“A cookbook! Why in the world are you of all people going to write a cookbook?” That was the response when I told my friends what I was doing. You would have thought that I had just announced my attempt to overthrow a foreign government with a fork. “Why not?” I asked somewhat defensively, considering that most of them had been to my home for dinner. I turned to my friend. “Mickey, how can you say that? Why just the other night your very own husband, Bob, just raved and raved about my pork chops and black-eyed peas!” She paused. “Now, Fannie, I didn’t say they weren’t good; it’s just that they are the only thing you ever serve.”
“That’s not true,” I cried. “Remember the year before last when I had the pork chops and turnip greens instead?”
Anyway, I guess by now you can pretty much get the picture. My culinary skills are somewhat limited. To tell you the truth, I was surprised myself when my publisher called. “A cookbook! … Why in the world would you want me of all people to do a cookbook?”
Then I thought, Hey, wait a minute … why not me? After all, doesn’t my relationship with food go way back? But then, whose doesn’t? But I am a Southerner and everyone knows we have all been preoccupied with food and stories since birth. Me, perhaps, more than most. I have always loved to eat, loved to be around other people eating; why I even love to see pictures of people eating. Besides, I have written two entire novels, both of which revolve around restaurants, one a malt shop and one a cafe. So, why not me indeed?
As the only child of a mother who did not like to cook, I have eaten out almost every day of my life and enjoyed myself immensely, so I certainly know good food when I see it. Better still, when I taste it. Anyhow, they say you should only write about things that you are interested in and care about, and I certainly qualify on both counts.
So I knew right off the bat that this book would be great fun. But there was another reason I wanted to do this book. Since the novel and the film version of Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe were released, I have received thousands of letters from sweet people all over the world, asking me if there really was a Whistle Stop Cafe. Did I have one in mind when I was writing the book, and if so could they please have some of the original recipes?
The answer is yes. There really was such a cafe. The Irondale Cafe was started by my great aunt Bess in the thirties and she ran it for over fifty years. It is located in Irondale, Alabama, a small town just outside my hometown of Birmingham. The good news is that it is thriving, doing a roaring business, with people still coming from miles around to enjoy those same hot delicious meals. Not only that, Virginia Johnson, that fabulous cook who first went to work for my aunt when she was eleven, can still be found in the kitchen, happily frying up a fresh batch of fried green tomatoes every day, the same kind that I, along with generations of others, have enjoyed since we were children. And the best news of all is that the McMichaels family, who bought the cafe from my Aunt Bess and continue to run the cafe so successfully, are dear friends and the nicest people you will ever meet.
So I am delighted to share their original recipes with you, just in case you can’t make it down to Alabama anytime soon. We all want you to be able to enjoy and have the fun of making and tasting real downhome cafe cooking in your own kitchen. Not only can you fix and serve it, you can be right in style, foodwise. The marketing people tell me that these recipes fall into the category of “comfort food” that has suddenly become very In and Trendy. When I heard that, I surely had to laugh. Just think … I had been In and Trendy all my life and just didn’t know it, because I have always been comfortable eating a good meal.
Which brings me to the main reason I wanted so much to write this book. Lately it seems everyone is mad at someone, with groups on every corner, on the radio, on television, screaming about something or someone or other they don’t like. And there is so much anger in the air that you almost see it like a thick fog. In times like this, I think it is particularly important to try to be as calm and happy as possible. And I don’t know about you, but, I have always been happiest where food was concerned. Some of the best times in my life have revolved around meals. Let’s face it—eating is fun. I like everything about it. I particularly like the sounds and the smells and the friendly atmosphere. People laughing, dishes rattling, and glasses tinkling are music to my ears, and I find it impossible to be miserable and angry and enjoy a good meal at the same time. Everybody could use a little comfort these days and is there any place better for a little comfort than a cafe?
So come on back with me if you will, to a time when people were as sweet as the tea they served and everyone knew you and liked you, even knew your daddy’s daddy. To a time that no matter how poor you were or what hard times you might be going through, nothing could make you feel better than a side of creamy hot mashed potatoes served with a smile. When the cafe was your home away from home, the center of town where you could always find a friend and have a laugh. Down at the cafe, where the food always tasted better than it looked and somebody was always around, morning, noon, and night, and after church on Sundays; where you had your favorite table, a place you were always welcome, as familiar as your own living room; where if they were busy, you helped yourself to more iced tea or hot coffee; where you sometimes just left your money on the counter and never counted your change.
No matter where you come from, East or West, North or South, and no matter if your cafe was called the Whistle Stop, the Busy Bee, the Melrose Diner, or the Chatter Box, close your eyes, forget your troubles, and come on back home with me for just a little while.…
It is sunrise. The birds are just starting to chirp, the dogs begin to shake themselves and let out a bark or two, and kitchen lights start to come on one by one all over town. There is an early morning chill in the air. But over at the cafe the kitchen is warm, the radio is playing, bacon is frying and biscuits are being cut, and the cooks are wide awake. One by one, sleepy-eyed customers stumble in the door with their newspapers and hot steaming coffee is placed in front of them by waitresses who know just how they take it, cream no sugar, sugar no cream, or just plain black.…
As the morning progresses the dishes slowly start to clatter and as the kitchen door opens and closes you can hear the sounds of eggs and bacon frying and the warm rich smell of fresh biscuits baking wafts through the room. The pace gets faster, more coffee is poured, eyes brighten, laughs start, and pretty soon the whole place is humming and rattling like a cage full of happy finches chirping away. And then, after a couple of hours, it slowly calms down into that soft quiet non-time between breakfast and lunch, that lull until the lunch bunch suddenly comes slammin’ and bangin’ in the door, once more loud and ravenous, calling out for the Blue Plate Special.…
This happy scenario goes on day after day, week after week, year after year, and no matter if you wander away for a day or a decade, when you come back it is always the same over at the cafe. Like a good play that has been running for years, the cast may change a little from time to time but the storyline remains the same, feed the people with love, a smile, and good food.
And although the word cafe is French, I’m sure that most little lean-to shacks that have popped up all over the country would be surprised to learn of their origins. These little cafes were not always grand but they were the very heart of the town, with personalities of their own. And when one closed down it was mourned for generations. For weeks afterward, you could see lost old men still peering inside the boarded up windows, hoping that maybe, somehow, it could come back to life. Conversations start with “Remember when the cafe was still running, that time we had lunch with Memaw or supper with Uncle Buddy?” Or: “Remember when we used to have the Rotary’s meeting over at the cafe?” People still can’t believe it’s closed and none of the new, cold, operating room sterile, orange plastic fast food joints can ever take the place of the old cafe, where the silverware never matched and more often than not was bent and covered with water spots. But still, it felt like silverware and it was silverware with a past. That spoon you are stirring your coffee with may have been used by your grandmother thirty years ago, and that knife by your first cousin just yesterday; not some flimsy white plastic “knives and forks” in a cellophane package to be thrown away. And oh, if only those old chipped plates could talk. How many faces have they looked up at through the years, how many pretty young girls have they seen grow into beautiful old women, soldier boys come and go, handsome cowlicky boys turn into grandfathers, and how many babies have they seen cry or laugh with delight? And those poor old chairs. How many times have they been kicked by children, knocked over by people in a hurry, pushed and pulled and dragged around the room, joining other tables for conversations about not much of anything, I suspect, nothing less than the everyday lives of a town full of people trying to do their best day after day, year after year.
So my hat’s off to you, all you old cafes that are gone now, and to the ones still going. You made life a little easier for all of us: simple, clean, steady, and honest … just like a good friend.