Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe

by Fannie Flagg

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The Gift of Storytelling

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When an interviewer asked Fannie Flagg about the powerful sense of friendship that often appeared in her novels, she admitted that the theme was an important one to her. She explained, "Being an only child and losing both my parents at an early age, I have found that the friends I have made over the years are the people who help me get through life, good times and bad." In Flagg's Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café, several strong friendships form among the characters. The central relationship, between Evelyn Couch, a middle-aged housewife, and Ninny Threadgoode, an elderly nursing home resident, develops through the art of storytelling. As Ninny narrates the stories of her past, the residents of Whistle Stop, Alabama, come alive for Evelyn, and the process provides comfort and a sense of purpose for both women.

As Evelyn shares her candy with Ninny in the Rose Terrace Nursing Home, Ninny reciprocates with the gift of her stories. Ninny's tales of her hometown provide models of living for Evelyn, who, at the start of the novel, appears crippled by a feeling of uselessness and an inability to take control of her life. The stories that have the most impact on her are the ones centered on Ninny's sister-in-law, Idgie Threadgoode, and Idgie's interactions with others. Evelyn's visualization of these episodes helps her face, and eventually overcome, the serious obstacles that have impeded her search for a sense of self.

When Evelyn and Ninny begin their relationship, Evelyn is a lonely, lost woman who has turned to food for comfort. Her husband and her grown children have become indifferent toward her, and she experiences a growing sense of hopelessness. She feels cut off not only from her family but from her time period as well. "She had been a good girl, had always acted like a lady" but now "movie stars were having children out of wedlock" and "the best people were waltzing into the Betty Ford Center" getting help for their addictions. As a result, she decides she got "lost along the way. The world had become a different place, a place she didn't know at all." She admits that "the quiet hysteria and awful despair had started when she finally began to realize that nothing was ever going to change, that nobody would be coming for her to take her away." When she begins to feel "as if she were at the bottom of a well, screaming, [with] no one to hear," she contemplates suicide as a way out. Ninny's stories, however, soon begin to pull her out of the well of her despair.

One way Ninny's stories accomplish this is through her descriptions of Idgie, who "used to do all kinds of crazy harebrained things just to get you to laugh." Idgie's pranks also make Evelyn laugh. Ninny tells her about how Idgie one day put poker chips in the church's collection basket. Once in April, the menu in the café offered fillet of possom, prime rib of polecat, goat's liver and onions, bullfrog pudding, and turkey buzzard pie a la mode. "An unsuspecting couple, who had come all the way from Gate City for dinner, read the menu and were halfway down the block when Idgie opened the door and yelled April Fool's at them." Idgie's tall tales included stories about the time she found a ten-dollar bill in one of her hen's eggs, and how a flock of ducks got frozen in a nearby lake and "flew off and took the lake with 'em." She used her best tale to help prove...

(This entire section contains 1633 words.)

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her point that "money will kill you." Idgie explained to Ninny that "a man told me about his uncle, who had a good-paying job working up in Kentucky at the national mint, making money for the government, and everything was going fine until one day he pulled the wrong lever and was crushed to death by seven hundred pounds of dimes." At least she thought it was dimes; it could have been quarters. Ninny's humorous stories of Idgie's pranks and tall tales help to alleviate Evelyn's suffering.

Most of Ninny's memories about Idgie, however, fall into a problem/solution format. They begin with a serious predicament faced by one of Idgie's family or friends and end with Idgie engineering an effective solution through her strength of character and her genuine concern for others. Idgie showed her strength when she confronted Frank with his abusive treatment of Ruth and ultimately removed her from harm when she brought her back to Whistle Stop. She also stood her ground and risked her own safety when she continued to allow blacks to eat at her restaurant after the Ku Klux Klan threatened her. According to Idgie, "nobody was gonna tell her what she could and could not do." Ninny explains, "As good natured as she was, Idgie turned out to be brave when push came to shove."

Idgie's influence on Evelyn becomes apparent as she thinks about her run-in one day with a teenaged boy in a supermarket. At that point Evelyn had lost some weight and had started to feel "in complete control of her life." However when the boy's abusive and insulting invectives make her feel "old and fat and worthless all over again," she concludes, "I wish Idgie had been with me. She would not have let that boy call her names. I'll bet she would have knocked him down." As a result, Evelyn becomes angry, "a feeling that she had never felt before." She unleashes this emotion through an imaginary self she calls "Towanda the Avenger," who in her fantasies fights the injustices of the world. Yet when Evelyn starts to have visions of attacking her husband, Ed, she recognizes that Towanda is threatening to "take over her life." Evelyn admits that she is always angry except when she is with Ninny and "when she would visit Whistle Stop at night in her mind."

