In this uncertain world, as the holidays approach, one day will happily remain the same. Each of us will have our own special childhood Christmas memories. No matter how old we may be or how far away from home we may have roamed, there will still be a small part of us that longs to return to those happy days. For Southerners, I think, food can be the best way to recapture childhood Christmases. As for me, even after having lived in California for so many years, Christmas does not feel like Christmas until I've received my first tin of pecans from South Alabama, and then my Southern whiskey cake from Birmingham (baked by my friend Mrs. Norma Warren), and my jars of green pepper jelly and fig preserves. Then, last but not least, my own homemade Southern ambrosia salad. I suppose the real reason Southerners still love and crave the foods of those long-ago childhood Christmases is family tradition: something handed down from people we love, something handed down from people we miss. For us, food is a touchstone, a way to remember who we are and where we came from. I'd like to share my special childhood Christmas memory with you.
The year was 1952. At the time, I was a rather lonely and shy 9-year-old only child being raised in an apartment building in the large, iron-coal-and-steel city of Birmingham. My father was a motion picture machine operator at one of the big movie houses downtown. This meant that throughout my childhood, he always worked on Christmas. And as my mother wasn't a cook, the holiday dinner for me came to mean the two of us going downtown to a restaurant and spending it with a roomful of strangers. I tell you this so you will understand why that Christmas of 1952 stands out in my memory as the best one ever.
That year, my father had decided to move our family from Birmingham down to Gulf Shores, Alabama, and open a malt shop. As we'd be leaving Birmingham in the spring and didn't know when we'd return, my mother thought it would be nice for us to drive out to the nearby little railroad town of Irondale, Alabama, to spend Christmas Day with her mother's sister, my great-aunt Bess Fortenberry, someone I'd never met but had heard a lot about.
Sarah Elizabeth Fortenberry (or Bess, as she was called all her life) was the youngest of the eight Fortenberry children, and they said Bess was just born funny. She was a little devil, a tomboy who played sports with the boys and jokes on her older sisters. Bess once put white flour in my grandmother's face-powder box, and needless to say, my grandmother was not very happy about it. Also to my grandmother's dismay, as Bess grew up, she was known to "take a little drink" once in a while. She also enjoyed poker games and hunting and fishing.
Years later, as all three of the elder Fortenberry girls married and moved away from Irondale, Bess' father, who was getting older, feared that because she was so free-spirited and independent, she might never marry. And so in 1932, as a way to make sure she would always be able to take care of herself, he bought Bess a little business to run across the tracks from the big, two-story Fortenberry family home. It started as a hot dog stand, and later that little business went on to become the "Whistle Stop Cafe."
Irondale was mostly a railroad town, and the railroad switching yards located out there serviced the transport of iron, coal, and steel across the country. The so-called downtown was only a half block long, and the cafe was the main business. During those days, about 50 trains passed by the cafe daily, and each engineer had a different whistle to say hello to Bess Fortenberry. She loved to feed people. To accommodate all the railroad workers, the cafe opened at 5:30 a.m., and much of her breakfast business came from those men. Most were old bachelors with no family of their own, and the cafe became their home.
As we drove way out to Irondale on that Christmas in 1952, I didn't know what to expect. The cafe turned out to be a small green building with four wooden booths and a few tables—and 11 or 12 old "uncertain" chairs, as Bess called them, because it was uncertain whether they would hold you up.
It was a cold, gray Alabama day, but the moment we walked in, almost as if by magic, the entire atmosphere suddenly changed. Inside, the room was warm and cozy and filled with the sounds of laughter and the most delicious-smelling food. Holiday music was blasting from a small brown radio on the shelf, and colorful Christmas lights were blinking on and off everywhere. The place—which never sat more than 40 people—was packed with railroad men, neighbors, children, and even a few dogs. In the corner was a small Christmas tree, and hanging over the counter was a deer head with a red Christmas ball on its nose. Aunt Bess, a small lady who had curly gray hair and was wearing a Santa hat and Christmas elf shoes, greeted us warmly and led us to our table of honor.
