Author: Fannie Flagg
Publisher: Random House, 1987
I just finished re-reading Fannie Flagg’s Fried Green Tomatoes At The Whistle Stop Cafe and, believe it or not, I loved it just as much as the first time I read it over twenty years ago. The storyteller is Ninny Threadgoode who is currently living in a nursing home in Birmingham, Alabama. It’s 1985 when Ninny is telling the story to Evelyn, a nursing home visitor, but she is talking about events that started in 1929 and moves on into the 1930s.
Ninny Threadgoode is the kind of storyteller the “South” is famous for. I have to say I’ve met a good number of women just like Ninny and they weren’t all from the South. These are woman from that era whose whole life centered around home, their families, and the people in their communities. They knew everyone, knew everything about them, and felt it was their duty to tell what they knew. They also had opinions about these people. The stories aren’t told in a mean-spirited way. They were simply told as a recitation of the facts (and opinions) that made for a great story the storyteller is convinced you want to hear.
The story Ninny recites is that of the events in a very small village in Alabama—Whistle Stop. Nearly everyone in Whistle Stop is mentioned at some point in the story, but the main characters are Idgie and Ruth, the two women who run the Whistle Stop Cafe. They play different roles in running the cafe, but Idgie tends to be the leader. She’s very generous and sensitive. The many hoboes roaming the country know Idgie will give them a meal in exchange for performing a simple job. The story is filled with all sorts of interesting things, including a murder.
I re-read this book as part of The Kitchen Reader Book Club’s selection for March. Because of that I paid a lot of attention to the “food talk” in the story. Food is mentioned often in this book. It’s an integral part of the culture in Whistle Stop and most definitely in the cafe. Because my mother was born in 1920, she learned to cook many of these meager foods that were available. The meals mentioned in Whistle Stop were very similar to the foods I ate as a child in the 1940s.
A lovely bonus at the end of Fried Green Tomatoes At The Whistle Stop Cafe is a chapter devoted to the favorite recipes for food cooked at the Whistle Stop Cafe. It’s a nice selection from buttermilk biscuits to southern fried chicken to fried green tomtoes and more.
One of the recipes I’d like to focus on is gravy – specifically Milk Gravy. It’s a simple, multi-purpose recipe that, once you’ve mastered it, will allow you to do so many variations. In the 20s and 30s this was called Milk Gravy. Somewhere in the 1950s it changed to White Sauce. If you google White Sauce today you’ll be taken to Bechamel sauce. A few years ago Bechamel sauce was very popular and various writers were calling it “somewhat difficult.” Trust me, this is not difficult. I learned to make it somewhere around age 10 or 11. It’s difficulty is highly exaggerated. Let me explain how it’s made.
Milk Gravy/White Sauce/Bechamel Sauce
Gather these ingredients:
- 2 to 3 tablespoons of fat (bacon grease or butter)
- 2 to 3 tablespoons of flour
- salt and pepper to taste
- 1 cup of warm milk
In a saucepan melt the fat. Add the flour. Use a whisk to mix this together. Whisk continuously as it smooths out and begins bubbling. (This is called a roux.) Take your cup of warm milk and very slowly add it to the roux while at the same time you are still whisking. Keep whisking the roux and milk until all the milk is absorbed. Then continue to whisk while the whole gravy/sauce thickens. Two tablespoons of fat and flour makes a thin sauce. I usually use three tablespoons.
Back in the 60s when my husband was drafted into the army he was sent to cook’s school. One of the first things he was taught was white sauce. They made huge quantities and added cooked hamburger to it and called it SOS. (Old-time army guys will know what that is.) My mom made this sauce, added in cut-up whites of hard-cooked eggs, poured it over toast and sprinkled the crumbled egg yolks over the top. (See Eggs Golden Rod) There are dozens of ways to use this gravy/sauce. Just let your imagination go.
If you’d like to join in and read or re-read Fried Green Tomatoes At The Whistle Stop Cafe, I hope you will. It’s not too late. Join us at The Kitchen Reader Book Club. Click the title for more information.
I’m also linking to Weekend Cooking at Beth Fish Reads.