Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe by Fannie Flagg

Every weekend, Evelyn Couch and her husband go to visit his mother in the nursing home; Evelyn and Mrs. Couch dislike one another, so Evelyn is almost relieved one day when she falls into the clasp of an eager storyteller, lonely for an audience. Ninny Threadgoode, having outlived all those who knew her to visit her now, is glad to have someone to chat with, and the two women grow closer over the next few months. Ninny (short for Virginia) tells Evelyn stories of the town of Whistle Stop, Georgia, where she grew up with the Threadgoode family after they took her in1, and Evelyn brings in food for Ninny, at first only store-bought sweets but as the relationship and her own self-confidence strengthen, she moves on to home-made barbecue and at last the eponymous ‘fried green tomatoes’.

Ninny’s tales of “then” center on the town of Whistle Stop, Alabama, and the Threadgoode family which took her in when young and needing a home, and more specifically their wayward daughter, Idgie. Idgie was always tempestuous and wild, but after her beloved brother, Buddy, was killed by a train, she (forgive the pun) went completely off the rails. It wasn’t until the demurely lady-like church school teacher Ruth came to town for the summer that Idgie proved willing to return to a more domesticated life. Despite Idgie’s pleading, Ruth fled home to her home and fiance as she wanted only to be ‘normal’. In the end, the husband proves no better than an abuser, and upon Ruth’s mother’s death, Ruth herself determines to flee if her friends in Whistle Stop will help her…and they do.

I’ll stop here, just in case anyone hasn’t read the book yet; I will add that both the “then” and the “now” stories have bittersweet middles and ends…and add that the “now” endings in the book and the movie diverge considerably.

Having slept on it, I confess that I now rather appreciate the fact that Flagg never says, in as many words, that Idgie and Ruth are a lesbian couple, though the relationship is quite clear to anyone capable of reading between the lines. When I first read the book, I was more than slightly disappointed: Idgie is described merely as “an irrepressible tomboy”, and Ruth the demurely docile, obediently religious girl who flees this person so desperately and wholeheartedly in love with her because she cannot face the fact that she reciprocates that love. I’d guess that’s due to a couple of issues. Not least, I’d bet that when Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe was written, it wasn’t quite so acceptable to come out (figuratively speaking) in mainstream literature. Secondly, I’d ask readers to consider the audience that I think Flagg was aiming at: the chick-lit readers. This is no edgy Rita Mae Brown novel or Florence King memoir; I doubt it was a cutting-edge sexual orientation novel at the time, and it’s less so now.

I don’t think that’s really the point of the book, however; I’d say rather that the novel is about love and acceptance, overcoming prejudice and recognizing one another as worthy of love. Idgie’s father gives her seed money to start a restaurant when Ruth returns and proves to be pregnant, so that she may help support her growing family. No recrimination. No analysis. No cross-examination. This is a comfort read (at least if you’re a white female of the late twentieth century.)

Not surprisingly, given the book’s setting, place and time, racial relations are a part of the book, though I’d suggest that this is more for the melanin-challenged potential readers than otherwise. The KKK makes an appearance, when Idgie attracts attention for feeding African-americans out the back door of the restaurant. (No mention that she also feeds the hoboes.)

The structure of the novel is a bit skittery, alternating between Evelyn’s ‘now’ and Ninny’s ‘then’ fairly evenly, but the ‘then’ components jump around a bit. Readers do need to keep an at least moderately sharp eye on the times of the past anecdotes, though Flagg has them fairly clearly labeled.

What to read next? If you didn’t care for the race issues in Flagg’s book, but did like the relationships between women, try The Color Purple. If you liked the general tone and setting of Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, but don’t want anything terribly avant-garde, try Cold Sassy Tree, as they were written and popular about the same time as Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, and touch on some of the same themes. Just brace yourself if you’ve seen the movie versions of Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe or The Color Purple; the books are considerably different from the movies (and vice versa, of course). The Lemon Jelly Cake might be another option; though the writing style’s changed a bit in the decades intervening between the books, the two strike me as similar.

