The Salt of Memory— Nostalgia, Class, and the Lesbian in Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe
By Julie Wilson
Volume 14, No. 3, pp. 5-11
“Of course, most of the house is all boarded up and falling down now, but when we came down the street, the headlights hit the windows in such a way that, just for a minute, that house looked to me just like it had… some seventy years ago, all lit up and full of fun and noise… I guess, driving by that house and me being so homesick made me go back in my mind… “—Ninny Threadgoode1
Ninny’s words strike a clear, piercing note in the heart of rural Americans who have witnessed the steady erosion of their farms, towns, and lives. Trying to read about such experiences is never easy. Trying to write well about them may be even harder. One author who gives it a try is Fannie Flagg—a successful Southerner extraordinaire. A talented radio personality, television comedienne, film actress, and most recently novelist, Flagg has a distinctive style. She exhibited this individuality as early as her teens, when she wore a wet suit, mask, and flippers in the Miss Alabama swimsuit competition. This quirky, feminist humor shows up in her novels Daisy Fay and the Miracle Man (1981) and Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe (1987). Flagg exhibits a gift for storytelling. She spins her tales at the deceptively easy going pace of the Southern, rural American grapevine. If you rely on stereotype alone, you will most certainly overlook Flagg’s complicated characters and messages. Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe especially demonstrates this sophistication. Recently adapted to film, the characters Ninny, Idgie, Ruth, and Evelyn endear themselves to us as old friends. My mother and I came home after seeing the movie and speculated for hours (a
crucial downhome activity) about these women’s lives. Although we are Midwesterners and they are Southerners, we recognized a rural connection and excitedly chatted about them as we do people who live or once lived just down the road.
We soon discovered that one very troubling thing happens to the reader or viewer of Flagg’s story. It seems the subject matter induces a nostalgic homesickness. Images of rural America—especially, it seems, of the rural South—when presented to the larger culture can appear to be an untapped wellspring of bright solidarity and folksy idealism. Of course, those of us who live in the fields and valleys know that this is a tainted stereotype; yet, like Ninny Threadgoode, we can still be tempted to “go back in our minds” to an imagined past.
Nostalgia, that longing for things, persons, or situations that are not present, comes from the Latin root word nostos which means “a return.” Both the German and French words for nostalgia (heim weh and nostalgie, respectively) mean “homesickness.” In the book Nostalgia and Sexual Difference Janice Doane and Devon Hodges describe nostalgia as a counterproductive yearning that not only “put[s] women in their place—[but puts] writing in its place too.”2That place is always decidedly in a nonthreatening past. “In a nostalgic mode of articulation,” they explain, “the referent…acts as an authentic origin or center from which to disparage the degenerate present.”3 As described by these authors, nostalgia can be considered a dangerously propagandistic part of some representations. Interestingly, Fredric Jameson disagrees. He cautions us from entirely dismissing nostalgic narrative. He writes,”…if nostalgia as a political motivation is most frequently associated with Fascism, there is no reason why a nostalgia conscious of itself, a lucid and remorseless dissatisfaction with the present…cannot furnish as adequate a revolutionary stimulus as any other.”4 When we engage a novel or film like Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe we cannot ignore the troubling, dialectical nature of nostalgia.
How often do those of us who identify as rural Americans wish we could return to the past? Certainly we are uncomfortable with the present—crumbling homesteads, flattened economies, bumpkin stereotypes. But homesickness is a symptom of some systemic malady, not a cure for it. We should explore nostalgia by asking questions of it: Can a representation of rural America exist without nostalgia? Does the nostalgia in Flagg’s novel tend to most easily placate white rural Americans? What are the dangers of succumbing to the repressive impulses of nostalgia (unexamined racism, classism, and heterosexism) that Jameson describes? And at the same time, how can we appreciate the prophetic poignancy of Flagg’s rural American characters without attempting to run back to the past and be comforted by them?
Perhaps bell hooks begins to answer these difficult questions. Whites can learn much from advice she offers the African-American community in her book Yearning. She writes, “If we fall prey to the contemporary ahistorical mood, we will forget that we have not stayed in one place, that we have journeyed away from home …. We have not gone the distance, but we can never turn back.”5 It takes a brave pair of eyes to keep looking forward in today’s political and cultural climate. Those of us who are white must especially listen carefully to hooks’ words. We must find a way to allow narratives like Flagg’s to infuse us with a forward-looking strength, not a back-paddling homesickness. I don’t believe Flagg intentionally wishes to blur our vision. A close look at her novels shows that she has considered those peculiar institutions of racism, heterosexism, and classism. However, beneath her work rushes a strong undercurrent of nostalgia. The most overt manifestations of this precarious undertow appear in the film adaptation of the novel where, unfortunately, a good deal of ahistorical license reigns.
We can use the text of Flagg’s novel Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe to demonstrate several disturbing trends in contemporary American culture. First of all, it seems that we use nostalgia to trivialize rural narratives. Flagg’s stories are most often labeled “oldtimey” or “sentimental.” I believe discounting rural experience in such a way allows us to deposit mythological “traditional family values” into the stereotype of the rural American. We also show a tendency to displace class onto the figure of the outsider, since at heart we believe that American culture is classless. How do we do this? Most often by denying our contemporary class locations—other times we do it by displacing class onto race. Unfor-
tunately, we also have an habitual tendency to overlook gay, lesbian, or bisexual lives in these narratives. For example, we contort lesbian sexuality into the universal, unthreatening value of “friendship.” This is because we believe we will keep lesbians powerless by enclosing them in the homophobic circle of the traditional American family.
Let’s take a closer look, then, at Fannie Flagg’s novel Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe and see what we find there. There are many story lines in this book, weaving from the past into the present and back. We are introduced to a white, Southern, middle-aged, working-class housewife named Evelyn Couch. Evelyn and her husband Ed are coded as upper working-class—by the house they live in (tiny clone subdivision), Ed’s occupation (insurance agent), Evelyn’s career aspirations (Mary Kay dealer), their cars (Fort Escort and Ford LTD—known as “the poor man’s Lincoln”) and food and drink cues such as the omnipresent can of Budweiser.
Quite by accident Evelyn meets Ninny Threadgoode at the Rose Terrace nursing home. Ninny is a spry eighty-six year-old (white, Southern, and rural-American) who enjoys telling stories about her past. She wryly notes, “It’s funny, when you’re a child you think time will never go by, but when you hit about twenty, time passes like you’re on the fast train to Memphis” (p. 6). Evelyn’s friendship with Ninny changes her life. At first a deeply depressed woman who feels her life is out of control, Evelyn eveatually takes charge of it with the help of Ninny, Stresstabs Number Ten, and Mary Kay cosmetics.
Through her memories, Ninny narrates other story lines; these take place in her hometown of Whistle Stop, Alabama, and are mainly concerned with two white women (Idgie and Ruth) who ran the Whistle Stop Cafe in the 1920s and 30s. The cafe operated as a community center of sorts that brought people together. Of course, it’s necessary to point out that the cafe brought primarily white people together in a time of severe segregation. African-Americans were quietly sold food from the back door of the cafe.
Although Flagg does not label Idgie and Ruth “lesbian,” she codes them as such. This problematizes the novel by encouraging a more complicated look at early twentieth-century American society. In the film adaptation, Ninny says, “Everyone was in love with Ruth,” and we are supposed to know that this includes Idgie as well. Friendship, or more specifically, what Catharine Stimpson calls primal love is the dominant thread in the fabric of these stories.6 The two main bonds are those between Idgie and Ruth in the early twentieth century and Evelyn and Ninny in the late twentieth century. Evelyn is so depressed she fantasizes about suicide; Ninny saves her from this fate. Evelyn also saves Ninny by becoming her
emotional support. Idgie saves Ruth’s life by rescuing her from a violent marriage. And Ruth saves Idgie from a lonely and aimless alcoholic existence. Other story lines show Sipsey saving Ruth’s baby, and the Whistle Stop Cafe’s owners saving homeless transients from starvation. Most often, Flagg suggests that bonds of friendship lead to salvation of one kind or another.
It might be a good idea to take a closer look at one thing these women are saving their friends from—marriage. For Idgie, it doesn’t exist as a possibility. For Ruth, it is a violent and vicious trap. For Evelyn, marriage has alienated her from a good view of herself and a connection to other women. Out of this foursome, only for Ninny is marriage represented as positive and lifegiving. And incidentally, she buried her husband thirty-one years before she met Evelyn!
An important story line in Flagg’s novel tells the tale of the African-American characters Sipsey, her son George, his wife Onzell, and their children Naughty Bird, Jasper, and Arvis. Flagg attempts to place the realities of African-American life next to the realities of white life in order to show the real-lived texture of racism in twentieth-century America. This story line is important because of the way Flagg develops the African-American characters. An omniscient narrator exposes the hardships these characters face, as well as the joys they experience. These sections ground the book and help the reader resist a cloudy, ahistorical nostalgia. Flagg successfully persuades the reader that this period of history is certainly not one African-American characters would wish to return to. This information should give the homesick white person some pause. To the detriment of the film, however, the story of Sipsey’s family is not included. This makes the movie much more vulnerable to nostalgic racism. In the film, the African-American characters are only seen in servant/worker representations (except for when Sipsey attends a funeral). We do see the characters of Mrs. Otis’s daughter Naughty Bird and the nurse Geneene—but not often enough to balance out the subservient representations.
