By Reed Smith
Irondale Cafe, or more popularly, Whistle Stop Cafe, is a Southern “Meat-and-Three” type restaurant residing in Irondale, Alabama. For those unaware of the term, a meat-and-three refers to the food served at these types of restaurants. Diners typically move down a line like in a cafeteria with a tray and pick a meat and three vegetables, a biscuit or a roll, and a dessert. Many meat-and-three restaurants in Alabama are owned by Greek immigrant families (Southern Foodways Alliance created an infographic shown at the bottom); however, Irondale Cafe was started by a white family in 1928. It started as a hotdog stand on the side of the train tracks in that part of town. Then, in 1933 Fannie Flagg’s husband bought her the brick and mortar building that still stands today. It is no longer owned by the Flagg family, but the current owner, Jim Dolan, still keeps it as original as possible. I had the opportunity to speak with Mr. Dolan and he told me about the history of the little cafe. It was a surprise present for Mrs. Flagg in 1933 and her husband helped out until he had to report for duty in World War II. Her and her family and friends ran the restaurant. They cooked everything from scratch, a style of cooking still followed today. In 1991, the restaurant was featured in the popular film Fried Green Tomatoes. It still functions as a meat-and-three today, continuing the tradition of the trays and cafeteria line like it did in the 1930s.
Searching for the original menu proved to be quite a feat for the simple reason that the daily servings were written up on a chalkboard and thus have no surviving paper forms. The Irondale Cafe’s recipes, however, have been compiled into a cookbook that is still available to purchase today. I was worried there would be discrepancies between what one finds in its pages and what can be found in the dining room today, but Mr. Dolan reassured me that these are the same recipes that the restaurant has used for more than 80 years.
The cookbook features a little blurb about Fannie Flagg and the cookbook’s writer Mary Jo Smith McMichael, Flagg’s close friend at the time. Additionally, it includes all kinds of interesting side information. For instance, it includes the breakdown of an Allspice mixture, the conversion rate for pounds of shelled peas to pounds of unshelled peas, and substitutes for any ingredients you may not have. At the end of the introduction it also includes what a week would look like for the restaurant. After all that stress about not finding an original menu, it was right there in Mary Jo’s cookbook.
For this project, I plan to cook a typical meat and three meal featuring dishes of vegetables and protein that are currently in season and would likely be served at the restaurant during this time. I plan to start with biscuits and butter. Many restaurants in the south during this time served biscuits as an appetizer because they were easy to make, always in season, and filing. Since I am a pescatarian, I plan to make Salmon Croquettes with Broccoli Casserole, and Candied Yams served with a New Orleans Remoulade Sauce. Finally, for dessert, I will be making a Pecan Pie. Personally, I hate pecan pie, but if you don’t know how to make a pecan pie then many native Alabama people will shame you, so it’s necessary.
I feel it is important to focus on the “in season” aspect of this project. For those who do not know, it’s actually pretty difficult to find meat and three veggies that are all currently in season. Additionally, being able to find these ingredients fresh instead of frozen is another difficult task. Many farmers markets around this time of year are not open and the fresh produce at the store can come from anywhere in the United States. The only frozen ingredients I have at this moment are the pecans for my pecan pie, and that is just so they remain fresh until I use them. I found it odd, but in the recipe book it called for the salmon to be canned salmon instead of fresh salmon. However those are the only two things I can currently think of that are not fresh ingredients.
After cooking everything, I found out a few things that I think are worth mentioning. Firstly, all of this food could never be prepared by only one person. As you can see in my video, my father helped me a lot in this endeavor and I could not have done it without him. It would have taken me all day for two dishes. Secondly, a lot of these materials are harder to find fresh than you would think. The recipes are also kind of vague. For instance, I expected the salmon croquettes to require fresh salmon, yet it asked for canned salmon instead. I found that odd. The same thing happened when I was making the pie. I prepared my own crust, however the recipe called for a premade crust. Additionally, I quadrupled the original salmon croquette recipe because it only made eight patties.
All of the food turned out spectacular. It was worth every second I put into the meals. There was skepticism in my family of eaters for how certain things were done. For instance, there is no butter in the pecan pie. There is self rising flour in the croquettes, and the buttermilk is mixed into the flour much like making noodles. Aside from all their skepticism, they too were quite pleased with the turnout of my food.