Review: Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café by Fannie Flagg

Fried Green Tomatoes Book Cover Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café [1987] – ★★★★

I may be sitting here at the Rose Terrace Nursing Home, but in my mind I’m over at the Whistle Stop Café having a plate of fried green tomatoes“, Mrs. Cleo Threadgoode, June 1986 (preface quote to Flagg’s Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café).

This book is about two women – Evelyn Couch, a middle-aged housewife, and Ninny Threadgoode, an elderly woman in a nursing home, – meeting in 1985, and Ms Threadgoode starts to tell Evelyn about her youth spent in Whistle Stop, Alabama during the Depression era. Evelyn goes back in her mind to that time when Ms Threadgoode’s wild, free-spirited sister-in-law Idgie and her beautiful, soft-spoken friend Ruth ran a café in Whistle Stop, discovering the hardship they went through and the happiness they found. Mrs Threadgoode also hints at a murder mystery which got everyone talking in the 1930s in Whistle Stop. Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe is a “feel-good” book at the centre of which is a powerful story of two women whose friendship and love enabled them to overcome obstacles in their way. Originally presented, paying special attention to the connecting power of food and cooking, the book also touches on such themes as racism, aging, marital violence, and finding hope in difficult times.

The book opens with some Whistle Stop newspaper bulletin news (of June 12, 1929) about a new café opening in Whistle Stop, run by Idgie Threadgoode and Ruth Jamison. For breakfast there one may have: “eggs, grits, biscuits, bacon, sausage, ham and red-eye gravy, and coffee” [Flagg, 1987: 3]. For lunch and supper, the following options are available: “fried chicken; pork chops and gravy; catfish; chicken and dumplings; or a barbecue plate” [Flagg, 1987: 3-4]. The vegetables available at the café are: “creamed corn, fried green tomatoes, fried okra…black-eyes peas…and lima beans” [Flagg, 1987: 4]. From this, we are transported to the year 1985 to the Rose Terrance Nursing Home, where Evelyn Couch, a self-conscious and depressed housewife, meets an upbeat and optimistic nursing home resident Ninny Threadgoode. Mrs Threadgoode begins to tell Evelyn a story of changing times whose colourful characters are unlike anyone Evelyn ever read in books before. We are introduced to wild Idgie who befriends soon-to-be-married Ruth, and their friendship almost revolutionises the ways of Whistle Stop when they open a homely café welcoming everyone there irrespective of their colour, societal standing or financial circumstances. The story is one of those “feel-good” ones which later became great films, akin to Forrest Gump, written in 1986 by Winston Groom. There is some heart-break and trauma in the book, but there is also plenty of happiness and humour too, just like in real life.

Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe is a book that presents its story in a curious way: there are news bulletins written by Dot Weems that gives us the overview of weekly happenings in Whistle Stop, from local shop news to weather alerts and crime reports. The storyline jumps back and forth from the 1930s (the story of Idgie and Ruth) to the year 1985 (the present story of Evelyn and Ms Threadgoode). In that way, the novel is episodic in nature, but, somehow, it feels even more real that way, and, as the old lady in the nursing home reminisces, we are also transported to the times of the Great Depression and then the War, getting the feel of the place that was Whistle Stop, Alabama. Ms Threadgoode says to Evelyn :It’s a good thing that I love trains, because Whistle Stop wasn’t never nothing more than a railroad town, and Troutville was just a bunch of shacks, with one church, the Mount Zion Primitive Baptist Church…” [Flagg, 1987: 102]. When Idgie and Ruth open a café in their small town, the message is all about food bringing people together irrespective of their differences (there are even cooking recipes at the end of the book), and, from then on, the story is one of touching friendship and love that give rise to hope and the will to fight for a better life.

Flagg’s book is sometimes too “sweet” for my taste, and the plot does run out of steam in the second half of the book, but there are still things to look forward to, including the solving of a murder mystery. Evelyn Crouch also grows as a character throughout the novel. If at first Evelyn is described as a depressed woman who views herself “too young to be old and too old to be young” [Flagg, 1987: 15], her relationship with her new friend Ninny Threadgoode changes Evelyn for the better, especially when Mrs Threadgoode gives her such pieces of advice: “But He only gives you what you can handle and no more…You can’t dwell on sadness, oh, it’ll make you sick faster than anything else in this world” [Flagg, 1987: 69].

Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe is a heart-warming, bitter-sweet novel with important life lessons inside. It is possible that the book is a bit too sentimental and preachy, but it is also warmly nostalgic with humorous and adventurous elements. Fannie Flagg’s story makes a point not to forget the kindness of others, as well as all those people who lived during the Depression era in small American towns who tried their best to make theirs and other people’s lives a little better and happier.

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