I was first introduced to Fried Green Tomatoes at the movie theater, in 1992. My mother thought it would be a good film for my grandmother, Mary McGraw, and for my sister and myself to enjoy; and it was. My grandmother, born on August 6, 1917; grew up as part of a large family in a small Irish town, in Western Maryland. The film would remind my grandmother of what she was used to growing up, my mother explained. The film is filled with those old large wooden houses, with the wrap around porches and the sound of a large noisy family.
My grandmother took after her mother as the family beauty, and was graced with singing, musical and artful talents. As a child I knew she loved films and TV shows and she always had the radio on to classical music. My grandmother has been for some years now, buried in Arlington National Cemetery with my grandfather, Dennis McGraw.
Every family has its own dramas, hopes and legacies. My grandmother grew up in a small town, South of the Mason Dixon line. This might be considered an old fashioned stereotype: but if there is one thing Southern American women can do: it’s talk. As well as cook…and eat…and talk some more. And so from this premise is born Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe. The novel begins with the Whistle Stop Cafe news bulletin announcing the 1929 opening of the town’s only cafe. The writer’s name is Dot Weems. There are few things cuter than a little Southern woman named, Dot, working at the post office and writing weekly news bulletins in which she makes fun of her own husband half the time.
Now, if one is the kind of woman who eats ice cream sandwiches for breakfast, (me), then she would want the writer to skip to the good stuff…cafe? A Southern cafe? What is on the menu? Well, here we are:
“For lunch and supper you can have: fried chicken; pork chops and gravy; catfish; chicken and dumplings; or a bbq plate; and your choice of three vegetables, biscuits or cornbread, and your drink and dessert – for 35 cents…the vegetables are: creamed corn; fried green tomatoes; fried okra; collard or turnip greens; black eyed peas; candied yams; butter beans or lima beans. And pie for desert. My other half, Wilber, and I ate there the other night, and it was so good he says he might not ever eat at home again. Ha. Ha. I wish this were true…Dot Weems.” The Weems Weekly, Whistle Stop Alabama’s neighborhood information letter, gives all the needed information for everyone in Whistle Stop.
Then, the narrative flips to December 1985; a woman, Evelyn Couch who, with her husband, has just arrived at Rose Terrace to visit her mother-in-law, Big Momma. Evelyn cannot stand sitting around and watching television with them, so she takes the only sweet thing in her life at the moment; a candy bar, then goes to silently and singularly shove her face in the cold, sterile, visitors’ lounge.
But instead of sweetness and solace, Evelyn finds herself next to a large boned, chatty old woman; “Now, you ask me the year somebody got married…who they married…or what the bride’s mother wore, and nine times out of ten I can tell you, but for the life of me, I can’t tell you when it was I got to be so old. It just sort of slipped up on me.” The 86 year old woman, is a Mrs. Cleo Threadgood, “It’s funny, when you’re a child you think time will never go by, but when you hit about twenty, time passes like you’re on the fast train to Memphis,” Mrs. Cleo Threadgood, a.k.a. Ninny, continues. Ninny, who never had a driver’s license, and had never lived anywhere but Whistle Stop until she is at Rose Terrace.
Ninny came to keep Mrs. Otis, her friend, company. And it is a good thing she did, because Evelyn Couch needed a friend for herself more than ever. Though friendship is not what Evelyn initially sought when she entered that visiting room, but it is what she found.
Evelyn was 48 years old and had discovered the world was not as she had always been taught it would be. The bad girls in highschool who had gone “all the way,” had not ended up living in ruin and disgrace, but were either happily or unhappily married like everyone else. Evelyn had waited until her wedding night and found out it hurt. But, not nearly as much as giving birth. The doctor told her she would forget the pain as a natural defense mechanism. The doctor, was either a fool or a liar. Evelyn remembered every bit of the pain. And birthing pain hurt just as much the second time around.
She had two children, a girl and a boy. When her daughter had grown up, she wanted to know how many men Evelyn had slept with. Evelyn had only ever been with her husband. Her daughter was shocked, “Oh mother, how dumb. You don’t even know if he is any good or not. How awful.”
And her daughter was right. Evelyn had no idea if Ed was any good or not. Evelyn had been part of her highschool’s golden circle, in the 1950s. A smiling cheerleader, Evelyn never knew the names of the boys in the band nor those of the girls with the see-through blouses. She never cared to know.
And now, at 48, Evelyn Couch had woken up. Not that she hadn’t tried to be a fuller person along the way. She tried to raise her son to be sensitive but Ed told her he would turn out, “queer,” so she stopped. And her son became only an apparition to her; a stranger.
