A Night in Old San Antonio has returned. Are you ready to party?
Time to fry the green tomatoes.
Several thousand San Antonians certainly were as Tuesday night’s opener attracted large crowds of people hungry for anticuchos, Bongo K-Bobs, shrimp fingers or some other treat they only encounter once a year. And they wanted to wash it down with a cold beer or a cup of chilled Barefoot Bay wine. In other words, it was business as usual, which is the way San Antonio likes it.
After the parade that launches the four-day fundraiser for the San Antonio Conservation Society, the bands began to play, and soon lines were forming at various food booths throughout the various areas inside La Villita.
For the past 16 years, I have worked at a different food booth each year, helping make everything from calf fries and escargots to Shypoke Eggs and bean tacos. Most of those have been fairly large booths, with a dozen or so workers in assembly lines making sure every step of, say, preparing the fried mushrooms is followed before each basket of golden brown treats is re served to a waiting customer.
A customer at the fried green tomato booth.
This year, however, I found myself at the fried green tomato booth deep in the heart of the Main Street U.S.A. section. This is a Southern specialty reintroduced to the dining public at large in the 1991 movie of the same name and the Fannie Flagg novel on which it was based, which had the longer title of “Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe.”
But no matter where you heard of the treat, there is no movie or book that can take the place of sampling one in real life. That said, only four or five of us were needed to keep turning out orders, even when demand was stready, which was true of most of the first half of the evening.
The booth is overseen by Roland and Sara Garza, who have made fried green tomatoes for the past 10 or 12 years. The exact amount of time they’ve volunteered isn’t important to them. The Garzas were more focused on making sure that everything was running smoothly and that there was little or no waiting on the part of the customers.
To do that, you start by slicing the tomatoes, which was made easy by an industrial slicer that provided cuts of equal width.
In the meantime, Roland would whisk up the thick batter with some water and pour it over the tomato slices.
Roland Garza (left) shows Jason Ornelas how to fry the tomatoes.
For about 90 minutes or so, I then took the breaded slices and tossed them into a fryer that had been heated to 400 degree. It was then a matter of watching the slices sizzle and occasionally release some steam on their way to a beautiful golden brown. Occasionally, a slice would stick to the fry basket, but a good shake would release it, and all would eventually float to the surface while I monitored their progress.
Once they had drained, the slices of fried tomatoes were arranged in orders by Ryszard Debski, who handed them over to either Herlinda Arnold or Sara, who were serving the customers and collecting three tickets for each order.
Fairly simple, right?
Yes and no. You do have to keep tabs on how the orders were selling, so you could gauge how many fry baskets of tomatoes you needed in operation. That’s because the customers arrived in waves, and you didn’t want the tomatoes so hot that people would burn their fingers. You also didn’t want any leftovers that would be cold by the time they were sold. So, I would go back and forth between having two and four baskets frying at the same time.
The final product.
And you don’t want to burn your fingers from hot oil splashing all over the place.
The booth’s best nights are Tuesday and Thursday. The opening evening always draws those customers who have waited all year for an order of fried green tomatoes, and one bite would convince you that there are a great many people who feel this way. The almost-too-hot-to-touch slices are crunchy on the outside, yet have a tangy center that the unripe tomato slice gives off. Heating it also releases a little sweetness. Of course, slathering some ranch dressing and sprinkling a little salt on top never hurt anything, either.
The grease is what draws people on Thursday nights, Roland says. That night is usually full of college students consuming copious amounts of beer. They need a little grease and carbohydrates to absorb some of the alcohol, he says, so they seek out the fried green tomatoes for a little relief.
Green tomato slices..
On both of those nights, the booth will go through two or more cases of green tomatoes. After 90 minutes Tuesday, Roland had to fetch another case. The clear, breezy night weather was made for this uniquely American treat, and the ticket bucket was filling up.
By then the second shift of Jacqueline Treviño, a three-year veteran of the booth, and her fiance, newcomer Jason Ornelas, had shown up, and Roland had to teach another newcomer the fine art of frying up green tomato slices.
I moved to the front of the line then and was able to talk to quite a few customers, many of whom shared their fried green love stories. There were even some repeat customers in line.
“I just have to have these,” one lady said. “It’s not NIOSA without them.”
After my own basket of these beauties, I have to agree. I’ll be back.
NIOSA continues through Friday. For more information on the event, click here.
Sara and Roland Garza (left and center) catch up withAnn Mercer, former booth chairman and soon to be chair of the whole Main Street U.S.A. section of NIOSA.