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Literature / Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe

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Apu: What is your favorite movie, book and food?
Manjula: I can answer all three with Fried Green Tomatoes.
The Simpsons, "The Two Mrs. Nahasapeemapetilons"

Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café is a 1987 novel by Fannie Flagg. It was adapted into the film Fried Green Tomatoes, which was released in 1991.

Fried Green Tomatoes tells the story of two enduring friendships. The first, set in the modern day, is between Evelyn Couch, a dissatisfied, middle-age, menopausal housewife too frightened of death to commit suicide, and Ninny Threadgoode, a boisterous and talkative octogenarian who bolsters Evelyn's spirits with her storytelling. The story she tells is of another pair of women: incorrigible Tomboy and raconteur Idgie Threadgoode and sweet, stubborn Southern Belle Ruth Jamison, who together ran a café in Depression-era Alabama.

Ninny's rambling stories of Idgie and Ruth, their family and friends, and the colorful crowd attracted by the café, soon become the only thing Evelyn looks forward to. Gradually the stories converge on a single event: the murder of Frank Bennett, Ruth's abusive husband who vanished without a trace over fifty years ago after a late-night visit to the café.

Mrs. Threadgoode's love of life, even as her own moves toward its end, leads Evelyn to realize all the possibilities open to her and allows her to finally make peace with her own fear of death.

The sequel The Wonder Boy Of Whistle Stop was published in 2020. Like the original book, it has tons of characters (most of whom feature in the first book) and jumps around in time. The book mainly follows Ruth and Idgie's son Buddy "Stump" Threadgoode and his daughter Ruthie.

Provides Examples Of:

  • '80s Hair: In the film version, the two young ladies who harass Evelyn in the parking lot sport this to a tee.
  • Adaptational Attractiveness: In the novel, Ninny describes herself as a very tall, plain, big-boned woman who is still rather large and robust even in old age. In the film she's played by fragile, bird-like Jessica Tandy, who was quite a looker when she was young.
  • Agitated Item Stomping: Buddy "Stump" Threadgoode stomps an erector set he got for Christmas flat. While this is treated like a temper tantrum, an Erector Set—which uses nuts and bolts—is quite a thoughtless gift to give a one-armed kid.
  • Ambiguously Gay: The movie decided to play Idgie and Ruth's relationship as a more subtle and heavily implied thing, rather than outright stating to the camera they were lovers. The book on the other hand was quite explicit. In the sequel, the relationship is quietly confirmed when Idgie tells her brother Julian that she and Ruth were more than just best friends. Julian is not surprised.
  • Artistic License: Insurance doesn't pay out on "deliberate damage," such as ramming someone's car six accident.
  • Asshole Victim: Frank Bennett. Nobody gives a damn that this man disappears and is presumed dead, not even the judge presiding over Idgie and Big George's trial, who's actually quite happy that the man's gone.
  • Bait-and-Switch: A particularly tense one in the court scene.
  • Bee Afraid: Averted. Idgie can walk right up to a beehive, jam her hand in it, and rip out a fist full of honeycombs without getting stung. (Played straight in Real Life, when Mary Stewart Masterson's stunt double backed out of sticking her hand in a bee tree—then averted again when Masterson fearlessly did the stunt herself.)
  • Beware the Nice Ones:
    • What really happened to Frank Bennett? Did he just take off into the night? Drown himself? Or did the sweet tiny elderly black woman he had knocked out moments before crack his head with a frying pan, then serve his barbecued flesh as pork in the café? Or maybe he just went fishing.
    • And there's Evelyn when she gets revenge on the two young ladies who stole her parking spot and then insulted her by pummeling their car to smithereens.
      Evelyn: Face it girls, I'm older and I have more insurance.
  • Boyish Short Hair: Idgie, since childhood. Granted, this is the 1920s, when bobbed hair was fashionable for women, but Idgie seems to go a bit beyond that, and there are occasions when she's mistaken for male (including when she's masquerading as Railroad Bill).
