Freedom and Fried Green Tomatoes
By Eileen Quinn
The 1991 film Fried Green Tomatoes, based upon southern novelist Fannie Flagg’s Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café, tells the story of Evelyn Couch, a middle-aged woman who is unsatisfied with her marriage and finds a friend in Ninny Threadgoode, an extroverted eighty-two year old woman who lives in a nursing home. Ninny encourages Evelyn to take control of her life through diet, work, and self-confidence when dealing with her neglectful husband. Most of the film, however, takes place in the nineteen-twenties and thirties as Ninny recounts tales of an impish girl called Idgie Threadgoode.
Viewers see Idgie’s magic both in the present, as Idgie – masquerading as Ninny – helps Evelyn find happiness in life, and in the past, as she befriends Ruth Jamison. The story of Idgie’s friendship with Ruth is the central plot of the film and is deeply imbedded with food imagery.
Food and cooking are prevalent in the film both as a symbol and means of empowerment for women. In the nineteen-eighties, Evelyn learns to treat herself well and gains self-confidence as she alters her eating habits and takes control of her life. In the nineteen-twenties, Idgie’s café is a symbol of her strength and also the means through which Ruth learns to love herself in the wake of her husband’s abuse. A single young woman living in the nineteen-twenties seems an unlikely café owner, and yet the Whistle Stop Café thrives. Ruth grows to be truly happy as she helps Idgie with the cooking and serving of their food; her transformation illustrates the healing effect of good food on a downtrodden heart, a prevalent theme in the movie.
In the still above, Ruth and Idgie have just had a food fight over Ruth’s criticism of Idgie’s poorly made fried green tomatoes. The light streaming in through the window brings a warm, lighthearted atmosphere to the kitchen; the angle of the shot, while wide enough to capture both Ruth and Idgie, shows Ruth standing tall, proud, and happy. In this moment, viewers see just how drastically Idgie and the Whistle Stop Café have changed Ruth’s outlook on life. The tomatoes that Idgie has thrown into the air can be seen as their cares having been thrown to the wind.
The types of food involved in the fight are also significant. Idgie is covered in chocolate cake batter, while Ruth has fresh blackberries and some flour smeared onto her face. Blackberries and flour are both natural, pure substances, a fact which very likely did not go unnoticed by the filmmakers. These down-to-earth foods are plausibly symbolic of Ruth’s sweet disposition. The cake batter is a rich, decadent, and very indulgent kind of food, so perhaps it can be viewed as an embodiment of Idgie’s rebellious steak. The laughter that the two are sharing has an even clearer meaning: that their time spent at the café has served to bring Ruth and Idgie closer than ever.
But why fried green tomatoes? Ruth could have criticized any dish of Idgie’s, and in the eighties, Evelyn chooses to make fried green tomatoes instead of a cake for Ninny’s birthday. Throughout the film, it seems as though the fried green tomatoes are some kind of goal that needs to be realized before one can be truly happy. The tomatoes are not mentioned in the café until Ruth has already adjusted to and happy with her new life with Idgie; Evelyn does not cook the fried green tomatoes until she’s overcome the ups and downs of her struggle for self confidence. Viewers then come to realize that Idgie’s fried green tomatoes are the embodiment of the women’s strength and their freedom to be happy. This realization brings a new level of meaning to Idgie and Ruth’s food fight; their game, started by the fried green tomatoes, is the culmination of the film’s overarching theme that food is a form of empowerment for Idgie, Ruth, and Evelyn.