|Fried Green Tomatoes is based on the true story of Bess Fortenberry of Irondale, Alabama|
Tuesday, April 19, 2011
Friday, May 1, 2009
In the movie, Idgie ran the cafe with a close friend and partner Ruth Jamison. In real life, Bess had a close partner and friend too, Sue Lovelace. Sue Lovelace was a very beautiful woman who came to Irondale in the late 1930's as a director of a traveling theatrical company. Bess and Sue began a very close relationship until Sue left with her traveling theatrical company. A while later Bess ran into Sue again in Mobile, Al, in a grocery store. When Bess returned to Irondale she brought Sue and Sue's friend, a black lady named Lizzie along too. Lizzie became the cook and lived in a small trailer behind the cafe. Bess and Sue lived in the large Fortenberry Home. The three women made the Irondale Cafe one of the best and memorable places in town, serving fried green tomatoes and homecooked sandwhiches. Some from Irondale describe Sue as being a "lovely" person. Bess was more tomboyish and Sue was the complete opposite, very feminine and dainty. According to some, everyone "loved Sue." Bess had 'short black hair, which she always ran her hands through, and Sue had beautiful 'silver hair, and a young pretty face.' She was one of the sweetest people in the world. One Irondale resident describes Bess as being the type of person who would 'say anything'...things one could never repeat. Sue constantly worried about Bess because Bess would stay out until midnight just about every night. One resident recalled how Sue tried to get back at Bess by pretending to stay out all night herself. She sat on the porch listening out for any sign of Bess; everytime she heard a sound she would run to the back of the house and hide in the bushes.
The people of Irondale at that time never gave the relationship between Bess and Sue a second thought because of the kindness they showed to everyone, even homeless people and tramps. Anyone one who would come in on the train, which is situated right in front of the cafe, would get a warm welcome from Bess and Sue. They tried to give everyone who needed one a home cooked meal. In the movie, Ruth had an abusive husband, but in reality none of the residents of Irondale knew anything about that. One resident remembers that Sue told her that she used to be married but her husband became ill with TB and he divorced her so that he would not pass the disease on to her.
Bess ran the cafe for 50 years. In 1972, Bess suffered a light stroke and decided to sell the cafe and retire. A short time later Sue came down with Shingles and could no longer work. Unlike the movie, Bess died first, a few years after selling the cafe. Then Sue, who was in her eighties, moved back with her family in Brewton, Al, until she died a few years later. Lizzie, developed diabetes and high blood pressure and died a short time after that.,but before she died she was able to stay on and help the new owner Betty Jo McMichael. The Irondale Cafe is still in business in the old part of Irondale, Alabama. The Fortenberry home still stands.
As you get close to the little town of Irondale, you begin to think back in time to the little community where many of us grew up. There are frame houses and children playing in well-groomed yards, and sidewalks with folks out for a stroll. as you approach the Original WhistleStop Cafe, there is an air of yesteryear with shade trees close by and well-lit walkways leading to the cafe. Giant freight trains are often on the tracks not more than 60 feet away.When you walk into the front door there are people from all walks of life eating meal prepared with tender loving care. In view is a poster from the movie Fried Green Tomatoes that the owner of the cafe and most folks are proud to be connected to, even in a small way. Customers enjoy this friendly down home atmosphere and good home cooking. As patrons enjoy thier meal, there is always the nearby rumbling of a freight train. Customers young and old scramble to get seats near the windows to watch the trains. Afterward, folks visit local shops while others sit on park benches and watch the trains, discuss the weather, politics or even the recent additions to their families. All in all, there is a down home and delicious combination of close families, good friends, and good food in a pleasant atmosphere of good times and special fellowship.
Irondale is located just east of Birmingham on I-20. Originally a little mining community then a railroad community and now a diverse and thriving town. The Irondale Cafe began in 1928 as a hot dog stand owned by Emmett Montgomery. Miss Bess Fortenberry purchased the business about 1932 from a woman named Maggie Prentice, who had added hamburgers, barbecue, and a variety of sandwiches to the menu. I'm not sure exactly when the "stand" was renamed the Irondale Cafe, but I think it was shortly after Bess took over.
Bess, who came from a prominent Irondale family, was single and had a great enthusiasm for life. She was freespirited, loved people, and built a successful business. In the early forties, Bess leased the Irondale Cafe and went to Florida to work for the war effort. While in Florida, she ran into an old acquaintance, Sue Lovelace. After the war, Bess convinced Sue and a wonderful cook, a black lady named Lizzie Cunningham, to come back to Irondale with her and help in the cafe.