  • Brick Joke: Sipsey holds a superstition about the heads of dead animals, so she buries them in the garden, where the nutrients make the vegetables grow huge. Later, Dot Weems can't figure out how Sipsey grew butterbeans the size of silver dollars. Later, when Big George comes to dispose of Frank Bennett's body, he finds the head already missing, leading him to suspect his superstitious mother buried it in the garden. Decades later, the skull is finally discovered by workmen bulldozing the property...but by then nearly everyone in the story is either dead or long-since moved away and there's no one left to connect it to Frank's disappearance.
  • Butt-Monkey: Julian Threadgoode is the Butt Monkey of the Threadgoode family. Even the baby of the family, Idgie, takes advantage of his gullible nature and lack of smarts while they're growing up. In spite of this, Julian and Idgie end up as companions in their old age.
  • Cain and Abel: Arguably deconstructed with Big George's twin boys Jasper and Artis. Jasper is born light-complected like his mother, while Artis is dark like his father. Throughout his life, Jasper is encouraged to mingle with only lighter-complected black people and to be deferential to white people. Jasper grows up hard-working, successful, and highly respectable, while Artis comes to resent his brother's advantage, leading him down a path of fast living, gambling, and crime. As children, Artis's resentment drives him to attack his brother with a penknife, while as adults, Jasper loves his brother but finds himself avoiding Artis due to Artis's unsavory lifestyle. The book none-too-subtly hints that the difference in the brothers' lives are due to the disparity in the way they were raised and the way their complexions are perceived by white society.
  • Child by Rape:
    • Stump. It's never stated directly, but Ruth's description of her married life makes it pretty plain that none of her sexual encounters with her husband were consensual. Stump never suffers for this and Ruth never loves him any less for the circumstances of his conception.
    • The novel also has Frank father a second of these, from when he raped Curtis Smoote's daughter. Both mother and child are The Ghost in the novel, so we don't know what kind of a relationship they had, but it's implied to have been less ideal than Ruth and Stump's, given how Smoote's daughter died relatively young, miserable and implied to be living in disrepute.
  • Compressed Adaptation: Quite a lot. The book covers nearly eighty years in the life of a small town and its residents, many of whom have greatly expanded roles and even whole arcs that are never hinted at in the film.
    • The major omission on this front seems to be Big George's family. His children are greatly expanded upon in the book and we get to follow their adventures into adulthood; Evelyn even gets to meet some of his descendants. In the film, we see only his daughter Naughty Bird.note 
    • Evelyn and Ed's adult children are never mentioned. Neither is Evelyn's suicidal impulses or her grief at the death of her mother (which is a much bigger motivation in the book than her menopause).
    • The book contains a final scene in which we learn that Idgie, while elderly, is still very much alive and charming bees with her brother Julian.
  • Creator Cameo: Fannie Flagg showed up herself as a bizarre relationship expert.
  • Dark Feminine Light Feminine: Inverted. Both Idgie and Ruth are said to be attractive, but while Idgie is blonde and suntanned, she acts more like the Dark Feminine, with her sharp temper, wild ways, and dark secrets. Meanwhile, Ruth, a dark-eyed brunette in the film, is all sweetness, light, and honesty.
  • De Composite Character: Sheriff Smoote and the judge are separate characters in the film, and neither of them indicates having any history with Frank Bennett.
  • Deep South: As per usual Flagg work, it shows both the best of it and the very very worst.
  • Deliberate Values Dissonance:
    • To most younger readers, who are brought up in a world where racial slurs are intolerable, the easy way that the characters in the book use the word "nigger" is very strange and highly offensive. Absolutely justified, though, as that was how people talked to black people in the early parts of the 20th century; even with people like Grady, who likes Big George and his family, but talks down to him when trying to look big in front of out-of-town police officers, or the Threadgoodes who consider Sipsey and Big George part of their family.
    • Grady is also revealed to be part of the Ku Klux Klan, and Idgie actually teases him and the other members for thinking no one will recognise them under all the sheets. Grady continues throughout the story as a Noble Bigot with a Badge, a trope that is still in use in the modern day but which you definitely wouldn't see applied to a member of the Klan.
