Post submitted by Sarah Grain
2013 Clifton on the River Green Tomato Festival
Thursday,September 5th – Gearing Up
It felt like the Clifton on the River Green Tomato Festival was truly in full swing when we picked up a five-foot long banner that had an image of a huge green tomato shining from it like a giant harvest moon, and five identical yard signs. That night, we hung the banner from the vacant lot where the festival would take place a week later. The lot was still plagued with high weeds, trash, debris, dead branches and broken glass. The banner made it feel real that the festival was going to happen. But the overgrown, forgotten lot made it feel equally real that much work had to be done in order to pull this thing off.
Tuesday, September 10th – Cleaning the Lot
Five trash bags, six hands, two hubcaps, one weed-wacker and one makeshift firepit later, the lot was cleaned and ready to mow … thanks to the amazing tenacity of Bob, Lorna and Molly.
Thursday, September 12th — Rain
It rained. And rained. And it was way too muddy to mow that forsaken lot. Try again tomorrow.
Friday, September 13th– The Last Stretch
After three different neighbors took turns mowing throughout the morning, the lot was finally cut and ready for set-up. The crispness of fall had set in after heavy rains and an even heavier week of smothering hot weather. We wore jeans and socks and long-sleeved shirts. It felt like harvest time … like the last chance to clear all that fruit from the vine and put it to good use.
Mr. Glen came down in his truck and dropped off three cases of pop, donated by he and his wife, Mrs. Long. Sheila and Doug ran extension chords from their house all the way to the other side of the vacant lot in order to power the 9-piece band, the stereo, and the bounce house. Sheila laughed and smiled as she talked, casually leaning over the fence as she promised two pans of fried fish from Williamson Fish Market (her family’s business), a gallon of coleslaw, and a huge sack of Williamson’s special spiced cornmeal mixture for the fry batter.
By the afternoon, Molly had returned to the neighborhood with 10 lbs of bacon for making the signature item of the festival – a “Clifton on the River” – or, two strips of juicy bacon tucked sandwich style between two fried green tomatoes. That night, Sarah and Sara went on a final store run for drinks, condiments, plates and utensils. It was go time.
Saturday, September 14th: Festival Prep
The first pan of bacon went in the oven as soon as the morning coffee was brewed. About 16 strips of bacon could be cooked at a time this way, and the smell of bacon soon saturated every nook and cranny of that old house. The bacon was tended constantly until nearly 1:00 pm, when all 10 lbs were crisp and ready to be tucked into a fried green tomato “Clifton on the River” sandwich.
At 11:00 am, Bob had already picked 20 pounds of tomatoes from his garden to slice for frying. Sarah picked an additional 20 pounds and filled 40 paper sacks for neighbors to take home, with a Fried Green Tomato recipe stapled to the front of each sack. When Sarah got to Bob’s house to pick the tomatoes, the door opened and she was assaulted by a glorious aroma of stewing tomatoes, which Bob was in the process of canning. And right there in front of her was table covered with the most gorgeous spread of green tomatoes you’ve ever seen. Green tomatoes as big as the entire palm of your hand.
By 12:27, Bob had 500-600 slices of green tomatoes mounded up over large casserole dishes, ready for seasoning and frying. It was truly absurd, and wonderful.
In the afternoon, Mr. Earl and Mr. Ted, each to their own accord, wandered over to 36th Street to start pulling out chairs, hauling tables and benches, and sorting chalkboard signs, flyers, sacks of green tomatoes, table cloths, anything that was going to go on that lot. It began to look beautiful, with benches curved around the fire pit, which was stacked high with the woven debris cleared from the lot just a few days earlier. Two strands of brightly colored hand-sewn flags, left over from Bobby and Clare’s wedding a few weeks back, created a backdrop for the “stage”. Tables with colorful calico fabric used as tablecloths created a border for the space. Suddenly this lot felt loved.
A car full of elderly women, Betty and her sister, and “Flo”, short for Florice, stopped to ask how much the Fried Green Tomatoes were going to be. When we said “free,” her face unfolded into into a joyful smile that made you think we just told her she won a trip to Tahiti. Very pleased, she confidently pronounced, “We’ll be back at three!”
Saturday, September 14th – The Clifton on the River Fried Green Tomato Festival
From three houses down, just before 3:00, you could hear the energizing force of old school soul music finding its way through cracked windows and screen doors into neighbors’ homes, on the shoulders of the cool fall breeze. It felt relaxed and welcoming, but it also felt like a party. Pastor Tim and his family were blowing up the bounce house in the back of the lot, the huge giraffe shape casting its smiling and protective gaze on the entire festival space.
