Young Kim
Urban Foodie

Tomato Love

Whether for comfort or revenge, some dishes have deep cultural roots.

By - Jul 30th, 2012 12:41 pm

Nearly all of us have at least one friend we would call a “foodie.” You know, the person who makes it a point to be the first to visit the hot new restaurants and is constantly posting reviews on Yelp. While I enjoy fancy dining as much as the next person, what I find more fascinating are the simple dishes – like the comfort foods mom made when she sensed you were unhappy – and what these dishes say about who we are and where we come from.

Signs of Who We Are are everywhere. One of my favorite courses in college was called the Social History of American Architecture. I went in expecting to learn about architectural luminaries like Frank Lloyd Wright and I.M. Pei. Instead we learned to look at ordinary structures – malls, bungalows, saltbox houses, mobile homes – to see how these buildings reflected what was happening in America when they were built.

And so it goes for food. My family comes from Kaesong, a small town in what is now North Korea. Until 1492 it was the capital of Korea. But that year a general staged a coup, murdered the royal court, and declared himself king. Sensing that he wasn’t safe in Kaesong, he moved the capital to Seoul. It was like Tom Barrett beating Scott Walker and then moving all governmental functions from Madison to Green Bay. It was an economic disaster and my ancestors were unemployed virtually overnight.

In Korea we have a traditional New Year’s dish called ttok. It’s like the gnocchi that Italians eat – little dough lumps made of flour in a heartwarming stew. My resentful hometown ancestors decided to commemorate their undying desire for revenge on the traitor general by rolling the dough lumps so that they looked like a body being strangled. As a child living in New Orleans the story was repeated to me every New Year’s and the act of forgiveness is still not something that I do well. And I’ve found signs that my family isn’t the only Kaesong family to have nursed this 520 year old grudge all the way across the Pacific. Last month I visited a Korean grocery store in Chicago and spotted these gruesome things in the freezer section. The package said they were made in Skokie.

Looking closer to home, fried green tomatoes stand out as another dish that points to the past. I’ve been told that the first people to eat them were African American slaves. Tomatoes stopped ripening after the first frost and folks were hungry and they had all these tomatoes still on the vine that weren’t going to ripen. Hunger and poverty can drive ingenuity, and these folks learned that intense heat from frying could turn these hard green things into something palatable. And they used cheap ingredients that were readily available: lard, salt, pepper, cornmeal, flour, and eggs.

Many North Side Milwaukee families still love fried green tomatoes. They remind folks of home. Three years ago I learned this recipe and made it for my (then) reluctant wife. Now the springtime refrain in our house is “are there any green tomatoes yet?”

Fried Green Tomatoes


  • Three medium-sized green tomatoes
  • Two eggs
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • ½ teaspoon Tabasco sauce (optional)
  • ½ cup flour
  • ½ cup fine cornmeal
  • Oil for frying

Cut green tomatoes into ¼” slices. Beat eggs in a shallow bowl and season with salt, pepper and optional Tabasco. In another shallow bowl, combine flour and cornmeal. Heat a large skillet over medium heat. When hot, add oil to a depth of 1/8”.  Coat tomato slices with egg mixture, then dredge in the flour-cornmeal mixture. Shake off excess and place in the hot oil. Fry for about 2 minutes or until golden brown, then flip. Drain on paper towels and serve hot with salt, malt vinegar, or a simple remoulade sauce (recipe below).

Variations:  Some families first coat the tomato slices with a thin coating of flour before dipping into the eggs and flour/cornmeal mixture. Some families omit the flour altogether and dredge in nothing but cornmeal.

Remoulade Sauce

There are many variations on this sauce. What follows is a basic starter recipe. Combine in a small bowl:

  • One cup mayonnaise
  • 1 tablespoon Dijon-style mustard
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 tablespoons lemon juice
  • 1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce
  • 4 tablespoons chopped pickle relish
  • 3 scallions, chopped fine
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • Tabasco (to taste, optional)


Categories: Urban Foodie

7 thoughts on “Urban Foodie: Tomato Love”

  1. Paul Peck says:

    I have to agree that often out of poverty come dishes that are considered gourmet. Who would eat the first Escargot? Easy, it was the guy who fighting to save his garden from the snails and slugs and had nothing else to eat. Pea soup? it came because all they had were peas. When I lived in alaska, a hamburger cost about 3 hours of wages, but at the beginning of every shift in the fisheries, I would take a ball of fish line and weight it down with some bait and every night I would have fresh crab for free. Even the tabasco sauce called for in the recipe for the fried green tomatoes began when Mr. Mclhenny lost all of his crops except his pepper plants, so he crushed them up with vinegar and salt and started to sell the sauce. I completely agree that the finest of all cuisine always had the humblest of beginnings. But the one thing about fried green tomatoes, they are best with onions, summer squash and of course, mushrooms.

  2. Young Kim says:

    Thanks, Paul! You’re right on all counts. But I’m curious … how do you prepare the onions, squash and mushrooms with the FGTs?

  3. jeane meyers says:

    And popcorn? Pretend you were the first to ever see that kernel metamorphose into popcorn. Would you EVER put it into your mouth?

  4. Paul Peck says:

    Bread it, fry it, smother it in gravy and add tabasco to everything except your baking….that pretty much sums up the way they do it on the delta, and its a good way.

    breaded and fried green tomatoes with Remoulade sauce…..I can smell my aunt ruby’s cooking right now!

    there is a basic down and dirty way to enjoy fried green tomatoes.

    I like zucchini, and onions and mushrooms. If one thinks about it, green tomatoes and zuchhinni would balance well the earthy savory flavors of mushrooms and onions and if one adds spices like tabasco sauce, cajun or caribbean spices, one has a nice dynamic flow of flavor.

    I chop them up of various sizes. I like larger chunks of the tomatoes. I think they would go well with with zucchini , onions and mushrooms, so chop them up too.

    Saute them on a flat iron skillet and salt, pepper, and sprinkle cajun spices on the top as they sizzle.

    And there you are Mr. Kim….a down and dirty yankee version of a southern classic with mushrooms and summer squash.

    One can even elaborate. Let us say one starts with some chicken or pork. Cut into small slices and begin the saute as meat takes longer to cook. Once the meat has started, then add the chopped onions, Green tomatos, zucchini, and saute together. When its all cooked, one can remove the sauted mixture, then take some chicken stock, white wine, or chicken stock and wine vinegar and pour it in the pan and loosen all the pan scrapings into the liquid and reduce the liquid over the heat. Sift in some flour or corn starch and one has a gravy custom made from all the pan drippings.

    Serve the saute over rice, topped off with your custom pan sauce.

    and if you really want to leave the delta and enter into the caribbean region and walk on the wild side, you could take some some jamacian jerk meat and throw it into the saute. When the saute is done, mix it with rice, blanch cabbage leaves and roll the mix in the leaves like an enchillada….and pour on some enchillada sauce or other sort of spicy creation that suites your taste. bake @450 for about 45 minutes if you use uncooked rice, about half that time @ 350 if the rice is already cooked.

  5. Young Kim says:

    Thank you. There should be a rule about posting this stuff right before lunch…

  6. Paul Peck says:

    true enough Mr. Kim….I get a bit carried away….sorry.

  7. Karen Engelking says:

    My very favorite Depression-era dish is classic macaroni and cheese – my grandmother’s recipe. This very humble dish is ironically being served in the finest restaurants with fancy cheeses and such, but it’s still mac and cheese to me!

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