    • Ninny saying what a courageous thing it was for Ruth to leave her husband. With divorces being rather common today, some might think it's not that big a deal and think the courage comes from leaving an abusive husband and fear of retaliation. But then one remembers that Ruth left her husband in the 1930s, where divorce was a huge no-no (and almost impossible to get besides, as no fault divorce didn't come along until the '80s) and when you got married, you stayed married.
  • Did They or Didn't They?: It's unclear what happens after Eva Bates leads a grieving Idgie to a bedroom and switches off the lights.
  • Domestic Abuse: Frank Bennett beats Ruth Jamison from as soon as they're married until she leaves him.
  • Doorstop Baby: Of a sort. A woman dares not come home with a child because her husband has been in prison for years. Sipsey, who has always wanted a child, races down to the train station to get it. She names the baby George after George Pullman, inventor of the Pullman railroad car.
  • Finally Found the Body: Frank Bennett's truck is found in the river. Years later, while the café is being bulldozed, workers find Bennett's skull in the garden, though by then nobody has any idea whose it is.
  • Food Fight: The director left bowls of weapons on each side of the room for Idgie and Ruth to use in the scene, and told them to improvise. The insanity and laughter going on is real. He also said it was supposed to be a metaphor for a sex scene.
  • Food Porn: Lots of lingering shots of acres upon acres of pies, cakes, barbecue and all the trimmings. The book takes it a step further and includes recipes.
  • Freudian Excuse: Novel only: Why is Frank Bennett the scum of the Earth? Because he was the child of an abusive father and walked in on his mother having an affair. Now he hates all women. Passionately.
  • Frying Pan of Doom: Sipsey clobbers Frank Bennett over the head with one to keep him from kidnapping Stump. Frank doesn't survive.
  • Gift-Giving Gaffe: Buddy "Stump" Threadgoode and the Erector set (see Agitated Item Stomping).
  • Good Bad Girl: Eva Bates, who runs a seedy watering hole and gambling den down by the river, sleeps with whomever she pleases (male and female), and is also a generous, kind, sympathetic person.
  • Good Shepherd: Reverend Scroggins. He doesn't quite get along with Idgie all the time, but is a good man and provides her an alibi during her trial. He's also the only person in the movie to ever refer to Big George by his full name.
    • The sequel reveals that his son Jessie, after some years of alcoholism, wound up following in his father's footsteps.
  • Hanging Judge: Judge Smoote finally has who he thinks are Frank Bennett's killers in his courtroom. He's been after them for years. Although the exonerating evidence is the biggest load of crap he's ever seen, he throws out the charge of murder.
  • Happily Adopted: Big George, adopted son of Sipsey.
  • Hide Your Lesbians: Between Idgie and Ruth. See also Ambiguously Gay. Averted in the novel, where they are explicitly a couple. The town's newsletter even openly acknowledges their coparenting of Stump and regards Idgie and Ruth as a married couple in all but name.
  • Home-Early Surprise: Half of Frank's Freudian Excuse is that as a kid he arrived home early from school one day to find his beloved mother sleeping with his father's brother.
  • Hooker with a Heart of Gold: Eva Bates. It's implied she's either running a brothel or is herself a part-time sex worker, but she's so good-hearted that no one except the Reverend seems to hold her occupation against her.
  • Hopeless Suitor: Smokey Lonesome knows he never had a chance with Ruth, but she's still the only woman he's ever loved.
  • Human Resources: Frank Bennett gets chopped into barbecue and served in the diner
  • Hustling the Mark: Idgie, Grady, and a number of their river club pals sucker a zookeeper into a "friendly" all-night poker game...all to get a visit from a trained elephant for a bedbound child.
  • I Am a Humanitarian: After Sipsey kills Bennett, she and the others at the Whistle Stop Café take a page from Sweeney Todd and serve him to the investigator looking for Bennett in order to hide the body.