Eventually, though, Ninny's stories of Idgie's compassion, along with the peace Evelyn experiences during a church service, enable Evelyn to temper her righteous indignation and to forgive others and herself for her perceived shortcomings. Ninny recalls how Idgie solved problems by offering her time and support, as when she provided a homeless Smokey Phillips with a place to live and engineered an early release from jail for Big George's son Artis. When Naughty Bird, Big George's youngest child, was once ill with pneumonia, Idgie won the right in an all-night poker game with a trainer to walk his elephant over from a nearby park to lift Naughty Bird's spirits. Igdie also helped Ruth raise her son, Buddy, Jr. After Buddy lost his arm in a train accident, Idgie encouraged him to find activities, like sports, he could master. When he became frustrated with his disability, she helped him gain the confidence he lacked. Finally, she risked a prison sentence for murder when she refused to reveal Sipsey' s and Big George's involvement in Frank's death.

The giving of food also figures prominently in Ninny's stories about Idgie. During the Depression, Idgie saved lives by giving food from her café to blacks and homeless men. Disguised as the infamous bandit Railroad Bill, she would sneak onto government supply trains at night and throw food and coal onto the ground where people could find them the next day. Her efforts saved half of the poor population of Whistle Stop from freezing and starvation. One November, the local paper reported that when Railroad Bill threw seventeen hams off of the train, "our friends in Troutville had a wonderful Thanksgiving."

Inspired by Ninny's sharing of her stories, Evelyn also gives the gift of food. "Food had become the only thing she looked forward to, and candy, cakes, and pies were the only sweetness in her life." At the beginning of every visit to the nursing home, Evelyn shares that sweetness with her friend Ninny, who is comforted by the food she brings. Sometimes Evelyn brings special meals, prepared like the ones Ninny used to enjoy at the café. Before she leaves for the "fat farm," Evelyn gives money to Ninny's aide at the nursing home to guarantee that her friend "got what ever she wanted to eat and anything else she wanted." Evelyn also supports Ninny by the act of listening. Ninny admits to Evelyn "that's what I'm living on now, honey, dreams, dreams of what I used to do." Ninny's reminiscences of the past and Evelyn's rapt attention to her stories provide Ninny with a sense of satisfaction.

Ninny's friendship and support help Evelyn develop a new faith in herself. Evelyn admits, "After all these months of being with Mrs. Threadgoode each week, things had begun to change. Ninny Threadgoode made her feel young. She began to see herself as a woman with half her life still ahead of her." Her newfound confidence allows her to lose weight, to begin a successful career, and to become closer to her family. When she discovers that Ninny died while she was away, Evelyn misses her terribly, but realizes "because of knowing Mrs. Threadgoode, she was not as scared of getting old or dying as she had once been, and death did not seem all that far away. Even today, it was as if Mrs. Threadgoode was just standing behind a door." All the residents of Whistle Stop also stand behind a door, ready to comfort Evelyn and to help her retain the confidence she needs to enjoy her new life. Ninny's storytelling had been her greatest gift to her friend.

Source: Wendy Perkins, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 1999.
Perkins is an associate professor of English at Prince George's Community College in Maryland and has published several articles on British and American authors.

Cooking as Mission and Ministry in Southern Culture

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The table spread with culinary delights easily triggers images of home, hearth and familial companionship. In southern culture, especially, food is nothing less than the social base of most interchanges of human experience and activity. The concept of "southern hospitality" has remained long after the demise of the antebellum era that birthed it. This graciousness surely began as much from logistics as generosity, for plantation and even tenant-farming neighbors, separated by hundreds of acres and miles of dirt roads, gathered at each other's homes for a gala "get together" that ultimately centered around food. Each plantation and homestead boasted its own specialties and secret recipes, which can still be enjoyed in eating establishments across the South. Barbecue, for example, was and certainly is a southern favorite. The role of cooking in southern culture, however, is even more relevant to everyday life in a common kitchen, shared by ordinary people, usually women, often mothers, frequently nurturers, but always southern cooks. It is what preparing food and feeding people mean to a southerner, especially "the cook," that makes "cookin' and eatin'" in the South an "in-culture" experience.

Southern fiction intimately captures the significance of cooking in a culture richly laced with a sense of community and Christian duty as well as a host of social facades and hypocritical masques. For the traditional, middle-class southern mother-woman, preparing food for the nourishment and enjoyment of other people plays a major role in her life. The act of cooking for and feeding someone—be it family, friend or total stranger—goes far beyond physical nurturance. Cooking is not simply a task or a chore; it is a mission that fulfills a sense of belonging as one earns a reputation for being, at least, a caretaker for her family, and at best, a very good cook. It is also a ministry that nurtures people's emotional and spiritual needs as much as their physical ones. Hunger of the soul and spirit drives the force behind the spoon and the skillet with the same intensity as a growling stomach. In southern culture, cooking can be an extension and sometimes a substitution for maternal nurturance, and even a token for martyrdom. Cooking serves the southern cook, likewise, as evidence of self-esteem and social status, moral soundness and spiritual faith, human compassion and community conscience.

