Tuesday, July 14, 2009

DINING OUT: Juliette, GA: Whistle Stop Cafe

Written & Photographed by Ellen McGlynn

As we approached the lonely intersection leading to the tiny town of Juliette, GA, it became immediately evident from the small peppering of signs that the Whistle Stop Café still sees its fair share of tourism since the 1991 debut of the award-winning film Fried Green Tomatoes. The charming exterior of the café was instantly recognizable as we pulled into the already-crowded street just minutes after 11am opening, and several quaint country shops across the street (adorned with Fried Green Tomatoes memorabilia) glistened in the hot Georgia sun beckoning visitors already banished to the front-porch, rocking-chaired waiting line.

The train blew by countless times (and rather loudly) during our brief two-hour interlude, and a friendly sign on the door gave the impression that service was likely to be slow.  Despite sounding like what could have been an oppressively hot and noisy wait for a clichéd menu item, it was anything but. The sound of the train played like the score to the motion picture, and lunch couldn’t have been savored at the Whistle Stop without this essential ingredient. Rocking on the front porch waiting for a table was more a privilege than a punishment, and for that reason, I would not recommend anyone racing to the café too early to catch a meal unless truly pressed for time. The interior of the café with its plank flooring, worn booths, and barstool seating was indeed a genuine artifact of a bygone era, and the walls were papered with already-yellowed photographs of famed familiar faces and press coverage of a film that saved a town. But enough about the ambience.

After being seated in a booth I recognized heartily from the film, our young waitress immediately asked if she could bring us an order of fried green tomatoes. Undoubtedly, it’s what every unfamiliar face comes to order at the Whistle Stop, and the wait staff seemed to make no apologies in making fast assumptions. We, of course, eagerly ordered our basket of the fried green delicacies which arrived quickly and were served HOT, just like the sign says. In fact, there’s a reason why “Served Hot” gets second billing to “Fried Green Tomatoes” on the window. I don’t quite remember a time when I’d been served an item so hot it could hardly be eaten for yet another 20 minutes. Parents, keep an eye on the little ones so that they don’t burn their tiny fingers trying to hold on to these steamy appetizers. Our cast of pint-sized eaters, aged seven to ten, however, found creative ways to work around the temperature dilemma with no problem whatsoever.

Fried green tomatoes, as it turns out, are a lot like fried pickles—yes, they fry those things down south too—and are sour to the tastebuds as one should expect. Though they are round like onion rings, they are a different taste sensation altogether, so one shouldn’t approach the fried green tomato like the onion ring lest there be a bit of a surprise in store. Picked green because they are able to stay firm throughout the frying process, green tomatoes are a novelty in the fried vegetable business outside the southern states and can lean toward being an acquired taste for everyone else. Salted to taste, however, or coupled with a compatible sauce, they are absolutely delightful! The Whistle Stop recommends their special radish sauce, though we did not have the opportunity to sample it while we were there.

The children on this excursion actually had a chance to preview the menu by watching the movie in our back-seat DVD screening of Fried Green Tomatoes on the hour-and-a-half ride to the café (an excellent idea, by the way, but only if parents are familiar with the film and have the capacity to turn down the more adult-themed matter between flashbacks).  Our group of little ones found the story very compelling, and it made them want to try a classic southern menu item that might otherwise have received only snickers.

At the modern-day Whistle Stop, the paper menus are stained and worn, which only adds to the ambience of the weathered eatery. Staple appetizers such as Onion Rings (a sight to behold) and Sweet Potato Stix can be paired with classic southern drinks like Lemonade and Sweet and Unsweet Teas, which are poured from quart-sized canning jar pitchers into pint-sized canning jar glasses (the kids weren’t the only ones all over that!). Typical fast foods cleverly disguised as Country Root Fries, Rooster Strips, and Birdie Nuggets are available for less-daring youngsters not intrigued with ambiguous claims about secrets in sauces.  To this diner’s disappointment, the Poke Side Salad advertised on the menu was simply a regular garden salad minus the poke, a baby green of Appalachian cuisine otherwise considered a poisonous weed if not picked young.

As for main entrees, our team of eaters went for the Bennett’s BBQ, a saucy pulled pork on a seeded bun, and the whole rack of pork ribs. Daily fresh side dishes were chosen from the chalkboard, which were proudly displayed near the kitchen pickup window boasting the famous “pit cooked barbecue.” The rack of ribs was indeed large and extended beyond the boundaries of the platter upon which it was served. Cooked to perfection, the pork was tender and pulled from the bone with the greatest of ease. The thin glossy sheath on the back of the ribs gave every indication that this was real local meat not overprocessed and preserved for shipping and storage. The smokiness was heavy on the palate but not overdone—a kind of smokiness not yet captured in a bottle and probably foreign to most northern tongues—and the sauce was sweet and spicy to a perfect melody. The savory and sinful delight came with the occasional burst of crispy fat that exploded in the mouth with all the smoky, sweet and spicy deliciousness of the sauce but with less staying power (as it unfortunately should be).

Our choice of okra and purple hull peas as side dishes represented our desire to unabashedly explore classic southern cuisine. As no one at our table had ever experienced okra before, upon first impression, it came off as a somewhat flavorless dish made more appealing by the texture of fried batter (not unlike the concept of fried vegetables in general). Add a little salt, and you’re good to go. The purple hull peas, on the other hand, seemed more an acquired taste. With a mild buttery flavor, this legume did not imitate the robust flavor of the classic green pea but instead fell to the side of the more bland bean family, all which seem to have their own slightly peculiar flavors and acclimation time. The surprise of the meal came with the unsweetened cornbread, which I have not experienced anywhere in my adult life but in my own home.  Though its taste came as a disappointment to our sweet cornbread (otherwise known as Johnny Cakes) fans, I applaud the Whistle Stop for serving a recipe I began to think was of my own imagination all these years.

My dining companion, Meg Dempsey, ordered the Bennett’s BBQ, which I had the pleasure of snitching but not devouring. Served as a lump of pulled pork on an ultra-fresh seeded bun, the sandwich, she claimed, was not as smoky as the ribs, but instead held the flavor of a sauce with an unidentifiable deliciousness all its own. Admittedly, “bahhbecue” had never been as sinfully delicious until visiting the film site home of the trackside pit made famous by Big George, adorned now with a macabre gravesite dedicated to the film’s villain.

Unfortunately, we did not have the pleasure of savoring the peach cobbler we’d been spying for dessert as it still had 15 minutes to bake. We did, however, use our dessert time to share in a pleasant conversation with the waitress who proudly revealed that all of the produce and meats used at the café are purchased locally and all of the recipes are homemade. THAT icing on the cake was well worth giving up the peach cobbler.

All in all, the Whistle Stop Café was an absolute joy for our entire road trip family and worthy of a road trip on its own instead of just a meal on a brief stop to elsewhere. How I wish we had more than two hours in Juliette.

You can visit The Whistle Stop Café online at www.thewhistlestopcafe.com.

The Whistle Stop Café in Juliette, Georgia, is the film site used in the movie Fried Green Tomatoes. The Irondale Café in Irondale, AL, is the actual inspiration for the fictional Whistle Stop Café created by author Fanny Flagg in her bestselling novel Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe.

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