Evelyn thought about the War in Vietnam but Ed had told her that anyone against the war was a communist. So, she never argued, but it did occur to her sometime after the war was over that maybe it had not been such a “good war” after all. One day in her mid forties Evelyn, with her shopping cart, stared into a vast array of TV screens, all for sale. Evelyn honestly wondered who the fat, pretty little woman was and what she was on TV for. Then Evelyn realized with horror it was her own reflection. Time had taken Evelyn with it, and she never once demanded an answer from Time, nor ever even asked Time any questions.
Evelyn was lost. She had awoken from the dream of her life, to realize she did not know where she was nor what she was doing there. The dull torpids of Americana, stared her in the face: TV, grocery shopping, air conditioned car, a husband who spends hours at the Home Depot looking for nothing. She wanted to seek comfort from Ed, but he was just as lost as she was.
At their 30th highschool reunion Evelyn prayed for an answer. A true connection in the dark, nebulous emptiness that was her life. But all the other wives looked just as scared and confused as she felt; clinging to their drinks and husbands as if they were about to plunge over a cliff.
Evelyn had spent her whole life doing everything because someone else told her to. She feared names. She never had more than one drink at a party, as she did not want a reputation. She got married as to not be thought of as frigid, she waited until her wedding day, so she would not be called a slut. Evelyn had done everything she was supposed to her whole life…and she now had no real girlfriends nor job. She went to Christian women gatherings were she was told all those successful career women were secretly lonely and miserable. Evelyn had a hard time picturing Barbara Walters giving it all up for Ed Couch, but alright.
It was her duty to save her marriage, as far as she knew. Ed, at one point was having an affair with some woman from work and Evelyn tried to sex up her marriage by dressing up in nothing but saran wrap and answering the door for Ed. (It was what the Christian womens’ circle told her to do.) Ed just pushed her to the side when he came in from work and asked her if she had gone crazy. Self-esteem was not coming to Evelyn from all directions, to say the least.
Ed’s affair ended and the situation settled down, but still, Evelyn did not have enough for herself. Instead of them working on losing weight together, Ed would look at Evelyn “whenever she had anything fattening to eat and said in mock surprise, ‘Is that on your diet?’” So, Evelyn ate in secret, alone with whatever she could find that was sweet. “Evelyn stared into the empty ice cream carton and wondered where the smiling girl in the school pictures had gone.” She bought the ice cream from Baskin Robbins, telling the sales clerk, it was for her grandchildren. She did not have any grandchildren.
But, if Evelyn had not escaped for something sweet she would never have met Ninny Threadgood. Ninny, with her stories of times gone by. So, when Evelyn came the following Sunday and all other Sundays, clutching her Almond Joys and her Snickers as if they were the Bible, and sat down in the visitors lounge, she really had no choice but to listen to Ninny with her stories of the Threadgood family.
“The front yard had an old chinaberry tree. I remember, we’d pick those little chinaberries all year long, and at Christmas, we’d string them and wrap them all around the tree from top to bottom.” Ninny was raised by the Threadgood family, who was the prime family of the small Southern town. Families in general, were much bigger in the 1920s, 30s, and 40s, than now.
The two main characters of the family in relation to Ninny, are Buddy and Idgie, short for Eugenia; as well as Cleo, who she married. Buddy is the family darling, with a million dollar smile and the personality to match. Idgie, born a tomboy, might have been out of sorts in the family, if it were not for Buddy’s protection, for when Buddy had a football game, Idgie sat on the bench right there with him and his teammates. Buddy was popular with everyone.
When he began seeing a woman from the other side of the tracks, Buddy did what no other man in town would do. He took her right home to meet the family. It was a tragedy for everyone who knew him, when, Buddy was hit by a train while he was too busy flirting with yet another girl in town to notice the train pulling up right behind him. Trains in those days claimed, fingers, legs and lives. Children would play on the tracks and yes, one can hear the trains coming behind from behind, but not always, and especially not always fast enough.
Ninny had been kissed by Buddy, but she was one of many. Ninny always had a crush on Buddy, (who didn’t?) but she married Cleo in her 17th year. Ninny points out that the one wanted is not always the one gotten, but one can still be happy. Cleo fell in love with the tall, sweet woman who had been adopted by the Threadgood family when her parents died years before.
Evelyn learned to love and look forward to Ninny’s stories, about Idgie and Ruth especially. Ruth came into Idgie’s life the summer of 1924. Ruth was from Valdosta Georgia and was put in charge of all the Baptist Youth Activities for Momma, Mrs. Threadgood. Ruth was truly one of the most beautiful women anyone had ever seen, and Idgie was in love with her at first sight.
For some reason, for a small Southern town so viciously racist, there is little eyebrow raising toward lesbianism. It is treated the same as heterosexual love on a social basis. At least in the novel, Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe it is. And is Idgie ever in love with Ruth.
