The bright sunny day that I had scheduled for making my green tomato chutney dawned, but most of my little green treasures had obviously heard of the scheme and wished for no part in it. The little cowards ripened on my windowsill, leaving only a few miniature heroes to face their fate. Not enough for chutney by any means, so what else could I do with them? My list of recipes included several for an American speciality (sorry, specialty) from the Deep South: fried green tomatoes. Sounds simple, even if you pronounce it frahd grayin tahmayders, it’s still comprehensible to my British ears.
I’ve had some minor problems with American recipes before. There are the usual challenges everyone faces when trying to follow a recipe from a different country where the basic ingredients aren’t quite the same, such as the degree to which flour is refined, the consistency of brown sugar, and what to use instead of suet in English recipes or shortening in American ones (the best solution: bring some back with you!). Add to that the fact that Americans give quantities by volume where we give them by weight – and I once saw a brave attempt to translate cups into metric units, which required 250 ml of grated cheese – and you can get into trouble. Quite apart from words like skillets.
It’s all very understandable. Early American housewives would have had a cup handy, and it makes complete sense to use that as a basic unit just as mediaeval master builders used a length of rope with knots in it to design Gothic cathedrals. As long as you are consistent in your unit, you can use anything. And it’s also clear that these same early housewives, mostly from Europe, had to face the challenges of inventing dishes using the local produce which was not quite what they had been used to before they arrived in the land of unlimited opportunity. So it’s not surprising that there are sometimes hiccups in transferring original American dishes into a European kitchen.
Not this one, though. I was quite sure of that. Green tomatoes are green tomatoes, corn flour is corn flour, breadcrumbs are breadcrumbs (even though bread varies enormously from place to place) eggs are eggs, milk is milk, cooking oil is cooking oil. The seasoning called for was something called “seasonall”, but that is surely not an essential ingredient and can be replaced by salt, pepper, mustard and whatever else takes the cook’s fancy. I have made apple and banana fritters many times before, and this looked like a savoury version of those.
I can’t blame the Deep South accent for misleading me, as the recipe was in writing and not a youtube version. It included step-by-step instructions that could be followed by a six-year-old, and photos of each step. Make sure the oil is really hot, it said. The first nine photos coincided with what was happening in my kitchen, and for a brief moment I emulated the tenth one, showing beautiful crisp golden fritters. Then everything went black – suddenly, without warning, instant carbonisation.
I whipped all my little black discs out of the pan onto the waiting paper, with a prayer of gratitude that I didn’t have a starving family sitting waiting for their only meal of the day. I had indeed made sure the oil was hot. Actually, once the carbon husks were removed, the tomatoes turned out to be very tasty. I enjoyed them. Not quite what Aunt Jemima would have made, but I’m in good company nevertheless. England once had a noble King Alfred, who is chiefly remembered nowadays for having let the cakes burn.