"Oh, what I wouldn't give for a plate of fried green tomatoes like we used to have at the cafe! Um-umm!' "
If you've seen the movie "Fried Green Tomatoes," this year reaching its milestone 20th anniversary, you'll remember that's one of the lines that the character of Ninny Threadgoode (Jessica Tandy) tells her new friend, Evelyn Couch (Kathy Bates), as she reminisces about life in Whistle Stop, Ala., in the 1920s, '30s and '40s.
Until the movie came out in 1991, few people outside of the South had ever even heard of fried green tomatoes, much less tasted them. Over the years, I've had this decidedly Southern treat at many restaurants, but never had I tried them at the Whistle Stop Cafe.
One recent morning we set out for Juliette, where the filming of the movie took place, both to explore the town and sample the 'maters
Now, both the movie and Fannie Flagg's book, upon which the film is based, are set in Alabama, not Georgia. And Alabama is where the original Whistle Stop Cafe, now the Irondale Cafe in the town of Irondale, is located now. But the movie was filmed in Juliette, near Macon in the heart of Georgia.
If you enjoyed the movie, then you'll appreciate visiting the cafe and town. There's just something purely whimsical about walking around a place that was once a movie set and eating at a cafe where the nefarious-though-fictional disappearance of the dastardly character of Frank Bennett had taken place.
If you really let your imagination run free, you can almost see Idgie Threadgoode (Mary Stuart Masterson) and Ruth Jamison (Mary Louise Parker) flitting about town and exchanging barbs with the likes of Grady Kilgore, Sheriff Curtis Smoote, and even the Ku Klux Klan.
The restaurant, originally built as a general store in 1927, had opened for the day only moments before we arrived, and the aroma of fried green tomatoes wafting through town was invitingly yummy and warm, but before lunch, we walked around and peered into the few antique and gift shops of tiny Juliette, a one-time railroad and mill town that sprang up in the late 1800s.
With the nearby Ocmulgee River a source for water power, a few cotton mills came and went from the early 1900s until the 1950s, when they closed their doors for good. When they left the once thriving town, so did most of the merchants.
Juliette wouldn't gain fame again until "Fried Green Tomatoes" was filmed there. When the stars - including Bates, Tandy, Masterson, Parker, Stan Shaw, Chris O'Donnell and Cicely Tyson - descended upon the town, a new industry unintentionally arrived with them: tourism.
Even now, with almost two decades passing since the filming of one of the ultimate chick flicks of all time, the Whistle Stop Cafe still bring in locals and tourists from around the world to sample its most famous fare of fried green tomatoes, which are hand-cut and lightly battered and then deliciously fried to a golden brown and served with a creamy, spicy pumpkin-colored sauce that I thought complemented the crunchiness of the tomatoes perfectly.
When I curiously asked our server what was in it, she gave us a cheesy grin and then giggled: "The secret's in the sauce! A lot of people ask how we make our sauce. You can guess, but I still can't tell you."
Visions of Idgie's friend, Big George, standing over the sizzling barbecue pit and coating the mystery meat (ahem!) with sauce momentarily entered my mind, but then our server brought our food - fried chicken and pulled pork - and I managed to forget about what secret sauces and what they may contain.
There's more to the Whistle Stop Cafe than fried green tomatoes. With its hardwood floors antiques, and movie memorabilia adorning the walls, the cafe is homey and comfortable.
The tea, appropriately served in Mason jars, is either sweet or "unsweet," and dishes include Bennett's Barbecue, Yard Bird Filet (chicken), Biddie Nuggets (chicken again), and even a Fried Green Tomato Salad topped with chunks of fried green tomatoes and sweet Vidalia Onion dressing,
For sides, country cooking rules: zipper peas, macaroni and cheese, and biscuits so rich that you won't have to bother with the butter.
A word of caution: There is no such thing as "in a hurry" at the Whistle Stop Cafe. There's even a sign attesting to this fact on the front of the cafe. It reads "It's a Southern tradition not to get indigestion. So don't be in such a hurry. We are not a fast food joint!"
While we were seated almost immediately, service is indeed slow, so just know that the Whistle Stop is a place where lunch could last a while.
Just outside of the window of the Whistle Stop Cafe sits the train tracks. As we were finishing our meal, a Norfolk-Southern locomotive came along, puttering up slowly before gaining momentum and then disappearing around a bend and northward toward the town of Flovilla.
The "wee-oot wee-oot!" of the train's whistle signaled it was time to go home and watch "Fried Green Tomatoes" for the umpteenth time.