Idgie wakes up Ruth very early one morning and with her brother’s stolen car keys, Idgie drives them both out to the country so Idgie can take Ruth on a romantic picnic. Idgie also wants to show Ruth a secret. She picks up an empty jar, walks over to where a beehive is and sticks her hand right in, to pull out some honeycomb. The bees cover Idgie head to toe in layers but by the time she walks back to where Ruth is panicking next to a tree, they have all flown away. Ruth is hysterical that Idgie might have killed herself. But Idgie was only charming bees. For Ruth, that is.
But their love was not to last that summer as Ruth was already engaged to Frank Bennett; one of the more notable lowlifes in all of literature. Frank Bennett, owned a fair amount of land from a town in Georgia and knew all the ladies. He knew them, whether they wanted to know him or not. Frank, supposedly scarred from some childhood trauma, had grown a cold heart and didn’t care what he took and who he took it from. He raped at will, with his buddies nearby, enjoying the scene or “helping” Frank Bennett along. Before the days of DNA tests and scientific proofs…if a man wanted to take in such a manner, there were only social repercussions to really stop him. And in Georgia, at that time, no one seemed to be stopping Frank Bennett.
So, when Ruth married Frank, he treated her no better than usual. All women meant one thing to Frank, including his wife. Idgie had kept an eye on Ruth since Ruth left, asking about her to the local townspeople. And when she heard from a store clerk that the clerk was not so fond of men who beat their wives, such as Frank; Idgie, went right up to Frank while he was getting a shave in the local barbershop and threatened to kill him. Then Idgie got in her car as fast as she could and drove away. The barber thought Idgie, though technically a pretty woman, must have been some crazy boy.
There was nothing more to do, until Idgie received a note from
Ruth, “Ruth 1:16-20:
And Ruth said, Intreat me not to leave thee, or to return from following after thee; for wither thou goest I will go; and where thou lodgest, I will lodge: thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God.”
Idgie, not the symbolic sort, had no idea what the note meant. Momma Threadgood, tells her, “Well honey, it means what it says.” And she orders Idgie to take Big George, who worked for Idgie in the Cafe, and her brothers and go over to get Ruth and bring her back to Whistle Stop.
Idgie did just that, but her rescue effort met with repercussion years later when Frank ended up missing and Idgie had to stand for a murder trial in 1955. The judge threw the case out, as there was really no evidence, and in either case, the judge's daughter had died, "old before her time and living a dog’s life on the outskirts of town, because of Frank Bennett; so he really didn’t care who had killed the sonofa-.”
And so here we have a case of Southern justice. Though, Frank Bennett’s legacy is carried on in his son by Ruth, Buddy Jr., who lost an arm to the trains but not his life. Buddy Jr., then called Stump, grows to be a football hero with only one arm. And when Peggy, a highschool girl with glasses asks Stump, back from college, to the highschool dance, Stump laughs at her and tells her to come back when she’s grown some t-ts. Idgie lets Stump have it about that one, after Peggy runs into the Whistle Stop Cafe in tears and blurts the whole story out to Idgie.
Idgie outright tells Stump she did not raise him to be white trash and what if Peggy’s brother had been there? Stump said Peggy’s brother was there and he laughed too. Idgie takes the highroad and says Peggy’s brother should have had his butt whipped as well.
Idgie inquires as to Stump’s lack of dates and points out that Stump does not want to end up like Smokey Lonesome, the hobo who takes up at the Cafe from time to time. Smokey spent his childhood, or his growing years at least, in the mountains. His mother had his father arrested for making moonshine and then was bit in the face by a rattlesnake during a preaching event. Smokey and his sister were separated by surviving family, then Smokey took off for the rails and never again looked forward nor back.
Stump eventually admits to Idgie that he is afraid of being laughed at, by the girls, because of his arm. Idgie solves the problem by taking Stump over to Eva Bates’s, the same woman who Buddy loved so long before. It seems to solve the problem as when Peggy wants to go to her spring dance with Stump, despite his prior way with words toward her, he accepts.
Ninny tells this whole story and much, much more to Evelyn and it helps Evelyn connect, to raise her esteem and get through a hard part of her life. Ninny tells Evelyn she should sell Mary Kay cosmetics, with Evelyn’s great skin and good personality. Evelyn goes out and does just that.
After Ninny passes away, Evelyn goes to her gravesite and also receives from Ninny's old neighbor the last few items of Ninny’s life; all in a shoebox. Evelyn finds pictures and she realizes and is startled by how truly beautiful Ruth was. One of the most beautiful women to live on this earth and she breathed, loved and died in two small towns. Ruth probably never went so far east in Georgia as to see the ocean. In a photo, Evelyn sees Buddy, who she can recognize from his smile. Evelyn cries because she will never understand why people have to grow old and die. On the way back from Ninny’s grave Evelyn notices a jar of honey with a card by Ruth Jamison’s stone. The card is signed, “I’ll always remember. Your friend, The Bee Charmer.”
By Sarah Bahl
All quotes taken from Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe