“Strangely enough, the first character in
Fried Green Tomatoes was the café and the town”
State 32: Alabama - March 9, 2018
We woke up at a Walmart in Birmingham ready for another day of exploration. Yesterday, we learned about the Tuskegee Airmen and George Washington Carvers lasting contribution to our country, and we could not wait to see Alabama had in store today! Our first task of the day was a drive across town to the Cross Country Couple's, “Made in the USA” tour for Alabama; Sloss Furnace. From 1882 to 1971, Sloss Furnace made pig iron, and was once the largest producer of such in the world. Pig iron is formed from 4 natural resources; iron ore, coal, limestone, and dolomite. Alabama is the only state in America possessing all of the aforementioned ingredients. More specifically, one particular region in Northern Alabama possessed all the necessary ingredients to produce pig iron within a close geographical area. It was a combination of: available raw materials, industrial progress, demands for such products, and the brave people who operated the furnaces, which made Birmingham into the largest city in Alabama. During the Industrial Revolution, hundreds of such sites existed all across America, but unfortunately few have survived.
In 1981, Sloss Furnaces was designated a National Historic Landmark. Today, the sites web of pipes and towering stoves stand as a monument to Birmingham’s role in the American Industrial Revolution. However, Sloss represents more than just a relic from Birmingham’s past. Art classes, festivals and concerts are held at Sloss throughout the year including an annual haunted attraction on Halloween called "Sloss Fright Furnace". In addition, thousands of people visit Sloss each year to connect with America’s history of industry, and the Cross Country Couple was thrilled to be among them.
With 32 states already explored, Sloss Furnace was the first Cross Country Couple “Made in the USA” Tour featuring a long defunct business, and I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. When I first arrived at Sloss Furnaces, I saw a dilapidated, dirty and disgusting industrial complex, and tried to recall the date of my last tetanus shot. However, I left Sloss Furnaces two hours later with deep appreciation for what this site represents, and rank it as one of my favorite stops on my year long cross country trip. From a historic perspective, not only is Sloss the only surviving example of a blast furnace, it represents one of the few remaining tangible ways to connect with America’s Industrial Revolution. Furthermore, Birmingham is a city birthed from the fires of these very furnaces, and by preserving Sloss, the community is preserving its past. However, the true treasure of Sloss Furnaces is in its unexpected beauty. What man had initially constructed for industry, nature has since transformed into her masterpiece! Look beyond the mud and rust, and you will see the beauty in what would typically be considered ugly. Look at the fading weathered paint on the side of the towering tanks to see a mural created by nature evolving over time. Watch the sun cast shadows against the sites structures appearing as puppets at play. Look close at the mechanics of the machinery forever frozen in time. Each is an individual component, and is its own work of art, and together form a masterpiece! I came to Sloss to learn how pig iron was once made, and I left having experienced the most unexpected and unique beauty of my life. It is a privilege and honor to share these beautiful pictures of Sloss Furnaces Natural Historic Site with you.
After departing the Sloss Furnace National Historical Site we drove 5 miles East to the Irondale Café to partake in the Cross Country Couple's "Famous Food" for Alabama; fried green tomatoes. Traditionally served as a side dish in the South, fried green tomatoes consist of unripened green tomatoes cut ¼ inch thick, dipped in buttermilk, seasoned with salt and pepper, coated with corn meal and then fried in oil in a shallow pan.
I have never been a picky eater, and have always enjoyed partaking in any and all types of food providing they are vegetarian. However, there is one food I have always despised; I hate tomatoes! Although I can eat ketchup, salsa and tomato sauce without a problem, there is just something about the appearance, scent, taste and texture of sliced tomatoes that nauseates me! If that wasn’t bad enough, green tomatoes can be poisonous if not prepared properly. For the past two weeks, I have been dreading eating these damn fried green tomatoes. However, my cross country trip is all about stepping outside of my comfort zone, broadening my horizons, and experiencing new cultures and cuisines. In order to determine if Alabama is my new home, I needed to do as Alabamians do, and eat what Alabamians eat. Since Alabamians eat fried green tomatoes, today so will I! I asked Lori to find the best representation of the dish Alabama had to offer, and one name stood out among all others; Irondale Café.
