Do you conjure up winter dreams of summer foods that make you weak-kneed with desire? I get that way around this time of year when I remember green fried tomatoes. First, I apologize to my southern friends who order this delicacy year around from their local eatery and fork it up with their grits and biscuits with barely a thought. I’ve had a plate of your version on my infrequent visits to your neck of the woods. The reaction has always been disbelief that you guys really like these little discs of light green blandness and actually reorder on return visits.
Here’s the other side of the story. Michigan green fried tomatoes are only available in individual farm kitchens from the middle of August until hard frost. They are gathered from the sunny side of the garden after the vines have fully matured and ripe tomatoes have become the norm, not the miracle they were when they first appeared. Only certain green tomatoes make the cut. Nothing hard and lumpy and misshapen will do. The fruit must be voluptuous and full, showing a hint of pink on the bottom and a darker shade of pale orange on the inside when it is sliced.
One or two eligible tomatoes are only enough to annoy one; there must be several to slice and fry, preferably in ample quantity to assure a dozen or so slices per diner, with a plate of extras to cool and save for breakfast when it will be eaten cold with equal fervor.
Now begins the ritual, the slow dance in which the cook engages with the mound of prime tomatoes.
First, the large, ancestral Griswold iron skillet is placed on the largest burner of the range to heat slowly. A large pie pan has a cup of flour spread on the bottom for dredging the slices. Then the tomatoes are cut into three or four slices, with the crown and blossom end sliced off leaving the meaty centers exposed. Each slice is dipped in flour and transferred to a platter to grow a bit gummy as the juice blends with the coating.
Then the oil is added to the skillet. The best oil is light and delicate, allowing the heady tomato flavor to dominate. When it is just short of smoking hot, the tomato slices are arranged in the pan. Then patience must be exercised. No peeking is allowed. No surreptitious lifting of the slice in the middle to check the bottom for color. When the slices are adequately browned the cook feels it in her bones. There is a certain look the beautiful little circles take on when the bottoms are crisp and a golden brown that starts to climb up the sides and signals that it is time to turn the slices.
Then the wait begins anew. You stand there looking at heaven in a pan, almost attainable, but needing to finish the bottom golden crust before you lift each slice and arrange it on a platter. When the last slice is transferred, the fire turned off, and the skillet moved away from the heat, the diner must exercise the last bit of restraint before she digs in. The tomatoes must cool slightly, enough to keep from blistering the tongue, and with adequate time to allow the flavors to mellow and spread into a riot of exquisite tangy juiciness.
Then the moment of purest joy arrives; the first forkful lifted and accepted by an exuberant mouth. Everything around you fades to unimportant. The taste, the texture, the bouquet – that is enough to transport you to a place as close to paradise as one can hope to visit.
And THAT, my Southern friends, is a Michigan green fried tomato. Come north and I’ll make you a plate. But check before you come; I’ll need to see if my tomatoes have reached that ephemeral stage of perfection that is worthy of my ancestral Griswold.