Much dramatic tension in the story comes from the character of Ruth’s abusive husband Frank Bennett. Sipsey murders Frank when he comes to steal Ruth’s baby. This murder becomes an important element in the plot of the novel. Idgie takes the rap for Sipsey, because she assumes the law will gladly hang an African-American woman for a white man’s murder. In the novel this justifiable homicide is part of the plotline, but it doesn’t really become more important than Evelyn and Ninny’s story, Ruth and Idgie’s story, or the story of Sipsey’s family. Of course, it certainly is not incidental to the plot—it operates as a taut thread that pulls the other stories together. In the film this murder is raised to a more central plot position where it provides conventional suspense for the viewer.
Ultimately, in Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle
the main event is Evelyn’s profound life change. She achieves this transformation by listening to stories about Ruth and Idgie’s life together. Although Ninny tells other stories, the ones about Idgie and Ruth are the ones that Evelyn repeatedly asks for and about. Interestingly, her identification with and empowerment through lesbians would support the argument that this story can be seen as inherently lesbian. It also seems as though the story plays best to a white, female audience of all sexual persuasions. Evelyn’s transformation is a good example of the dialectical nature of nostalgia. Although she is positively influenced by Ninny’s memories, she also nearly loses touch with reality because of her obsession with them. Flagg writes, “Sitting there all these weeks listening to stories about the cafe and Whistle Stop had become more of a reality than her own life with Ed in Birmingham” (p. 134). What about Class?
Identified by sociologists as one of the fundamental types of social stratification, “class” is a difficult term to define in contemporary American society. Much of this is because of an overt mystification of class, as well as definite regional variations of this horizontal layering. Most Americans, when asked, will identify themselves as middle-class. There are usually only two factors people take into consideration when asked about their class location—education and income. Womanist Katie Cannon challenges this simplistic notion by positing at least thirteen clear class indicators—among them ancestry, social distance, manners, values, and language. In the book The Imperial Middle Benjamin DeMott writes, “Several hallowed concepts—independence, individualism, choice—are woven into this [American] web of illusion and self-deception. But presiding over the whole stands the icon of classlessness….”7 Despite obfuscation, ignorance, and outright denial, class does operate as a major force in American society. The class structure of nineteenth-century industrial capitalism as theorized by Weber and Marx has changed over time, to be sure, yet it remains a relevant point of departure for any analysis of American culture.
Far from being absent, class permeates Flagg’s Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe—both the novel and the film. Often, however, a feel-good nostalgia threatens to blur our view of it by making us feel so warmly about Whistle Stop, Alabama, that we fail to take a clear-eyed look at the class structure in place there. By wiping our eyes we can begin to see that Whistle Stop society indeed has clear class divisions. It seems a good argument to posit that class is most obviously displaced onto the figure of the outsider—primarily the African-American community, white transients, and racist villain Frank Bennett.
Whistle Stop residents appear to be fairly homogeneous in the story; they seem to be free of hierarchy. Even Poppa Threadgoode—probably the most stable figure in Whistle Stop—as Ninny remembers, “…wasn’t rich, but it seemed to us at the time he was. He owned the only store in town” (p. 26). Whistle Stop consists of a group of like-minded, cohesive citizens. Perhaps they ultimately represent the traditional American family community; purportedly always middle-class and certainly always white.
Class distinctions become most apparent when the outsider enters the scene. We see some examples of a lower class in the figures of white, homeless transients who drop in and out of Whistle Stop. The upper classes are perhaps represented by Frank Bennett. He is definitely an outsider—an out-of-stater who owns eight-hundred acres of land. His shoes are polished to a bright sheen and he has his hair barbered regularly. Unfortunately, the film confuses this notion somewhat by representing Bennett’s home as shoddy and unpainted. Lastly, the institution of racism creates obvious outsiders.
Whistle Stop is a town where whites exist in a position of race and class power over African-Americans, who live across the tracks in an area called “Troutville.” In Ninny’s memories they are all dirt poor—seemingly only one class of people. Flagg tries to show us much more; the intersection of class and race is complicated in the novel when she includes middle to upper-class African-American characters. Our omniscient narrator shows us Chicago and Birmingham communities where the population is much more diverse. George and Onzell’s son Arvis, for example, falls in love with a town very different from Troutville. In “the overalls of a country boy” he views Birmingham, Alabama—an exciting, turbulent urban environment unlike slow-moving Troutville.