Originally a hotdog stand, the Irondale Café opened in 1928, has had dozens of owners, expanded numerous times and has earned a reputation in the community as the place to go when you go to eat out. However, the Irondale Café gained worldwide attention after Author; Fannie Flagg, made the cafe the inspiration for her 1987 novel, "Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe". Flagg’s book spent 36 weeks on the New York Times Bestseller List, and was adapted into the 1991 Academy Award Nominated film “Fried Green Tomatoes”. In the years that followed, thousands of tourists flocked to the Irondale Café, to partake in Fried Green Tomatoes and we decided to do the same.
Exactly how good is The Irondale Café’s Fried Green Tomatoes? On an average day, they go through 70 pounds of unripened tomatoes producing 800 slices of fried green tomatoes! Clearly, the Cross Country Couple had come to the right place! As soon as we walked through the front doors of The Irondale Café we instantly knew we found a local gem. Although neither Lori nor I had previous visited the Irondale Café or Alabama for that matter, the scent of southern food filling the air, and the warm, friendly and inviting atmosphere instantly made these two vagabonds feel right at home. It felt as if I had just walked into my grandmother’s home, which you can read more about by clicking here. Although everything looked and smelled amazing, these two vegetarian vagabonds came to Irondale Café for one reason and one reason only, and it was not for their fried chicken. We had come to partake in the best fried green tomatoes in Alabama!
Irondale Café's ambiance can best be described as a homey casual dining experience. The décor is reminiscent of a small town general store, and the checkered table clothes in the main dining area evokes a spring picnic atmosphere. The food at Irondale Café is served cafeteria style in the rear of the restaurant. After placing a single side order of their legendary fried green tomatoes, we made our way through the line, paid our bill, and found a table. The moment of truth had finally arrived! On a black round plate before me were 4 slices of fried green tomatoes! I was not overly thrilled with my current predicament, but over the past two weeks, I had come to terms with the task at hand. It was time to eat my first fried green tomato! I ever so cautiously extended my arm, picked up a single slice of tomato and slowly brought it towards my mouth. The exterior cornmeal crust was crisp and expertly fried without being overly oily. The tomato buried beneath the crusty coating was soft, plump and juicy. The flavor of the green tomato can best be described as a tart squash. However, the sourness was perfectly balanced out with the sweetness of the fried corn meal. As strange as this may sound, each fried green tomato was perfectly seasoned with just right amount of salt and pepper complimenting the complexity of flavors of the entire entree. Although, I would not actively seek out fried green tomatoes, I must admit they were quite delicious, and would likely make an intriguing BLT sandwich. Lori artistically captured my facial expressions, and emotions while eating my first fried green tomato in the pictures below.
The Irondale Café is a place where you go not just for delicious Southern food, but also for enjoying the company of your fellow diners. In our former home state of Connecticut, talking to others at adjacent tables in a café would be considered invasive and rude, but at the Irondale Café, it was perfectly natural to strike up a conversation with complete strangers in the middle of your meal. We had a previous experience with this form of friendly dining in another state we visited, which you can read about by clicking here. We had a nice chat with a middle aged couple to our right who was from the Hill Country, which is an area of Texas we are considering as our potential new home. In our former state of Connecticut, we never saw the owner in any restaurant in which we dined, and would be lucky if the waitress came back to refill our water! However, at Irondale Café, the owner visited each table and clearly made a point to get to know each of his patrons. He was admiring Rosie and we had a nice conversation about our cross country trip. He shared one day he too would like to travel cross country by van.
One of the reasons we moved out of Connecticut was because people were typically unfriendly, and self-absorbed. Life occurs at Irondale Café and in Alabama at a much slower pace, and we found the experience to be quite delightful. The Irondale Café is a place where the locals go to eat, and that is exactly the type of place we love to patronize. It is a place where you don’t eat in silence but instead converse with your fellow diner to the left and right. It is a place with reasonably priced homemade cuisine made with locally sourced ingredients served with a smile. We wished we could have sat here all day chatting with the locals! True to our Yankee roots, we had to eat fast, and dash across town to the library to squeeze in a few hours of computer work before they closed.
After departing the local library, we drove 5 miles West back to Birmingham where we found a Walmart to spend the night.