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Fried Green Tomatoes: A Taste of Old New Orleans

After returning to New Orleans from nine months of post-Katrina exile in Baltimore, I bit into some fried green tomatoes, and life in this post-apocalyptic city seemed a bit sweeter, a bit less topsy-turvy, and a bit more carefree.

Proust sure had it right: Tasting a familiar food can trigger instant memories of simpler, happier times.

There is a simple reason why fried green tomatoes are such a particularly Southern delicacy: supply.

Green tomatoes are just regular tomatoes picked before they turn red, and have a more piquant flavor than their ripe brethren. Tomatoes grow in such abundance in the South's lush growing season that green, unripe ones need to be picked throughout the summer to prevent the branches from collapsing under their weight.

In contrast, unripe tomatoes are picked in the North only at the very end of the season, when it is clear that they will not ripen before the first frost.

Among the culinary set, many consider JoAnn Clevenger, owner of the contemporary Creole Upperline Restaurant in New Orleans, to be the Green Tomato Queen. It's a title she wears proudly.

Growing up on a small tenant farm in central Louisiana, Clevenger learned to savor down-home cooking. Tomatoes, whether ripe or unripe, were a staple. Her family always ate fried green tomatoes with pork, the acidity of the tomatoes being a perfect foil to the fat-laden meat.

A few years after she opened her restaurant, and inspired by the 1991 movie of the same name, Clevenger added fried green tomatoes to Upperline's menu.

She wanted to give fried green tomatoes the perfect contemporary Creole accent. After much thought, she married the tomatoes and shrimp remoulade -- the classic, spicy New Orleans sauce, swimming with shrimp. Her creation -- this pairing of hot (tomatoes) and cold (remoulade), of traditional Southern cooking and exotic New Orleans spiciness -- now is found in restaurants across the country.

Because of fried green tomatoes' versatility, Clevenger and her chef Ken Smith continue to create new ways to serve them.

So far, they've come up with using fried green tomatoes in place of fried eggplant in a variation of eggplant parmesan, instead of an English muffin in a nouveau eggs Benedict, and drizzled with red tomato salsa as an all-tomato appetizer.

Clevenger has revamped another New Orleans classic by making fried green tomato po'boys (the city's version of sub sandwiches). She slices French bread in half, scoops out the bread to make room for the fried green tomatoes, and adds dollops of shrimp remoulade on top. Then she reassembles the po'boy, cuts it into two-inch sections and skewers each with a toothpick.

Like many great cooks whose food-preparation knowledge is instinctive, Clevenger is a bit inexact on how to choose and prepare green tomatoes for frying. Here is her advice: They should neither be too hard, like an apple, nor too soft, like a ripe tomato. They should be green all the way through, though a tinge of pink on the inside is OK. They should stand up well either to deep frying or pan sauteing. Slices should be neither too thick nor too thin; half-inch slices are good for most uses.

Whether you are a storm-tossed Gulf Coast resident or just someone who savors home cooking spiced with contemporary sass, any one of these permutations of fried green tomatoes should cure whatever ails you.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Gail Naron Chalew
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