Two contemporary southern writers, Clyde Edgerton in Walking Across Egypt and Fannie Flagg in Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café, feature characters for whom cooking food and feeding people form the central core of their everyday lives and the culture. Intimate communication and personal bonding accompany the physical as well as emotional and spiritual nurturance of a meal prepared, served and consumed. Ruth and Idgie Threadgoode, proprietors of the Whistle Stop Café, Whistle Stop, Alabama, and Mattie Rigsbee of Listre, North Carolina, dramatize the words heard by almost any troubled, lonely, injured or estranged person who happens to stumble into a southern home—"let me fix you somethin' to eat; it will make you feel better." Whether facing abandonment, marital infidelity, a bout with arthritis, a lost loved one or a spat with the preacher, that "somethin’” becomes the solstice, the balm. That "somethin’” also becomes the impetus of doing something for someone in a situation that makes everyone involved feel helpless, insecure or inadequate.

Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café is a novel of many stories, set in places from Whistle Stop, Alabama, to Chicago, Illinois, intricately woven into years from 1917 to 1988, told through many voices, including that of an eighty-six-year-old nursing home resident who links the past and present and that of the editor of The Weems Weekly, the Whistle Stop weekly newsletter. Characters, connected by time and place, migrate in, and sometimes out, of each other's lives; their individual stories become part of another's and so the links are formed. Mrs. Cleo Threadgoode, "Ninny," reaching into the past which seems much more real and more immediate than the present day, resurrects her family and friends of Whistle Stop. As she pieces together the lives of her husband's family, for she has none of her own, and those around them, these figures from the past become as approachable to the reader as Ninny herself.

One of the strongest narrative streams of the novel recaptures the devotion and love between two women, Idgie (Ninnie's sister-in-law) and Ruth. Idgie, an aggressive but truly brave individual, denounces femininity but retains a powerful, nurturing maternity. After Ruth's marriage to an abusive man, it is Idgie who saves her and makes a secure life—at the Whistle Stop Café—where they can raise Ruth's son.

For the women of Flagg's novel, cooking is the focal point of much of their daily lives. For Ruth and Idgie, as well as the restaurant's cooks Sipsey and Onzell, cooking fundamentally serves them as a means to support themselves and thus to secure their independence. The café is a simple extension of the home where the "kitchen is the hub of social intercourse." Whether selling food or giving it away to the neighboring blacks and boxcar hobos from the back door of the Whistle Stop, both Idgie and Ruth carry on their own isolated yet fervent efforts to combat the injustices of the South in the days before the civil rights movement and after the Depression.

For Idgie, preparing food for her "front door" customers is only the superficial function of the restaurant, not her mission or ministry. A rebellious creature, she has spent most of her life grooming a relentless determination to live out her convictions. As a child of ten or eleven, Idgie simply stood up at the dinner table "and announced, just as loud, 'I'm never gonna wear another dress as long as I live!' And with that she marched upstairs and put on a pair of Buddy's old pants and a shirt." Years later, she poses as Railroad Bill, thought to be a Negro man, who throws food off the government supply trains for the area's poor people, mostly blacks and hobos.

Ruth and Idgie share with less fortunates, even in economically strained years. With the Ku Klux Klan members paying visits, usually addressing themselves to the frank-talking, brassy Idgie, not the gentle, soft-spoken Ruth, the backdoor business of the cafe undergoes some modifications: "After that day, the only thing that changed was on the menu that hung on the back door; everything was a nickel or a dime cheaper." That humble discount seems more substantial when weighed against the menu prices on the grand opening on 12 June 1929, when for breakfast a customer could get "eggs, grits, biscuits, bacon, sausage, ham and red-eye gravy, and coffee for 25¢. For lunch and supper you can have: fried chicken; pork chops and gravy; catfish; chicken and dumplings; or a barbecue plate; and your choice of three vegetables, biscuits or cornbread, and your drink and dessert—for 35¢."

Not only do Ruth and Idgie pursue their mission of cooking for people, but so does Sipsey, whose cooking talents brought the local consensus that "there wasn't a better cook in the state of Alabama." Sipsey, in turn, "taught Idgie and Ruth everything they knew about cooking." She makes a living working at the Whistle Stop Café, but more importantly, she spends her entire life nurturing and protecting the same people that she cooks for, including an orphan baby boy that she raises as her son. Sipsey works diligently in the café to feed people but also to support Ruth and Idgie. Sharing Sipsey's loyalty, Onzell nurses Ruth on her deathbed, accepting no one's help or allowing no interference of "Miz" Ruth's care. These four women, over many years and many hot stoves, make a life to sustain themselves as well as nurture other people. Moreover, no color distinctions interrupt or cloud their relationships.