Unfortunately, the filmmakers confuse an already confusing issue by trying not to displace class onto race. In order to demonstrate that everyone in Whistle Stop is really equal, they show the town of Troutville as a shanty town with African-Americans and whites living together in poverty. One scene even goes so far as to show Ruth teaching a racially integrated group of small children how to read. The filmmakers end up exercising too much license with historical reality here. The book, to its credit, attempts to describe the more accurate situation of strictly segregated racism.
What about Lesbians?
The lesbian as a category of identity is a phenomenon new to the twentieth century. In The Epistemology of the Closet, Eve Sedgwick writes, “Foucault among other his-
torians locates in about the nineteenth century a shift in European thought from viewing same-sex sexuality as a matter of prohibited and isolated genital acts…to viewing it as a function of stable definitions of identity.”8 This shift from acts to identity impacted the representation of same-sex relationships between women. Much of the issue of lesbian representation has to do with visibility. How can one assume when a character is lesbian? Fortunately, there are many traditional lesbian cues in twentieth-century fiction; among these are cross dressing, butch/femme roles, the lesbian bar, food sharing as sex, psychological trauma that supposedly induces same-sex desire, and tragic, premature death.
From such stock cues, we can conclude that Flagg’s characters Ruth and Idgie are lesbians. For example, Idgie only dresses in men’s clothes, Ruth only in women’s—this codes them as butch/femme. Idgie also spends a considerable amount of time at the Wagon Wheel River and Fishing Club, an establishment run by bisexual Eva Bates—much to the consternation of jealous Ruth. And Ruth later tragically dies of cancer at age thirty-two. Another typical indicator is food standing in for the sexual act. We see Idgie offer ajar of honey to Ruth. When Ruth accepts this offer, we know she accepts more than just honey.
Like class, lesbianism is alive and well in Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe—albeit not always clearly recognizable. And it is unfortunately only distilled into white characters, something that should not be overlooked. Lesbianism is also obscured by a heterosexist variety of nostalgia, and because of this is perhaps even more difficult to see than class. Idgie and Ruth are firmly ensconced within the quintessential American family—the Threadgoodes. We know this is not the usual stomping ground for out lesbians! Is the lesbian invisible then? Definitely not. As shown above, the novel and the film outline several stock lesbian cues when introducing both Idgie and Ruth. For example, in the film we are led to believe that after Idgie and Ruth witness the death of their mutual, heterosexual love interest Buddy (Idgie’s big brother and Ruth’s boyfriend) they are indelibly marked for lesbianism. Interestingly, this never happens in the book. Why would the filmmakers have inserted such a scene if not to try to provide a homophobically “logical” reason for this most tenacious friendship? Upon close examination, and in so many ways, Ruth and Idgie can be seen as the classic American, twentieth-century, white lesbian couple.
The film displaces and diminishes overt lesbianism in a variety of ways, while at the same time exploits the sensuality between the female characters. Food stands in for lesbian sexuality. Ruth and Idgie kiss only once (a brief peck on the cheek during a skinny dipping scene), but they do have a raucous food fight where they have ample opportunity to touch as they smear edibles all over each other. Still, viewers are not shown a tongue kiss or sex scene, and it is possible that by transferring these lesbian cues onto the traditionally noble value of “friendship” a viewer can leave the theater in denial of the lesbianism in the film. The problem with Ruth and Idgie is not that they are invisible to a heterosexist lens, but rather, skillfully manipulated by it.
Some other questions we might ask in relation to the issue of lesbianism in the story have to do with the transhistorical value of friendship. Could the lesbian, trapped inside the traditional, supposedly middle-class, white American family be forced to serve as a vessel for the value of friendship, or Stimpson’s “primal love,” which saves the women in this story from physical, spiritual and/or emotional death? Perhaps so. We might come to this conclusion especially because of the fact that the lesbians are suspiciously only in the past. There are no visible lesbians in Evelyn’s world. This is especially strange since she lives in the post-Stonewall era. If anything, the 1980s should be the place to find lesbians. But we aren’t shown any. So we should wonder just how Ruth and Idgie are used to embody the concept of a primal love. It also seems that this transhistorical love takes a decidedly heterosexist twist and ultimately “evolves”—from Ruth and Idgie’s lesbian love to Evelyn and Ninny’s platonic, apparently heterosexual, mother/daughter love.
