A childhood treat, a grown-up delight
By Jason Frye
Early on in The Last Ballad, Wiley Cash’s new novel set in Bessemer City, North Carolina, a mill boss abandons his lunch to, rather unkindly, ask an employee why she’s been missing shifts. Intimidated, she averts her gaze from the boss’s eyes and focuses on his desk. There, a “ledger and ink pen; a small wooden globe with etchings too faded to read; an empty mug; a half eaten sandwich of some kind.” It’s that sandwich that makes the moment real to me because Cash’s description allows room for my imagination to live in the space between his words. I can picture that sandwich: waxed paper folded back just so, an even row of bites taken across the top, tomato — green and fried, because the book takes place in May and it’s too early for a red tomato and, besides, the boss could afford a hot-house green — and a little smear of mayo.
I grew up with fried green tomatoes. In sandwiches. As sides. At church potlucks and at my grandmother’s house. I learned to cook them early, showed how by my mother, my grandmother, and our neighbor Victoria Ferrell. Like Ella, one of Cash’s protagonists, I grew up in the shadow of the union; mine West Virginia’s United Mine Workers, strong and many-membered; hers, fledgling and threatened in the nest. But still, it’s that sandwich that I find intriguing.
The other book I’m reading is a cookbook from one of my favorite Asheville restaurants, Biscuit Head. They make biscuits, but not just any biscuits, cathead biscuits (so named because these beauties are the size of a tomcat’s head). There’s room for me in the recipes and anecdotes here too, and on the same day I found Ella staring at that sandwich, I came across a recipe for fried green tomatoes and chèvre dressing in Biscuit Head: New Southern Biscuits, Breakfast, and Brunch.
Maybe the cookbook pulled tight the thread between memory, imagination and Cash’s world. Maybe I was just hungry. No matter the reason, I thought of that sandwich, of learning to fry tomatoes in a cast-iron skillet, of how good that goat cheese dressing would be, and decided it was time to make a batch.
The recipe’s easy and I won’t bore you with the details, but there’s room in it for you. It goes like this. Slice your green tomatoes about 1/4-inch thick; dredge them in flour, dip in egg and buttermilk, coat with cornmeal; fry till golden on one side, flip and fry to finish. The chèvre dressing is easy too: chèvre, Duke’s mayonnaise, yogurt, lemon juice, spices mixed up and spooned over the top.
I ate my fried green tomatoes on a plate with a little arugula, a far cry from how we ate it growing up, and a further cry from Cash’s villainous mill boss, but spot on for New Southern. That first bite transported me — as did The Last Ballad, as did Biscuit Head — to my grandmother’s stove, to Victoria’s kitchen, to my grandfather eating a tomato sandwich in the shaded summer heat of his porch.
That’s what good food does, what good writing does, what good art does: It carries us away, into our past or to another place altogether, but it always leaves room for us to be and grow.
Wiley Cash, The Last Ballad (HarperCollins, 2017)
Jason & Carolyn Roy, Biscuit Head: New Southern Biscuits, Breakfasts, and Brunch (Voyageur Press, 2016)
Jason Frye is a regular Salt contributor. Keep track of where and what he eats by following him on Instagram: @beardedwriter.