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Fried Gray Tomatoes

March 05, 1992|CANDY SAGON | THE WASHINGTON POST

Most movies show food for only a few seconds. But in "Fried Green Tomatoes," the tale of women, friendship and Southern food set in the fictional town of Whistle Stop, food is paramount. "A 'Babette's Feast' of the South" is how director Jon Avnet described the film to food stylist Cynthia Hizer Jubera.

Much of the action revolves around the Whistle Stop Cafe. What Avnet needed Jubera to do was recreate the food served during the 50 years the film spans, from the Depression to modern times. Although she had 15 years of experience styling food for newspapers, magazines and TV commercials, this was to be Jubera's first film, and she initially turned down the job.

But when Avnet saw a photo she had done of a single piece of country pie, he knew she would be right for the film, and he persuaded her to change her mind.

Her worst day, she remembers, was during her first week on the job, when she had to make a little bit of all the food to see how it looked on film.

She spent the whole night before making pies and biscuits and frying chicken, catfish and green tomatoes. Naively, she assumed that everything would look fine as long as it was made correctly. What she didn't realize was that food in a movie is rarely shown up close, as it is in still photographs, so that it needs added color to look attractive from a distance.

"I can't tell you how bad the first sweet potato pie looked on film," she now says with a laugh. "It looked like hell. It was brown and ugly, and the green tomatoes looked gray. It was humiliating. I thought to myself, 'If I ever get out of this alive, I'm never doing this again.' "

But the director and cinematographer were unfazed. "Cynthia, you'll need to punch up the color on this food," was the only thing they said, Jubera remembers. "They knew it would get better."

After that, she used special food-coloring pastes that made the pie and the tomatoes "look Day-Glo to the naked eye, but just the right shade on film."

Once the filming got under way, she discovered her other challenge: Making everything safe enough to eat despite the withering heat and the hours it took to get one shot right.

"Everything had to be edible," Jubera explains. "You couldn't shellac anything. You couldn't make a pie crust and fill it with Cheerios to make it look real. You never knew when an actor would really have to take a bite of something."

And with the temperature usually nudging 100 degrees, the food had to be kept cool. She and her six to eight assistants spent much of their time rushing food on and off ice to keep it safe to eat.

In fact, the heat was so intense, especially in the cramped kitchen where everything had to be prepared, that one of her assistants collapsed from heat stroke.

And then there were the pies. Every day, for nearly three weeks, she made 10 to 20 of them: peach, apple, blueberry, lemon meringue and the infamous sweet potato, all with handmade crusts.

"I had to make five sweet-potato pies each morning, and they had to be identical. The crust had to be fluted identically. The pie pans had to look identical." This was because if a scene was partially shot one day and finished two weeks later, the food had to look the same.

In the movie, the cafe is where most of the food is served, and the place is known for more than its pies. So Jubera and her staff--with help from Atlanta chefs Justin Ward and Ron Lombard, as well as the governor's executive chef, Scott Peacock--spent hours preparing thousands of steaming biscuits and corn muffins, gallons of Brunswick stew, a whole roast suckling pig, and enough fried chicken, fried catfish, collard greens and stewed okra to feed the state of Georgia.

And that's not counting the endless batches of fried green tomatoes.

The tomatoes required some special tinkering to make them look appetizing on film.

"They're not a vivid green to begin with, and on film they looked drab," says Jubera. To improve their looks, she soaked them in green-tinted water. Then she dredged them in cornmeal, flour and sugar, froze them for "exactly 10 minutes," re-dredged and fried them.

"We used an assembly line to get it right. One person soaked whole trays full of tomatoes. Someone else dredged and froze them. And a third fried them in a cast-iron skillet."

Jubera, who grew up in Indiana, remembers her mother making fried green tomatoes. "She fed them to us as kids. I remember eating them in the spring and fall, before the red ones came and before the first frost."

As for the wedding-reception scene, although it comes as the film opens, it actually was filmed after Jubera had been on the job for three weeks.

By then she had survived making nearly 3,000 pies, frying crates upon crates of green tomatoes and seeing one of her assistants rushed to the emergency room with third-degree burns from hot grease, another with her arm in a sling from a pinched nerve and a third who pulled a muscle lugging the pig for roasting.

Compared to this, the wedding scene was a piece of cake.

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