Is the apolitical/pre-Stonewall/non-feminist lesbian being held up as the ideal here? Idgie and Ruth are accepted in their community because they never openly identify themselves as lesbians. They are instead, “best friends.” Did Ruth and Idgie pass as straight? Or did they simply exist on the edge of an historical moment that forboded great changes in the concept of lesbian identity? Is Flagg trying to give contemporary lesbians an assimilationist message here?
Certainly we see lesbians represented in a non-threatening manner in this story; visible to the eye, but vulnerable to the studied manipulation of filmmakers who reinforce the deliberate ignorance of homophobic viewers. Because of the general paucity of lesbian representation in novels and films, however, Ruth and Idgie—despite manipulation—do seem a welcome sight. Certainly the lesbian viewer is accustomed to taking the bad with the bad! For example, compared to the grossly caricatured representation of the lesbian in films such as Basic Instinct, Ruth and Idgie appear to be the salt of the lesbian earth. If we see the story as an affirmation of lesbian agency in the early twentieth century, Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe may indeed show the positive side of a look back towards “home.” It is crucial, however, that we not get so excited about Idgie and Ruth that we cast a hasty, non-critical gaze.
The Salt of the Earth
Oftentimes rural Americans are called “the salt of the earth.” Perhaps salt can be a helpful metaphor for the situation we find ourselves in when we try to sort out the issue of nostalgia in rural narratives. How can we represent our memories of rural America without succumbing to nostalgic close-mindedness?
A bible story tells of the flight of Lot and his family from Sodom. Warned by God to flee without looking back, Lot’s wife (unfortunately, the story does not tell us her name) disobeyed and took a last glance. This sight turned her into a pillar of salt. Why did this unnamed woman look back? Why did she become salt? Her glance can be seen as folly or bravery; perhaps both. And how many of us might have done the same thing? After all, it was her lifelong home she turned back to gaze upon. In antiquity, salt was often associated with a destruction of life, a land gone to waste. Yet among the ancients, to eat salt was also to create a bond of friendship. Today we take things that people say with “a grain of salt” when we suspect untruthfulness. Epsom salts soothe our tired feet. Smelling salts bring us out of a dead faint. We know we need salt in moderate, heathful doses; heathcare workers caution us from oversalting foods. Perhaps nostalgia is the sickness we get from overdosing on the precious salt of memory. We need to exhibit the same courage Lot’s wife did and look back—even if we risk the wrath of hetero-patriarchal gods. But we must not look too long, lest our minds become rigid, close-minded pillars of memory.
We see that nostalgia can be a destructive force. Yet we also know our memories of life in rural America are crucial data in a battle against far more destructive powers. How, then, can we take action? Perhaps a few ways we can do so are by looking hard at our soft memories, listening critically to our own stories, and making a concerted effort to be aware of our social location.
Let’s return to bell hooks’ message about yearning. She tells us not to let ourselves turn back, however strong the longing. She calls us to ask the hard questions of our soft memories; to try and stretch our minds; to see our tendency to conspire with strong undercurrents of feel-good nostalgia. She encourages us to confront the mind-numbing power of homesickness. Bell hooks’ challenge should definitely not be lost to white America. It calls us to task. Part of white people’s internalized racism manifests itself in our habit of looking through blurry eyes at the past. This clouding allows us to overlook the racism, classism, and heterosexism in our history; and it makes us sick with the moral agony of harboring unethical, contradictory doses of isms fed to us daily by our media and by each other. Clinging to the skirts of an ahistorical past only makes our sickness worse.
Can nostalgic memory ever be revolutionary? If, like Evelyn Couch, our look back empowers us to make positive changes in our present situation, then the answer is “yes.” However, more often than not, nostalgia infects us with an unshakeable social illness. This sickness weakens our desire for social justice, and revolutionary impulses drown in the too-salty waters of ahistorical recollection.
A rural Kansas native, Julie Wilson, currently lives and works in Atlanta where she is an Emory graduate student.
1. Fannie Flagg, Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe (New York 1989), p. 8. References to the novel will be indicated by FGT and the page number.
2. Janice Doane and Devon Hodges, Nostalgia and Sexual Difference (New York 1987), p. 10.
3. Ibid., p. 8.
4. Fredric Jameson, Marxism and Form (Princeton 1971), p. 82.
5. bell hooks, Yearning (Boston 1990), p. 40.
6. Catharine Stimpson, Where the Meanings Are (New York 1988), p. 108.
7. Benjamin DeMott, The Imperial Middle (New York 1990), p. 11.
8. Eve Sedgwick, The Epistemology of the Closet (Berkeley 1991), p. 83.