1Ninny married one of the Threadgoode boys later; she was not formally adopted, just as Ruth was not

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The Squire’s Tale by Gerald Morris

Terence, an orphan being raised by the hermit Trevisant, is out working his snare lines one day, when he comes across a man with three large horses (two of which are pack horses), a suit of armor, a sword and lance…and one of the rabbits from Terence’s trapline. All day Terence has been beset by mysterious tricks–a branch that slithers away like a snake, a squirrel that sings like a nightingale and everywhere a snickering little green man who pops up and vanishes away like a will-o-the-wisp. He is disinclined to be polite when he realizes the source of the large red-headed man’s rabbit dinner, but reluctantly invites him home to Trevisant’s hut for supper.

Like T.H. White’s Merlin in The Sword in the Stone, Trevisant sees time backwards, remembering the future and awaiting the past–and he has already packed Terence’s possessions, expecting him to ride away with this strange man to be his squire. Even when informed that this is Gawain, heading off to Camelot, Terence is dubious until Trevisant reassures him that it will prove both profitable and educational, and besides, is meant to be; he should know, as his past is Terence’s future.

The pair’s introduction at court is cut short at first by bagatelles such as the advent of the Army of Five Kings, who wish to take issue with this upstart bastard son of Uther, and Arthur’s marriage to Guenevere. The Five Kings’ conceit is ended by Terence’s theft of their Ring of Kingship–only he who holds this ring may rightly rule England or some such–with the aid of the green trickster whom he met in the beginning, though the Matter of Guenevere must wait until book two. The main plot device begins with a white hart bolting through the main hall, hotly pursued by a white hound. This mystery is only deepened by the arrival of a hag (no particular color) arriving shortly thereafter, who challenges the knights present at the banquet to follow the hart and the hound. Gawain is among the knights compelled to take up the…er…lady’s challenge, and with him, Terence; the two travel in pursuit of the hart and/or hound, but despite finding the two fairly early on in their travels, they continue on through the “England” of the time rescuing the usual quota of maidens from evil knights, brave knights from evil ladies (or not, as the situation requires). In the course of their travels, Gawain begins to learn humility–skilled though he may be, there will always be something to learn and eventually a more skilled knight–but perhaps more importantly for the series, Terence begins to learn something of his own heritage…and it’s not entirely human.

This is an amusing mashup of several medieval stories. For the most part, it centers around Arthur and Camelot, but also the variants on the “give the hag her choice when she asks whether you’d prefer her ugly or beautiful” trope which Chaucer retells in the Wife of Bath’s Tale, and the tales involving the differences in time flow between the mortal world and that of Faery. It’s a kids’ book, and while no one can compare to Lloyd Alexander and his Prydain, Gerald Morris’s books are well worth reading for themselves. The fact that they also can provide an overview of medieval and Middle English literature is an added bonus; subsequent books touch on (surprise, surprise) Sir Gawain and The Green Knight and other oft-studied works from College English 101. The characterization is nowhere near White’s “The Once and Future King”, but hopefully will serve as an engaging introduction to the literature and the period; Gawain, Arthur and Guenevere are here as human, though not as detailed, as they are in White’s work. Though they are not central characters in the stories, Morris does touch on why Guenevere would consider Lancelot over Arthur.

What’s for breakfast?

I love breakfast. Well, specifically, I love food that’s usually eaten for breakfast in the United States, now and historically. Unfortunately, I have what might politely be called an awareness deficiency when I first get up, which makes it difficult to do anything involving hot stoves and following instructions. Until I’ve got the money to hire a personal chef, reading cookbooks such as A Real American Breakfast will have to do….but these two are a pleasure to read.

A Real American Breakfast is a much more comprehensive cookbook than The Big Book of Breakfast, with a range of dishes that might plausibly be eaten for brunch but which also might serve for a lunch. Overall, it is aimed more at the full breakfast/brunch market, but does include what many would these days think of as a more mundane weekday menu. Waffles may be too time consuming for most people to squeeze into their daily morning routine, but this cookbook does include wraps, sandwiches, cereals and the like which might be prepared quickly on days when the diner needs something quick, tasty and nutritious which can be eaten on the road. This is a big cookbook, though the size is due largely to the combination of sidebars describing historical details and notes regarding the ingredients with white space around each recipe–handy for those of us who like to scribble notes regarding our preparation and tweaks of the recipes. There are some photographs, set aside in special sections, but as they do not accompany the recipes which they illustrate, this requires a bit of flipping back and forth and therefore aren’t particularly useful as illustrations.

