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