After Ruth died and the railroad stopped running, the café shut down, and everyone just scattered to the winds. It was never more than a little knockabout place. Now that I look back on it, when the cafe closed the heart of the town just slopped beating. It’s funny how a little place like this brought so many people together….
WITH THOSE WORDS. SPOKEN BY ACTRESS Jessica Tandy in the role of Ninny Threadgoode, last year’s sleeper hit movie Fried Green Tomatoes came to a poignant close. Based on Fannie Flagg’s 1987 novel, Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, the film portrayed the mythical town of Whistle Stop, Ala., as a southern Lake Wobegon, a community populated by characters of vast eccentricity who shared their dreams and disappointments over eggs, grits and, yes, fried green tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe.
Ninny and her kith and kin are now in videocassette heaven, but the real-life Whistle Stop Cafe lives on as a tourist attraction. Nestled on the site of the old general store in Juliette, Ga., the tiny hamlet (pop. 550) some 90 miles south of Atlanta where Tomatoes was filmed, the café has dished up barbecue, candied yams, collard greens, peach cobbler and its trademark tomatoes to more than 1,200 customers a week since it opened its doors last April. Folks from as far away as Iceland and Egypt have sampled the 45-seat café’s cooking—often rushing outside in wonder when a Southern Railroad freight comes rumbling past. “It’s amazing,” says Jerie Lynn Williams, 41, co-owner and full-time manager of the gently bustling Whistle Stop. “It’s as if people had never seen a train before. One woman thought we had staged the whole thing.”
In a way, she and Robert Williams, 50, a lifelong resident of Juliette to whom she is not related, did just that. It all began when Jerie, a native of Colonial Heights, Va., moved to Georgia 11 years ago with her husband, David, and their children, Tracie, now 20, and Terri, now 16, after David, a tobacco-company manager, was transferred to nearby Forsyth. By then, Juliette, like the mythical Alabama town it came to represent, had seen its heartbeat all but cease. The gristmill, and then the cotton mill, had shut down in the ’50s, leaving the town’s main (and only) street a tattered line of abandoned shires and homes. “”I low antiques and old houses and the old traditions,” says Jeri, a former nurse and elementary-school teacher, “and I kepi wishing there were a way to revive the area.”
When her husband died two years ago, Jerie began discussing her notions with Robert Williams, who had inherited the general store from his father, Ed, Juliette’s leading citizen. Robert, a physical-training coordinator at Georgia’s Public Safety Training Center in Forsyth, liked her ideas, and together they began buying and renovating the old stores. “Our goal,” says Jerie, “was to put people in these shops selling arts and crafts and antiques, and to put life back in the town.”
A few shops—including an antiques emporium in the former general store—were already open when Universal began scouting locations for Tomatoes in 1990. As Jerie remembers, “They were here, inside what is now the café, when a train suddenly came by. They went running out to see it, and I think they made their minds up then and there that Juliette; was Whistle Stop.”
So the antiques shop moved, and up went the prop café. And when Hollywood departed, Robert began thinking about turning tin; Whistle Stop into a working restaurant. Folks thought he was touched. As he recalls, “Even the health inspector said to me, ‘Who you gonna feed?’ ”
And who was gonna mind the grill? Not Jerie, who knew nothing about running a restaurant and didn’t like to cook anyway. But since Mable’s Table—the town’s only restaurant—had already closed down, Jerie was able to persuade Mable’s cook to come and work for her. Plus, Jerie did have something special to bring to the kitchen: her grandmother’s recipe for fried green tomatoes.
So the Whistle Stop opened on April 16, serving breakfast and lunch monday through Saturday and dinner on Sunday. It was not a seamless beginning. “There was something about the café on Macon television and in the newspapers,” Jerie says, “and people all started to come. We hadn’t ordered near enough food, and Robert even had to get someone to help with the dishes. I think I cried for 10 days straight.”
Her tears dried as the customers poured in. “People were so in love with that movie,” she says. “It’s as if they’re searching for something they’ve lost, like strong friendships and family traditions.” And in that search, they have also got a community’s heart pumping once more. “Juliette has come back to life,” the Williamses declare, almost in unison. “It’s a town again.”
GAIL WESCOTT in Juliette