  • Imagine Spot: In the novel, Evelyn becomes lost in her fantasies of being transported to Whistle Stop in its heyday, where she imagines herself as a beloved member of the community. She also has more violent fantasies of being Towanda, a feminist terrorist who brings about world peace by vanquishing evil men. In the film, she has a dream sequence of greeting her (unappreciative) husband at the door while wearing nothing but cling film.
  • Inspector Javert: Smoote's own daughter was raped by Bennett, but he still hunts for Frank's killer. He does talk to Idgie about his daughter when investigating and suggests she make sure no evidence is left to be found. He later becomes the judge at Idgie and Big George's murder trial, by which time his daughter has died, and he dismisses the case despite knowing the evidence of innocence is fake.
  • Ironic Echo:
    • There's a family joke told several times in the film about a flock of ducks landing in a small pond. The first time it's told by Buddy to Ruth right before he's killed. The last time it's told is by Idgie to Ruth on Ruth's deathbed. Ruth wanted it to be the last thing she heard as she was dying.
    • Two young women steal Evelyn's parking spot at the supermarket and then smartmouth Evelyn when she calls them out: "Face it, lady, we're younger and faster!" Evelyn, newly confident and assertive after hearing the story of Idgie and Ruth, then gets revenge by ramming their car repeatedly, and boasts to the girls, "Face it, girls, I'm older and I have more insurance."
  • Just Like Robin Hood: Railroad Bill is a local outlaw who breaks into government railroad cars to steal supplies, which he throws off the train to down-and-out people suffering during the Depression. While there's quite a price on Railroad Bill's head, no one is too eager to see him caught, as his stealing saves lives. Later on, adult Stump reveals that Railroad Bill was really Idgie in Ash Face working in secret with the town sheriff.
  • Kick the Dog: Or rather, kick your pregnant wife down the stairs as she's leaving you. Frank does this in the film without a shred of remorse, earring him a You Monster! reaction from Idgie's brother Julian, who nearly assaults him. Really ninety percent of what Frank does could count as this, but that moment really stands out.
  • Kissing Cousins: Ruth and Idgie in the novel (though they're related by marriage, not by blood, and it's never established to what degree they're cousins). In the film, Ruth is the daughter of an old family friend of the Threadgoodes.
  • The Lad-ette: From childhood, Idgie abhorred all things girly to the point that she nearly ruined her sister's wedding by refusing to wear a bridemaid's dress (though she acquiesced when offered green velvet knee pants as a substitute). She hunts, fishes, drinks, smokes, plays poker, jumps trains, swears like a sailor, has Boyish Short Hair, is not afraid to start a fistfight, and most of her friends are men.
  • Lethal Chef:
    • Subverted by Sipsey; she's a Supreme Chef but what she does to Frank with a Frying Pan of Doom is very literally lethal.
    • Idgie is a straight example, stating upon opening the café that she is not the one cooking.
  • Mercy Kill: In the novel, Onzell does this for Ruth, who is dying slowly and painfully of cancer.
  • Morality Chain: Ruth for Idgie. Prior to Ruth's influence, Idgie was a Hard-Drinking Party Girl who was the despair of her family. After Ruth, she still enjoys her wild lifestyle, but tones down her more mean-spirited and self-destructive tendencies. After Ruth's death, Buddy, Jr., takes the role of Idgie's morality chain, as she must keep herself in check in order to parent him. In the sequel, it's notable that once Bud has grown up, Idgie falls back into some of her old habits...but by that time, she's older and has mellowed out significantly.
  • Never Got to Say Goodbye: In the novel, Idgie and Stump were out collecting leaves and pinecones for Ruth's sick-room when she died.
  • Never Mess with Granny: Sipsey, a sweet old black woman, kills Frank with a blow to the head from a frying pan and covers her tracks by serving his flesh as barbecue pork in the diner.
  • Noble Bigot with a Badge: Grady, despite being a racist himself, stands up to a crowd of out-of-town Klansmen when they attack Big George. In the novel he's a Klan-attending bigot who uses the N-word frequently. He's also half of Railroad Bill, and breaks into boxcars to throw canned food into black communities so their residents won't starve.