Maryana Vollstedt’s The Big Book of Breakfast is, typically of Vollstedt’s other books, a fairly straightforward collection of generic American recipes. The recipes are simple, straightforward and not overly spicy. None of them would make the Food Network–we’re talking plain food rather than haute gourmet–but then this sort of thing could be a godsend if you’re trying to present a meal for people who are disinclined to chichi tasting menus or unable to eat highly spiced or complex dishes–children, say, or people with gastric reflux. The layout also provides plenty of white space for those of us who like to make notes on recipes. Perhaps not surprisingly given the stereotyped perception of breakfasts, the recipes herein are slanted heavily toward eggs and egg based dishes, such as strata, frittatas, quiches and the old standbys, pancakes, crepes and french toast; this may be a problem for diners with cholesterol issues or allergies, but makes the cookbook ideal for those of us who like going out to the kind of diner where the cooks pass dishes out through a slot in the dining room wall. She does include short chapters on breads, meats and potatoes. Overall, I’d say this was a good basic starter cookbook for people looking to create a conventional brunch…or who’re looking for a somewhat updated cookbook in the style of Peg Bracken’s I Hate to Cook Book.

True: many people simply don’t have time for anything more complex than slicing a banana on a bowl of cold cereal in the morning. But as both of these cookbooks point out, who says you have to have omeletes or hash browns for breakfast?

Peg Bracken

Hate to cook? hate to clean? fear not, you are not alone. Not only that, you haven’t been for some time.

Peg Bracken is perhaps best known (and justifiably so!) for her cookbook, the I Hate to Cook Book, which came out in 1960, although she wrote several later books which are as worth reading. The I Hate to Cook Book came out as things were beginning to come to a head in regards whether women were supposed to find fulfillment in the home and childrearing and only that–Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique came out three years later–and while it’s absolutely true that cooking and cleaning need to be done in every household small or large, I have yet to meet anyone whose childhood dreams of their future career path consisted solely of “housespouse”.

The I Hate to Housekeep Book and I Try to Behave Myself followed close on the cookbook’s heels; both were reasonably popular at the time, though I don’t know how well known either is today, more’s the pity. The world needs more blue-collar middle class pragmatic etiquette guides; Miss Manners is the closest modern equivalent I can think of.

Bracken was, I think, something more of a phenomenon in the 1960’s than now; fifty years on, many of the recipes in the I Hate to Cook Book and housekeeping hints in I Hate to Housekeep Book have been superseded by modern health concerns1 and cleaning supplies. However, women2 are just as likely to hate cooking and housekeeping, not to mention having even less time to actually DO these things, and the books’ very simplicity in their suggestions dodges some of the intervening decades’s improvements. Soap is soap, after all, and a cheese “cream” sauce calling for flour, butter, milk and cheese is as valid today as it was fifty years ago…though I’d possibly add a bit of curry or cayenne to liven it up today. Certainly, her first book the I Hate to Cook Book was reissued a couple of years ago as a (gulp) 50th anniversary version.

Her later books, A Window Over the Sink (memoir) and But I wouldn’t have missed it for the world! (travel) aren’t quite as coherent as her earlier themed books. However, if you like her writing style and are curious to find out more about Bracken herself, I’d wholeheartedly suggest both. Indeed, I appreciate But I wouldn’t have missed it for the world! solely for its suggestion that there are certain incredibly useful phrases which will never appear in your standard travelers’ phrase book, although I’d add “Where’s the bathroom?” to Bracken’s list of essential phrases everyone should know but might have time to seek out in a comprehensive phrase book–she suggested “Does anyone speak English?”, “No, thank you.” and “Go away!”

I’m not quite sure what to suggest to read after this; I haven’t encountered anyone quite as breezy yet pragmatic as Bracken. Certainly no one willing to come out and say “Some of us hate cooking and housecleaning. That’s OK.” It doesn’t make us any less feminine or womanly, any less adored by the men who share our lives3. Peg Bracken’s daughter started a blog on WordPress, though I suspect it was largely to publicize the 50th anniversary publication of the I Hate to Cook Book as it hasn’t been updated in about 18 months; it’s still an amusing glimpse into Bracken’s real life that few of us got.

