifts from the primary narrator, Ninny Threadgoode, to her stories, an intense relationship between two women of different generations unfolds. During her stay at Rose Terrace Nursing Home, Ninny develops a friendship with the middle-aged Evelyn Couch. Food surfaces again and again as a bonding element in their relationship. Evelyn is starving for understanding of herself and meaning in life. Ninny is hungry for home life—"I miss the smell of coffee … and bacon frying in the morning"—and for human companionship. Unhappy with herself as much as with anyone else, Evelyn eats and eats and eats. Ninny talks and talks and talks, comforting Evelyn with "Well, honey, a candy bar's not gonna hurt you." She waits patiently for her surrogate daughter's visit to the nursing home. Evelyn, who dreaded the trips to Rose Terrace before she meets Mrs. Threadgoode and hears her stories, eagerly anticipates returning to the company and the comfort of the old woman.
On Evelyn's last visit before Ninny's death—just prior to leaving for a California "fat farm"—Evelyn prepares Ninny a special lunch:
When Mrs. Threadgoode saw what she had on her plate, she clapped her hands, as excited as a child on Christmas. There before her was a plate of perfectly fried green tomatoes and fresh cream-white corn, six slices of bacon, with a bowl of baby lima beans on the side, and four huge light and fluffy buttermilk biscuits.
So long the recipient of Ninny's patient and consistent attention, Evelyn is finally capable of nurturing Ninny, whose physical needs at the age of eighty-seven are the most immediate. Ninny leaves Evelyn Sipsey's recipes (which Flagg gives as an addendum to the novel), but in recalling the past, she gives Evelyn a recipe for salvaging her life, for nourishing herself.
When the woman in the kitchen only cooks the food and puts it on the table, nurturing does not exist. The literal act of frying chicken and cornbread, creaming potatoes, boiling field peas and butter-beans and baking biscuits does not constitute true southern cooking. The preparation alone is not enough; completing the task of cooking is, in fact, the least significant aspect of its role in southern culture. Rather, what is crucial is the social and emotional intercourse between the preparer and the partaker of the food….
But why is cooking so intimate to southerners and so ostentatious in southern culture? Is it a pa-triarchally imposed, gender-designated task that southern women have embraced for a sense of purpose, willfully or subconsciously or reluctantly? Or perhaps the "nurturing values provide a counterpoint to patriarchal values"? Or is it, at least for some, a readily available occasion for martyrdom?
Although the "cooks" in the three novels explored here do not set themselves up as martyrs, martyrs they could easily be. They each deal with situations and problems with a means available to them—cooking. The ability to reconcile the circumstances and the possible (and even practical) responses and reactions to them functions to confirm the ingrained determination to "do the best you can." As Bettina Aptheker notes, "[W]e see that many of our mothers [and other maternal figures] sacrificed, worked hard, nurtured, did the best they could to 'make do,' to improve the quality of our daily lives." As Dilsey, in Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury, tries to cater to the Compson family with Caroline screaming, Benjy whining and Mrs. Compson complaining, she remains the "vital presence." Dilsey alone is the "keeper of the peace, the protector and constant nourisher." Faulkner captures her ultimate role as the endurer.
The cooks in Walking Across Egypt, Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café and Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant all endure…. Although Ruth dies in Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café, she remains alive to those who love her, especially Idgie, her son Stump and the hobo, Smokey Lonesome. Idgie is surely the unnamed keeper of a roadside stand on Highway 90 in Marianna, Florida, an old woman with "snow-white hair and brown weatherbeaten skin" who sustains the same sharp wit, love of fun and open generosity that she did as the owner of the Whistle Stop Café…. Their missions and ministries prevail….
A fear that someone may come to their house hungry drives all of these women always to "have somethin' fixed." Like Mattie, who keeps a running menu of what she can prepare in a moment's notice, they overcook and save and plan. The far-reaching scope of a problematic situation or a troublesome circumstance can be immediately addressed over "a bite to eat," which promises to soothe and heal even though it cannot cure or solve anything. Sometimes, they feel compelled to justify their value in the home and community, just as Sister, in Eudora Welty's "Why I Live at the P.O." "humbly" acknowledges her fate, standing "over the hot stove, trying to stretch two chickens over five people and a completely unexpected child into the bargain, without one moment's notice." Southerners cook for themselves as they prepare food for others; the nurturance is simultaneous, just as filling, just as satisfying, just as essential.
Source: Angeline Godwin Dvorak, "Cooking as Mission and Ministry in Southern Culture," in Southern Quarterly, Vol. 30, Nos. 2-3, Winter-Spring, 1992, pp. 90-98.
Carolyn Banks, "Down-Home News & Blues," in The Washington Post, October 5, 1987, p. B10.
Erica Bauermeister, Jesse Larson, and Holly Smith, in 500 Great Books by Women: A Reader's Guide, Penguin USA, 1995.
Jack Butler, "Love with Reticence and Recipes," in The New York Times, October 18, 1987, p. 14.
Gayle Kidder, "Flagg Writes about Real South," in The San Diego Union-Tribune, November 12, 1987, p. C-1.
Orlando Ramirez, "Flagg Displays Depth, Intellect in Café," in The San Diego Union-Tribune, January 15, 1988, p. C-3.
Carolyn See, "Book Review; Fannie Flagg Offers Tale Full of Nostalgia," in The Los Angeles Times, September 28, 1987, p. 4.
Samuel S. Vaughan, in A Conversation with Fannie Flagg, Ballantine Reader's Circle, 1998, http://www.random-house.com/BB/readerscircle/flagg/excerptguide.html.
Bruce Bibby, in Premiere, February 1992, pp. 33-4.
In this interview Flagg discusses the female characters in her book.
Rosellen Brown, "Why Audiences Hunger for 'Fried Green Tomatoes,'" New York Times Current Events Edition, April 19, 1992, p. 2.
This article explores the theme of friendship in the novel, praising its depiction of "real women who band together in an unspoken conspiracy of affection."
Jack Butler, in the New York Times Book Review, August 20, 1992, p. 14.
Butler praises Flagg's sensitive portrayal of the love affair between Idgie and Ruth and her accurate depiction of small-town life during the Depression.
Fannie Flagg, Fannie Flagg's Original Whistle Stop Café Cookbook, Fawcett, 1993.
Flagg has issued a complete cookbook of southern café recipes.
Renee Hartman, a review of Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café, in Belles Lettres, Vol. 4, No. 1, Fall, 1988, p. 6.
Hartman focuses on the novel's realism, praising this "chronicle of life in a small town."
R. Kent Rasmussen and Kent Rasmussen, Farewell to Jim Crow: The Rise and Fall of Segregation in America (Library of African-American History), Facts on File, Inc., 1997.
This work examines segregation from its beginnings in colonial Virginia through passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964. Emphasis is placed on the struggle of African-Americans for equality before the law.
Sybil Steinberg, a review of Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café, in Publishers Weekly, August 28, 1987, pp. 64-5.
Steinberg finds "the book's best character [to be] the town of Whistle Stop itself."
Diane Young, a review of Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café, in Southern Living, January, 1995, p. 78.
Young's positive review finds this "folksy tale" to be written with "heart, humor and insight."