    • He's a Klansman in the movie as well, as Idgie points out because she recognizes his shoes when he's in his robes, and when he says he "doesn't recognize" the Georgian Klansmen that show up in Whistle Stop. Apparently Whistlestop Klansmen have different standards for how they treat black people than the Georgia ones. This would, however, have been subverted by a deleted scene. Idgie mentions offhandedly that she recognizes the "size fourteen clodhoppers" she believes Grady wears. In the deleted scene, Grady reveals the truth—his feet (and thus his shoes) are actually quite small, and thus he couldn't have been who Idgie saw in those robes.
  • One-Woman Wail: A slow gospel version is sung throughout some scenes.
  • Only Known by Their Nickname:
    • Only Buddy is allowed to call Idgie "Imogene."
    • Buddy himself. His real name, revealed on his tombstone, is James Lee, but he's so firmly established as "Buddy" that when Ruth's baby is born, Idgie names him "Buddy," the nickname, rather than his real name.
    • Ninny's real name is Virginia, which Evelyn learns from reading her hospital bracelet.
    • Big George's daughter Naughty Bird has a real name, but we're never told what it is. Her brother's name is Wonderful Counselor, but everyone knows him as Willie Boy.
    • While we learn in a flashback that Smokey Lonesome's real surname is Phillips, it's never clear if "Smokey" is his real name or his road name. (Idgie was the one who named him "Lonesome.")
  • Parking Payback: Evelyn rear-ends a car that stole her parking spot...six times.
  • Pass Fail: Examined at length in the novel.
    • Big George's light-skinned wife has twin sons: Jasper, who's as light as she is, and Artis, who's dark like his father. Throughout his life, Jasper is encouraged by his parents to associate with other light-skinned black people, gradually earning Artis's resentment as he realizes his twin's skin color opens doors that are closed to him. His parents realize the animosity between their sons but feel powerless to change things, knowing that this is the best way to give at least one of their sons an advantage in a segregated society.
    • Jasper's daughter Clarissa is light-complected enough to shop in white department stores. Unaware that his niece is trying to pass, her dark-complected elderly uncle Artis hugs her in public (in Birmingham, Alabama, in the 1950s) while she refuses to acknowledge that they're related. Artis is violently ejected from the store, while Clarissa burns with shame over what she's done to him, but is unable to intervene, knowing she'll be even more violently ejected if the white employees realize they've been deceived.
  • Pintsized Powerhouse:
    • Sipsey, who's small and wizened in stature but who has been wielding ten-pound cast-iron frying pans with both hands since childhood. Frank Bennett underestimates her, to his peril.
    • In the film, Idgie is played by Mary Stuart Masterson, who at 5'4" is significantly shorter than many of the full-grown men she stands up to. (Averted in the novel, where Idgie's described as tall and lanky.)
  • Plot Hole: The novel has a conversation taking place between Stump and Idgie in October 1947, with Idgie saying that Ruth is at the school. A later chapter reveals that Ruth died February 1947.
  • Professional Sex Ed: When teenage Stump confesses his fear of sex (he's afraid to try due to his missing arm), Aunt Idgie piles him in the car and takes him to her old friend Eva Bates, who presumably makes a man out of him.
  • Protagonist-Centered Morality: Frank's fate couldn't have happened to a nicer evil scumbag, but the story sort of glosses over just how morbid and disturbing it is to dispose of his body by serving him to customers at the café, all of whom unknowingly consumed human flesh as a result.
  • Psycho Knife Nut: At age 10, Artis stabs his brother Jasper and can't stop when he finds out how good it feels (thankfully it's only a pen knife and Jasper survives). He also relieves his nerves in another scene by stabbing Frank Bennett's corpse. Many years later, when his brother Willie Boy is murdered, Artis tracks down the killer and cuts his heart out.
  • Railroad Tracks of Doom: Two instances of this trope happen in the story. In the second incident, the victim does not walk away in one piece. In the first, the victim doesn't walk away at all.