For those of us who would still rather wrap our hands around a dry martini than a wet flounder at the end of a long day, there is still Peg Bracken’s work.

1sodium in canned soups
2and it is still largely women responsible for cooking and cleaning despite two intervening generations of progress
3I apologize here: I’ve not forgotten all the same-sex relationships out there. It’s just that all the members of those relationships with whom I’m acquainted seem more pragmatic about splitting these duties evenly.

weeding cookbooks, or how librarians entertain themselves

(Weeder’s note: the library from which I got these cookbooks automated in the mid-nineties, although I’m not sure whether they’ve kept circulation records since then, given the vagaries of updating computer systems)

1) The best of Near Eastern Cookery; favorite dishes from the Balkans, Turkey, Israel Jordan, Saudi Arabia and other countries of the Arabian peninsula, by Ann Seranne and Eileen Gaden. Garden City, NY, Doubleday, 1964; 158 p. illus., map (on lining papers) 22 cm
This is a reasonably comprehensive collection of recipes from an area the cuisines of which are often overlooked in modern cookbooks, and the recipes are simple, both in ingredients which may be found in the rural Midwest and in instructions. On the plus side, the recipes are frequently low in cholesterol as a result of relying on olive oil rather than animal fats, and many might serve for people with food allergies or intolerances to dairy, eggs or wheat. (Well, not the baklava…) Unfortunately, the dated layout of the book itself lacking much illustration, not to mention all the changed political issues in the last 48 years, makes me consider this a candidate for withdrawal. As an example, Iran’s name change from Persia would have been as recent an event to people reading this book as the fall of the Berlin Wall today. Circulated 13 times since automation.
Verdict: withdraw….and give it to me!

2) A Book of Favorite Recipes compiled by D.A.N.K. Ladies Society of German American National Congress Benton Harbor – St.Joseph Michigan Shawnee Mission, KS : Circulation Service, c1968-1979. 70 p. : col. ill., spiral bound ; 23 cm.
As the citation suggests, this was brought out by a local women’s group in the late seventies, and the recipes have a strong Midwestern German feel to them—herring, liver and cabbage are common ingredients. Judging by the publication dates for similar items held in the MEL ILL database, compiling collections of recipes was a popular activity in the 70s in Michigan. I confess that I’ve always found this sort of cookbook to be endearing: the local groups are invariably earnest though the recipes may be derivative and dated even as the book is published. Based solely on its merits as a cookbook, I’d withdraw it—the recipes are outmoded, the layout and design outdated and it’s only circulated thirteen times since the library automated. It has, however, a donation plate, and is by a local group, and at least to some degree reflects local history/society.

Verdict: depends on the library’s policy of keeping books of local interest or with presentation or memorial plates.

3) The Vegetarian Gourmet: 315 international recipes for health, palate and a long happy life Sally and Lucian Berg New York: Herder and Herder 1971
While there is a distinct paucity of vegetarian cookbooks even today, at forty years old, this cookbook’s long overdue (if you’ll forgive the pun) for withdrawal. Although the book includes a wide range of cuisines—it is truly international in this regard—the layout is dated, the book’s cover is worn and tatty, and without a dust jacket, the copy fades into the background in comparison to modern cookbooks. To compound this for American readers, the book originally published in England uses slightly different measurements than what Americans are used to: by weight rather than volume. The book has only circulated twice since the library automated.
Verdict: withdraw—age, condition and lack of circulation

4) The New Vegan: fresh, fabulous, and fun Hudson, Janet London: Thorsons 2005
This book are straightforward and would probably appeal to people accustomed to a European meat-based diet who haven’t had much prior exposure to vegetarian and vegan cuisine; many of the recipes rely on vegan products designed to resemble the animal-based equivalent, such as tempeh turkey and wheat gluten cutlets. The cover design is colorful and brightly attractive but the internal layout isn’t terribly organized. Circulated 30 times since purchase.
Verdict: Keep, but continue looking for vegan cookbooks