As the novel shifts from the primary narrator, Ninny Threadgoode, to her stories, an intense relationship between two women of different generations unfolds. During her stay at Rose Terrace Nursing Home, Ninny develops a friendship with the middle-aged Evelyn Couch. Food surfaces again and again as a bonding element in their relationship. Evelyn is starving for understanding of herself and meaning in life. Ninny is hungry for home life—"I miss the smell of coffee and bacon frying in the morning"—and for human companionship. Unhappy with herself as much as with anyone else, Evelyn eats and eats and eats. Ninny talks and talks and talks, comforting Evelyn with, "Well, honey, a candy bar's not gonna hurt you." She waits patiently for her surrogate daughter's visit to the nursing home. Evelyn, who dreaded the trips to Rose Terrace before she meets Mrs. Threadgoode and hears her stories, eagerly anticipates returning to the company and the comfort of the old woman.

On Evelyn's last visit before Ninny's death— just prior to leaving for a California "fat farm"— Evelyn prepares Ninny a special lunch:

When Mrs. Threadgoode saw what she had on her plate, she clapped her hands, as excited as a child on Christmas. There before her was a plate of perfectly fried green tomatoes and fresh cream-white corn, six slices of bacon, with a bowl of baby lima beans on the side, and four huge light and fluffy buttermilk biscuits.

So long the recipient of Ninny's patient and consistent attention, Evelyn is finally capable of nurturing Ninny, whose physical needs at the age of eighty-seven are the most immediate. Ninny leaves Evelyn Sipsey's recipes (which Flagg gives as an addendum to the novel), but in recalling the past, she gives Evelyn a recipe for salvaging her life, for nourishing herself.

When the woman in the kitchen only cooks the food and puts it on the table, nurturing does not exist. The literal act of frying chicken and cornbread, creaming potatoes, boiling field peas and butter-beans and baking biscuits does not constitute true southern cooking. The preparation alone is not enough; completing the task of cooking is, in fact, the least significant aspect of its role in southern culture. Rather, what is crucial is the social and emotional intercourse between the preparer and the partaker of the food.

But why is cooking so intimate to southerners and so ostentatious in southern culture? Is it a patriarchally imposed, gender-designated task that southern women have embraced for a sense of purpose, willfully or subconsciously or reluctantly? Or perhaps the "nurturing values provide a counterpoint to patriarchal values"? Or is it, at least for some, a readily available occasion for martyrdom?

Although the "cooks" in the three novels explored here do not set themselves up as martyrs, martyrs they could easily be. They each deal with situations and problems with a means available to them—cooking. The ability to reconcile the circumstances and the possible (and even practical) responses and reactions to them functions to confirm the ingrained determination to "do the best you can." As Bettina Aptheker notes, "[W]e see that many of our mothers [and other maternal figures] sacrificed, worked hard, nurtured, did the best they could to 'make do,' to improve the quality of our daily lives." As Dilsey, in Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury, tries to cater to the Compson family with Caroline screaming, Benjy whining and Mrs. Compson complaining, she remains the "vital presence." Dilsey alone is the "keeper of the peace, the protector and constant nourisher." Faulkner captures her ultimate role as the endurer.

The cooks in Walking Across Egypt, Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café and Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant all endure. Although Ruth dies in Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café, she remains alive to those who love her, especially Idgie, her son Stump and the hobo, Smokey Lonesome. Idgie is surely the unnamed keeper of a roadside stand on Highway 90 in Marianna, Florida, an old woman with "snowwhite hair and brown weatherbeaten skin" who sustains the same sharp wit, love of fun and open generosity that she did as the owner of the Whistle Stop Café. Their missions and ministries prevail.

A fear that someone may come to their house hungry drives all of these women always to "have somethin' fixed." Like Mattie, who keeps a running menu of what she can prepare in a moment's notice, they overcook and save and plan. The far-reaching scope of a problematic situation or a troublesome circumstance can be immediately addressed over "a bite to eat," which promises to soothe and heal even though it cannot cure or solve anything. Sometimes, they feel compelled to justify their value in the home and community, just as Sister, in Eudora Welty's "Why I Live at the P.O." "humbly" acknowledges her fate, standing "over the hot stove, trying to stretch two chickens over five people and a completely unexpected child into the bargain, without one moment's notice." Southerners cook for themselves as they prepare food for others; the nurturance is simultaneous, just as filling, just as satisfying, just as essential.

Source: Angeline Godwin Dvorak, "Cooking as Mission and Ministry in Southern Culture," in Southern Quarterly, Vol. 30, Nos. 2-3, Winter-Spring, 1992, pp. 90-98.


Critical Overview