  • Related in the Adaptation:
    • An odd but minor example: In the novel, the woman Ed and Evelyn visit in the nursing home is Ed's unnamed mother. In the film, they go to visit Ed's aunt Vesta Adcock. This is an interesting (if random) switcheroo, since in the novel, Vesta Adcock is a long-time resident of Whistle Stop whom Mrs. Threadgoode has known for many years, while in the film, they're only fellow nursing home residents and there's no evidence that they knew each other previously.
    • Inverted with Ruth and Buddy Threadgoode: In the film, they're love interests. In the novel, Ruth is cousin to the Threadgoode children and Buddy was dead well before she ever came to Whistle Stop; there's no indication that she ever met him.
  • Right for the Wrong Reasons: The prosecutor thinks that Idgie and Big George killed Frank Bennett but Judge Smoote dismisses the case anyways, because it can't be proven and he hated Bennett. Unbeknownst to him, the real killer is Big George's mother Sipsey.
  • Scary Black Man: Big George invokes this when he and Idgie help Ruth leave Frank. All he has to do to scare Frank out of interfering is stand there, be big, and core an apple. This comes back to bite him when he's accused of Bennett's murder and the fact that George "threatened" him is introduced as evidence.
  • Scrapbook Story: The novel tells various characters' stories through traditional narrators, newspaper clippings and the local Whistle Stop newsletter The Weems Weekly. The end of the book even has recipes from the titular restaurant.
  • Silk Hiding Steel: Ruth was a Lady, but leaving your abusive husband to start a new life (with another woman) took guts, especially in the 1930s.
  • Spared by the Adaptation:
    • Ninny dies toward the end of the novel, but survives to the end of the film.
    • Smokey Lonesome is also alive when last seen in the film, while in the novel a chapter focuses on his death of natural causes, several years after the trial. (The director's cut of the film mentions Smokey's off-screen death.)
  • Straw Feminist: Various purposefully comical stereotypes show up in Evelyn's time, and after getting caught up in the story, Evelyn herself becomes an aggressive female-empowerment activist for a while before calming down.
    Ninny: How many of them hormones you takin', honey?
  • Tap on the Head: Justified. Frank Bennett dies after one smack on the head with a frying pan. A very heavy cast iron frying pan that weighs about 5 pounds and is swung by a woman with both hands.
  • Title Drop: Twice by Ninny and once by Dorothy.
  • Too Dumb to Live: Buddy and later, Buddy Jr.
  • Tomboy and Girly Girl: Idgie and Ruth. In fact, the whole reason that Ruth's called in is the hope that some of her Girly Girl ways will rub off on Tomboy Idgie.
  • The Trickster: Idgie exhibits almost all the characteristics: disdain for social conventions, dubious relationship with the truth, gender-bending behavior, seeming immortality.
  • Troubled Abuser: While the narrative doesn't try to excuse Frank's treatment of Ruth, anyone would be at least a little screwed-up after being raised by a brutal father and discovering their mother's adultery firsthand.
  • Unkempt Beauty: In spite of her tomboyish attire, Idgie attracts her share of male interest, and in the film she is portrayed by the golden tousled hair and arresting jawline of Mary Stuart Masterson.
  • Wham Line: Mrs. Threadgoode says a line early on that makes Evelyn really pay attention to what she's been blathering on about.
    Mrs. Threadgoode: "She was a character all right, but how anybody ever could have thought that she killed that man is beyond me."
    • The note left by Ruth's grave reading "I'll always love you, The Bee Charmer". Revealing that Idgie from Ninny's stories is still alive.
    Evelyn: (overjoyed) Alive?! Idgie's alive?!
  • Wham Shot: As Evelyn and Ninny walk away from the empty lot where her house used to be, they pass Ruth's grave, freshly adorned with a jar of honey, a honeycomb, and a card which reads, "I'll always love you, the Bee Charmer". The Bee Charmer was Ruth's nickname for Idgie, and the note reveals that Idgie is still alive.

Alternative Title(s): Fried Green Tomatoes