From three houses away you could also see people gathering around the edges of the lot, either confidently busying themselves, or with the hesitance of not knowing if this was truly something they were invited to. A woman named Alicia came around with a basket full of the tiniest peaches you ever saw, right off her tree, and were they delicious. You would think by the size of those peaches that they would be nothing but pit. But the small pit was the size of an almond, and the rest was fruit and sweet juice.
Slowly and steadily the edges filled with people and began spilling into the center. The food table inch by inch filled with cakes, breads, macaroni, and homemade spaghetti. And folks started looking at each other like, “Where are the Fried Green Tomatoes?”
The fry station had two bags of cornmeal mixture, egg and buttermilk batter, three cast iron pans, two empty preparation trays, and a cold stove. A quick look of panic was spread among the neighbors who had pulled this together … “Where WERE the Fried Green Tomatoes?” It was 3:45, and that was not something we had thought about yet. Quickly, Tedd and Marshall labored together to get the stove lit, and Sarah grabbed Lorna and Bob. They washed their hands, and did a quick tutorial. Season both sides of the green tomato with salt and pepper, dip the seasoned tomato into the first cornmeal mixture, then dip into the egg and buttermilk batter, and finally, dip in the Williamson Fish Market’s seasoned cornmeal mixture. After you have a tray full of those, fry. Bob also got the side burner also hot on his grill, and he and Lorna closely watched the oil. When it seemed right, they threw some cornmeal on the pans and watched it sizzle. It was frying time.
While Sarah seasoned and battered the first pan of green tomatoes, Mr. Leroy waited anxiously with his plate in front of her. His right arm was covered in a cloth wrap, and you could tell whatever ailment was under there was painful. He’s been in and out of the hospital and rehabilitation centers all year for infections, and his wounds were taking their sweet time to heal.
“I have to tell you,” he said. “I grew up in the South and my mother made the best fried green tomatoes. Ain’t nobody made fried green tomatoes like her. And it’s only because she’s passed away that I can tell you, that the fried green tomatoes that you all make here at the festival are better than hers.” Bob, Lorna, Sarah, Molly and Deb rotated the frying, but somehow the fried green tomatoes kept the same quality and consistency.
And they were good. Evenly coated all the way around, spiced to perfection thanks to Williamson’s special cornmeal blend, and hot off the pan. We thought we would keep the fried green tomatoes stocked at the food table, but people just rotated through the line again and again, and grabbed fried green tomatoes, one by one, hot and juicy, for three hours straight. Some tried the “Clifton on the River”, but most didn’t have the patience to walk all the way over to the food table for the sandwich fixins. They wanted it right then and there. Some even stopped bringing plates up. A fried green tomato wouldn’t even be set down before it was eaten.
There were blankets in the center of the lot, and now the tables were filled, the chairs all occupied, and people started gathering in toward the blankets. Everyone wore nametags that had what they wanted to see in their neighborhood. Smiling faces, less crime, more parks and greenways, a neighborhood grocery store.
Murmurs of “This is really nice,” murmured all around. The younger kids were bouncing happily in the belly of that oversized giraffe, and the older kids were doing tricks on the trampoline. Sara started a fire in the fire pit, and it no longer felt “makeshift.” It felt like it had always been there. Mr. Ted painted steadily on the sidelines, carefully replicating a photo he had taken of two neighborhood kids being pulled in a wagon. It was true to form, and the children themselves watched him curiously as he painted their tiny faces.
The trampoline competition rewarded two kids with gift certificates to Dairy Queen, donated by Mr. Randle, the saintly elder of the block who witnesses everything from his porch stoop. Mr. Randle only leaves his home for very special occasions, and on this day, he was hoisted by relatives slowly up the hill and sat comfortably by his son, Marshall, who was proudly deejaying the old school soul music that had everybody feeling good. After a few hours, Mr. Randle was supported again lovingly by his family and walked home.
The festival was supposed to end at 6:00, but the band, Sweet Poison Victim, had run late from a gig they had earlier that day, and just before 6:00 the stereo was dialed down and the party erupted into a live jam of afro-beat. Drum kit, bass, guitar, horns, African drums and Ghanaian call and response singing. The children danced and the crowd lingered. The food trays slowly were carved away, the coolers emptied, drink by drink, and when the band ended 45 minutes later, the festival still wasn’t quite ready to disband. Band members ate and drank while others from the crowd took over the percussive instruments and jammed steadily while the festival naturally took its own winding down course.
As it was clear that the Clifton on the River Green Tomato Festival was soon to be a memory, Cheryl and Sandy piped up, “What can I do for next year? This is really nice and I want to know how I can help.” Mr. Owens assured us that he already had food donations in the works. He said that, next year, he is going to bring his own grill, and that we are going to “BARBEQUE.” I know he means business when it comes to grilling. Whether we originally intended to do a 3rd Annual Clifton on the River Green Tomato Festival or not, it seems like the decision has been made by the neighbors. And that’s a good thing.