5) Recipes from the regional cooks of Mexico Kennedy, Diana New York: Harper and Row 1978
Kennedy is something of an authority on Mexican cuisines and cooking—think Julia Child in regards French cuisine—and her cookbooks are similarly authoritative/accessible for people wanting to learn how to cook it for themselves at home. That said, this specific cookbook is showing its age a bit–the dust jacket is fading and the layout dated–the recipes may still be valuable but the library should probably look into getting some of her more recent books. Checked out 21 times since the library automated.
Verdict: keep until it hasn’t circulated in three years or until we get more of her books, whichever comes second. And then give it to me. I love Diana Kennedy’s cookbooks and indeed have a few suggestions for future purchases.

6) The New York Times Soup and Bread Cookbook. Tarr, Yvonne Young Quadrangle Books 1972
Forty years on, the soups and breads in this cookbook have (I think!) survived reasonably well—not surprising given the authority of the presiding agency. A sufficiently large number of the recipes include cream and eggs to make modern cooks with dietary restrictions a trifle wary, but as the cookbook as a whole assumes the cook is starting from scratch, it isn’t unduly unhealthy. Unfortunately, physically the book is looking a bit tatty; it lacks a dust jacket and the top and bottom edges of the spine are showing shelf wear (not surprising given this is a library book!) Overall, it lacks the illustrations and photographs that catch patrons’ eyes in a modern library, and so we might consider keeping it until circulation slows. Checked out 23 times since the library automated.
Verdict: keep until we find a similarly international, similarly basic soup cookbook…and give this to me. I love soup. I love collecting outdated cookbooks.

7) The Big Book of Soups and Stews Vollstedt, Maryana San Francisco: Chronicle Books 2001
While not as complete as the New York Times soup cookbook above, this is a reasonably attractive, non-intimidating introduction to (as the title suggests) soups and stews the author makes brief forays into Asian and Hispanic inspired dishes, but there are also comfort food mainstays such as chicken and dumplings and Irish stew. Vollstedt has published a couple of other similar books; if this shows enough demand we might want to consider purchasing them. Checked out 36 times since purchased.
Verdict: keep.

8) The Japanese Menu Cookbook Chang, Constance Garden City: Doubleday 1976
The recipes themselves may be acceptable in a community without a significant Asian population and the idea of seasonal dinner menus and accompanying menus is intriguing, but this book’s starting to show its age, both in wear and in the photography, typical of books from the 1970s. Circulated 17 times since automation.
Verdict: consider withdrawing as soon as we purchase a more recent Japanese cookery book

9) Siamese Cookery Wilson, Marie Rutland, Vt: C.E. Tuttle Co, 1965
Given that the country has not been uniformly called Siam since before this book was published, my doubts about the book’s currency began even before opening the cover. The author, a Caucasian-American who lived in Thailand for the first few years of her marriage, attempted to adapt the cuisine she had come to love for the ingredients available in the United States in the mid-60s. In a more attractive modern design with more socially sensitive glosses, the recipes might not have been bad in this context. Circulated seven times since automation.
Verdict: withdraw–age

10) The Key to Chinese Cooking Kuo, Irene New York: Wings 1996 (originally published Knopf: 1977)
An interesting introduction to Chinese cooking technique—I caught myself poring over the author’s description of proper chopping and slicing technique in utter absorption before returning to my assignment–but not very eyecatching, and that is what I suspect matters more to non-librarians. It’s got a plain white cover with the title and a few sketches of ingredients, and there aren’t any glossy photographs or simple recipes with step by step illustrations within, but rather extensive descriptions. A fat tome with plenty of recipes adapted to American groceries likely to be available in the mid-70s (and still likely to be available in the rural Midwest), this is the sort of thing that I would like to keep in the collection if at all possible, as the information is more useful than anything I’ve seen in the collection so far. The question is, of course, how to promote it? Circulated six times since automation.
Verdict: keep and try promotion—compared to the other books on Chinese cookery, six circs isn’t bad…but not exactly great. (If we have to weed it…first dibs!)

when to withdraw cookbooks?

When the illustrations resemble something that might appear in James Lilek’s The Gallery of Regrettable Food.