I did not know it at the time, but every Christmas Day, Bess opened the cafe and offered a free dinner to all her customers and anybody who needed a meal. Everyone was welcome. Her two wonderful cooks, Lizzie Cunningham and Virginia Johnson, had come in very early that morning and started preparing the meal. And the food! Oh my, I had never seen anything like it in my life. There was a long counter laid out with plates of turkey and dressing, roast beef, ham, barbecued ribs, fried chicken, chicken and dumplings, chicken-fried steak and gravy, buttermilk biscuits, cornbread, fried okra, black-eyed peas, butter beans, green beans, turnip greens, collard greens, homemade macaroni and cheese, mashed potatoes, candied yams with marshmallows, squash casserole, and yes…even fried green tomatoes.
It was quite a feast, but being a child, I immediately set my sights on the desserts: bowls of creamy rice pudding, pecan pie, butterscotch pudding, coconut cream pie, lemon icebox pie, mincemeat pie, and what would become my all-time favorite Christmas dessert, ambrosia—a simple dish of fresh, cut-up oranges and coconut mixed together.
Not only did the food look and smell good; it was the best food I had ever had in my life. I'd eaten in restaurants, but this was homemade food cooked entirely from scratch.
Then, when everyone was all done (I had five desserts), more fun began. Bess had presents wrapped under the tree for all of her friends, and the old railroad men got presents too—cartons of cigarettes, Old Spice aftershave, plugs of chewing tobacco, a pint of Wild Turkey whiskey, and packs of playing cards. Something for everyone. When Aunt Bess called my name, I picked up my present. Inside was a small glass locomotive filled with little candy beads. I ate the candy, of course, and believe it or not, I still have that glass locomotive to this day.
As I look back, I realize that until then, I had seen a lot of movies about Christmas, but that was the first time I had ever been part of a real live community of people for the holiday. As the years went by, I learned more about Aunt Bess and understood why she was so loved. The Great Depression had been especially hard in Alabama, and a lot of people went hungry during those dark, scary days. But as the legend goes, thanks to Bess, not one person in Irondale ever went hungry. They also say that there wasn't a hobo within 100 miles who hadn't stopped in for a free meal. And even after the Depression, if Bess heard someone in town was sick, a hot meal would quietly be left on their front porch.
She loved all people, children and adults, black and white, rich or poor, and she was loved back. Over the years, whenever we returned to Birmingham, I would go and visit Aunt Bess, and she never changed. She was always fun, always full of mischief.
And then one day in 1972, while I was living in New York, I heard from my mother that, due to health reasons, Aunt Bess had retired and sold the cafe to a wonderful family. But she could never retire from being who she was and remained the unofficial mayor of the town. True to her father's concern, Aunt Bess never did marry, but it didn't seem to bother her much. She clearly enjoyed being an independent woman, a rare thing in those days. And as she often announced, "Listen, they may put a "Miss" on my tombstone, but I promise you…I haven't missed a thing." I believed her.
When Bess passed away, my mother informed me that she had left me something in her will. To my surprise, my inheritance was a shoe box full of the most wonderful things: a few old menus from the cafe, some of her original recipes, photos of her railroad pals, her birth certificate, her high school diploma, a treasured marble, and a child's lock of hair from long ago tied with a small blue ribbon. I will never know why she left me those things, but years later, from that shoe box came my longing to bring that time and that place back to life once more. From that shoe box came the novel Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe.
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Of course, as it must, life moves on. Bess is gone, and the little Irondale Cafe—thanks to the popularity of the movie Fried Green Tomatoes and the wonderful food it still serves—has expanded to be a half block long and fries up over 500 pounds of tomatoes a week. The memory of Aunt Bess and that special Christmas I spent in 1952 at the original cafe still lingers. As someone once said: "Funny how a little knockabout like that brought so many people together."
Flagg's latest book, The Whole Town's Talking, is available now.