The unincorporated community of Juliette, Georgia, was slowly fading into oblivion. Named for the daughter of a railroad engineer, the hamlet had once prospered as a minor stop on the rail line between Atlanta and Macon. The grist mill that fueled the local economy, however, closed; and Juliette was little more than a cluster of run-down buildings when Hollywood came knocking in 1991.
Around that time, director John Avnet began his search for a locale that might serve as the setting of the film adaptation of Fanny Flagg’s best-selling novel “Fried Green Tomatoes” (1987). Juliette seemed to fit the bill perfectly. A hardware store (circa 1927) nestled right next to the railroad tracks was refurbished as the Whistle Stop Café, and other buildings in the area were relocated or re-conceived to serve as a main street for the fictional community. These include a one-room courthouse, a very rustic opry house, a train depot and a host of small shops.
The resultant film built upon the book’s popularity; and when the motion picture people left town, some local citizens, with Avnet’s encouragement, decided to turn the hardware-store-turned-movie-set into a real-life eatery. The rest is history.
Although Flagg’s novel was inspired by a restaurant in Irondale, Alabama, it is the café in Juliette that gets most of the attention – so powerful has been the impact of the film adaptation. The book and the movie revolve around two sets of memorable female characters, one in the fictional present (actually the 1980s) and one in the past (the 1920s). In the film’s present, the middle-aged Evelyn Couch (played by Kathy Bates) strikes up a unexpected friendship with nursing home resident Ninny Threadgoode (played by Jessica Tandy). The octogenarian Ninny regales Evelyn with tales of her spunky sister-in-law, perennial tomboy Idgie (played by Mary Stuart Masterson) and her close friend Ruth Jamison (played by Mary Louise Parker). Fellow Alabama native Harper Lee – she grew up in Monroeville and Flagg grew up in Birmingham – was so taken with the character of Idgie that she claimed that Huckleberry Finn would find her to be the perfect mate.
Idgie and Ruth run the Whistle Stop Café with the help of their talented cook, Sipsey (played by Cicely Tyson). I did not venture into the kitchen during last month’s visit to the restaurant some 20 miles outside of Macon; but real-life women, like their fictional counterparts in the book and film, dominated what is called “front of house,” taking orders, delivering hot plates, and navigating an assortment of tightly packed booths and tables in a space that closely mirrors that in the movie. Even the “sound effects” reminded one of Flagg’s creation since at least three freight trains rattled loudly by the one-room café during our meal – readers and filmgoers will remember how an accident on the tracks contributes greatly to the formation of Idgie’s character.
Fans of “Fried Green Tomatoes” in both its printed and cinematic versions will enjoy dining at the café and strolling up and down the hamlet’s one main street; but be sure not to get so distracted that you forget to stake your place on the restaurant’s copious front porch well before the 11 a.m. opening hour. On the Saturday of our visit, tourists were far outnumbered by area citizens who were there for the large portions of locally sourced food, especially the fried green tomatoes with a side of spicy radish sauce. An estimated 400 of these lightly battered tomato slices are served each day between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m. along with other menu items that come under the general category of “country cooking.” We got to our seats promptly at 11, but for latecomers the wait was over an hour.
Both the book and the film will be featured as part of the upcoming “Let’s Talk About It” book discussion series at the Aiken County Library. Co-sponsored by S.C. Humanities, our state’s program of the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Friends of the Library, the four-book, four-film series will explore the topic of food in fiction. Sign-up for the free series began this week at the library on Chesterfield Street.
Lunch at the Whistle Stop Café makes for an enjoyable day-trip destination, and one could easily combine the drive with a stop in Macon to see one of that city’s many historic attractions. My friends and I set our sights on the Ocmulgee National Monument, the topic of next week’s column.