Walking along the farmer’s market one day, I saw an array of tomatoes in various colors. Red, golden yellow, purple… and then I saw it. Tomatoes as green as the day is long.

All hell broke loose.

After an embarrassing jump-and-squeal combo, I immediately jumped on the phone with my mother, who I told “Mom, I feel like I’ve been eating these things since before I was alive.”

“That’s because you have been – my sister used to make these for me when I was pregnant with you.”

As a little girl, I spent my summers in Selma, Alabama. I lived for my great grandmother’s backyard, even though I didn’t have much to play with back there other than milk crates. I didn’t sweat it, though – I was a math-y, architect-y, build-y type of kid. They were like giant lego blocks to me.

Every now and again, I’d get to play in the garden. It wasn’t huge, but it was just enough to sustain a single woman throughout her summer. I have vague memories of the other vegetables growing under her care, but I specifically remember those tomatoes.

They were just beautiful. Literally. A stunning shade of green… different shapes… all to be used for different reasons. My great grandmother is a woman who lived in a time before we were spoiled by the grocery store. “No, you don’t get to enjoy things that can’t be grown during that season. You’re going to eat what’s in this garden and like it!” You didn’t get to “dislike” a vegetable. You had to figure out a way to enjoy it.

Enter.. the “fried green tomato.” Much like many other strange recipes with decades (centuries?) of tradition behind them, the idea of battering and frying a green tomato (specified as green because the tart flavor works so well on the inside) came from that ol’ school idea of “we might only have a small amount of vegetables on hand, but we will flip this one ingredient 439,857,458,754 ways and ensure that we will be able to eat a new dish every night.”

For some strange reason, no one dares ask my great granny her recipe… but my Mother’s sister – my Aunt Pookie (hush, everyone has a Pookie) – knew it. Unfortunately, when she passed, she kept the recipe with her. I knew the recipe was lost, my mother knew it… but seeing these tomatoes at the farmer’s market pretty much felt like a sign that she wanted us to go in (and go hard) on trying to figure out her recipe.

On the inside, I’m cringing like crazy. Part of me is whining “all that flour, all that dairy, and the ooooooooil… c’mon, man… can’t I just bite into the tomato by itself?” Another part of me is shouting “Family! Tradition! DO IT!” I had to figure out a solid solution to this conflict. If not at least for my own pleasure, at least for my Mother’s sake.

Every week, I purchased a pair of tomatoes, and every week, I failed. I was failin’ left and right! But finally, after about $40 worth of green tomatoes and seven weeks, I was finally able to perfect the recipe. Trust me, there was nothing more pleasing than the look in my mother’s eye when she bit into that tomato and looked up at me. “That’s just like how my sister used to make them.” That was all I needed to hear.

Cooking this recipe brought me closer to the routine used to create a childhood favorite of mine. The challenge of identifying the recipe, however, was enough to keep me away from fried foods for an eternity. Perhaps learning the intricate details of my Southern treat ruined the mystique of it all… or maybe I only set out to help my Mother relive a moment with her sister. It certainly didn’t help to hear my mother say, as I handed her the last batch, “Gosh, you look so much like my sister.”

I don’t have to eat the darn things every day or even every month, but I at least know the recipe to pass down to my daughter… and let her playfully agonize over whether or not to indulge in a five-generation old delicacy… only to give in and fry up a batch for dear ol’ Mom.

That’s a lot to lead into a recipe… but if I’m going to share a family tradition, I can at least help someone feel a little bit of the love that goes into it.

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As I sit here putting the finishing touches on this post, I receive the word that my great grandmother has passed away today. I don’t necessarily know what to make of that – the fact that I wrote this post (and a few others) detailing my early experiences in her garden, the same garden helping her to live to 99 years of age – but I do know that she is a remarkable figure in my life. Though I’m saddened in a selfish way because I’ve lost someone without being able to properly show my love and appreciation for their influence, I do believe she is at peace.

I’ll post the recipe at a later date.

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Fried Green Tomatoes

2 baseball-sized green tomatoes

1 cup buttermilk

2 cups flour

1 cup panko bread crumbs

1 cup corn meal

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon paprika

frying oil

Take your tomatoes, and slice them very thin – about as thin as the width of a toothpick (not the long way), or close to it. Grab three bowls – pour your flour in one bowl and your buttermilk in the second bowl. In your third bowl, mix together your bread crumbs, corn meal, salt and paprika.

Take your skillet, turn it on 8/10. Put your frying oil in your skillet – you’ll want it to cover the entire tomato.

Grab a tomato slice, dunk it in flour and coat it completely. Then dunk it in the buttermilk, covering the tomato completely. Lastly, drop it in the corn/crumb mixture and shake it up so that it gets coated fully. Then… drop it in the fryer. Pretty easy.

Really, this is a good way to batter just about anything – zucchini, tomatoes, eggplant, chicken tenderloins, whatever. I definitely wouldn’t eat this kind of stuff on a regular basis, though – since the day I figured out how to make these… I’ve ate them once. I may make another batch today to commemorate my great grandmother’s life, but I at least know that I’ll have the recipe with me forever… and I’m okay with that. 🙂