The trio made the Irondale Cafe one of the most popular places around town to dine. They cooked such good vegetables and meats, and they had a thriving sandwich business. What made the sandwiches especially desirable was that they were made "to go"-primarily because there wasn't much room in the cafe for sit-down eating at that time.
In 1972, Bess suffered a light stroke and decided to sell the cafe and retire. About that time, Sue developed a severe case of shingles and was unable to continue working. Lizzie had diabetes and high blood pressure, and her doctor had told her to retire two or three years earlier.
Someone Else's Idea Becomes My Reality. I was unaware that my husband, Billy, had any interest in the Irondale Cafe until he started talking about buying it from Miss Bess Fortenberry in late November 1972. Billy had eaten lunch at the cafe on numerous occasions, but I had never been there and really didn't know much about Irondale.When Billy talked to Bess about buying the cafe,
she told him to have me come talk to her. I went to the cafe after lunch one day to talk with Bess and see the restaurant. I remember that when I walked in the front door, it was so dim inside that I could hardly see. A lady met me and took me back to the kitchen, where Bess was sitting on a stool drinking a cup of coffee. She introduced me to the workers who were standing nearby, and then she turned to me and said, "What in the world do you want to buy this cafe for?" I told her that it was my husband who wanted to buy it, but that I was willing to work with him. A lady who was working at the cafe had told Billy she would continue to work for us and she would just need me during lunch hour. I was really apprehensive about buying the cafe, but Billy was insistent. Fried Green Tomatoes Galore
In January 1992, the movie Fried Green Tomatoes hit the screen. It premiered at the Cobb Galleria Theater in Birmingham, and Fannie Flagg, Bess Fortenberry's niece and author of the book, came with a lot of her friends and associates. She left tickets for us at the box office. A couple of friends and three of our employees, including Virginia Johnson, came with us. Ms. Flagg always made Virginia feel special. Virginia had worked for Ms. Flagg's Aunt Bess and still works for us.
Right after the movie opened, tourists from all over started coming to the "Whistle Stop" Cafe. On February 5, 1992, The Birmingham News ran an article with a picture of two of my cooks holding a peck basket of green tomatoes. The caption read "Seen the movie? Now taste the title."
Everyone who comes to the cafe for the first time wants to know all about Miss Bess and our restaurant and almost all the customers new and old, order fried green tomatoes! During the past three years, we have not opened for lunch or dinner without fried green tomatoes. We fry 60 or 70 pounds every weekday and more than that on Sundays. It's almost a miracle that we've been able to do it. The people at the Finley Avenue Produce Market have been more than helpful in keeping us supplied with all the green tomatoes we need.Bess told me that another couple was anxious to buy the cafe, and she was going to decide who to sell it to after she talked to me. I went home that night and prayed that she would decide to sell it to the other couple because I surely didn't know anything about running a business. A few days later Billy came in from work and told me that Bess had decided to sell it to us. I was overwhelmed. It was mid December when we bought the Irondale Cafe. We spent all New Year's Day at the restaurant inventorying the stock, and at 5:30 a.m. January 2, 1973, we opened for business.
Bursting at the Seams When we first bought the Irondale cafe, the seating capacity was 31 for the front room and the back room even less. We stayed in the original building until 1979 when we finally had to tear it down. Billy built the new building on the old site and the Irondale cafe reopened on July 22, 1980. By the beginning of 1990 we had already "outgrown" our new building so in December we purchased the old Daily Hardware Store next door and expanded again.We've been the owners of the Irondale Cafe for 28 years now, and looking back, I wonder what would have happened if Miss Bess Fortenberry had sold the cafe to the other couple who wanted to buy it. We are really thankful for our business. We worked hard and long and had a good business before Fried Green Tomatoes, and now we are continuing to grow. No matter how many customers we get, though, we will still try our best to give everyone the same good service, the same good food, and the same friendliness that we did before the movie.
Irondale- chartered in 1887 -- One year before Birmingham, AL. Irondale is a small town just east of Birmingham, AL. It started out as a small mining town and like Birmingham, Pittsburgh and only a few other towns in the US, had all the basic materials to make steel (iron ore, coal and water.) The Irondale Cafe is positioned at almost the center of the original incorporated area. (See Our Section on Irondale)