Well, there’s more to collection development than that, of course. “Collection Development” is half adding books to the collection–popular, useful, updated versions of what you’ve got already, filling a gap a staff member noticed or a patron’s request–and half withdrawing books when they’ve come to the end of their usefulness. It’s this withdrawal process that gets difficult at times, not least when explaining to aghast patrons that yes: most public libraries not only withdraw items but dispose of them1. Usually, books get withdrawn for one of three reasons: the information is outdated2, the item is in poor condition3, or non-use4.

What is The Gallery of Regrettable Food? It’s the book adaptation of the food component of James Lileks’ web site. According to the preface, the family moved to Fargo, North Dakota in the 1950s and shortly after their arrival, a Welcome Wagon Lady showed up on their doorstep with a bagful of the usual coupons and fliers from participating businesses in the area. His mother tucked them away; Lileks found them at the back of a closet in his parents’s home some forty years later and was horrified/inspired enough to not only investigate further into the world of now outdated cookbooks from the 1950s and 1960s but also set up a web site to edify others on the ghastly horrors visited upon diners of the time. As someone who weeded the nonfiction of a library established in 1960, I can attest to the fact that the cover art, illustrations and photographs used are real; I’ve weeded enough examples of the Better Homes and Gardens cooking series to recognize that. Lileks’ captions and descriptions are more than a little tongue in cheek, but even when he’s being most sardonic, he’s right. Those illustrations are creepy.

What to read next? Well, that depends on whether you want more of the time period or something to, er, cleanse your palate after a quite literally tasteless trek through a wasteland of cookery. If it’s the former, try Betty McDonald’s fourth memoir, Onions in the Stew or, should that not be enough, contact me offline and I’ll tell you where I used to work. I think they still have some of the books Lileks references. If you want something more refreshing about someone who came through that period determined to bring something a little tastier to us, start with Julia Child’s memoir, My Life in France or the biography about her, Appetite for Life. I am, of course, open to suggestions from readers here!

1stop looking at me like I kicked your puppy. You’re confusing your local public library with the Library of Congress. Unless you’re willing to pay LOTS more taxes, we have to remove items from the collection or we’ll run out of space.
2usually, rapidly changing areas like health/nutrition or technology/sciences but most non-fiction will eventually fall into this category
3often simple use over time but occasionally the book loses a tangle with, say, water or a toddler with a lollipop
4items may have been trendy when we got them but aren’t any more, or sometimes have been superseded by newer holdings

just another kiddie book: The Rattlebang Picnic

I’ll be the first to admit that The Rattlebang Picnic isn’t great literature, even (or perhaps especially) by the standards of children’s picture books, but it’s fun.

When the McTavishes get married, they can afford either a reliable car or children; they decided to compromise on only(!) seven children and a “rattlebang”–a cheap car that coughs and chokes and wheezes and sheds mysterious parts with every bump. Granny McTavish approves of her son’s decision, and supplies them with all the pizza and pancakes the family needs for their picnics. Unfortunately, she prefers to cook things low and slow; this technique is good for pulled pork and pot roast but not for some other things starting with P–there’s a hilarious illustration of a startled shark shattering his teeth on a particularly tough specimen of Granny’s cooking. One day, the family decides to go on a picnic on Mount Fogg, despite Mr. McTavish’s misgivings about the rattlebang’s soundness. The family makes do with a cupcake and apple lunch after Granny’s pizza proves so tough that all the family’s efforts produce only a hole in the middle of same, and settle down for a nap…which is interrupted by the mountain showing its true volcanic colors and erupting. Doubly unfortunately, the rattlebang loses a wheel as the family flees the lava flow but the ever inventive children suggest using that uncuttable pizza as a replacement.

It’s just a lightweight lighthearted fluffy picture book…but it’s one of the few recent picture books I went out of my way to get, along with The Incredible Painting of Felix Clousseau. Perhaps it’s just that I’ve driven my share of rattlebangs, and wouldn’t mind having a granny along whose pizzas are tough enough to use as car wheels. There’s no deep hidden inner meaning in this book; it’s just a tall tale and a sparsely written one at that, though I love Stephen Kellogg’s illustrations. What to read next? The only thing that springs to mind are Sid Fleischman’s McBroom series of vignettes.