Women in Food

The Very Clever JoAnn Clevenger

JoAnn Clevenger smiles when relating her favorite quote from famed 18th-century epicure Brillat-Savarin, who claimed, “The discovery of a new dish confers more happiness on humanity than the discovery of a new star.” Clevenger, who invented the now-classic Creole dish, Fried Green Tomatoes with Shrimp Remoulade, estimates her invention made millions happy over the decades it was served at the now-shuttered Upperline Restaurant.

Today, fried green tomatoes are thought of as a Southern dish, but food historians agree that it likely arrived in the United States with European Jewish immigrants. The earliest print versions are found in 19th century Northeastern and Midwestern cookbooks, utilizing the last of the season’s green tomatoes gathered before the winter’s first frost. The recipe begins to appear in newspapers between 1900 and 1919, but none of them are of Southern origin.

Fried green tomatoes were a regular side dish at home during Clevenger’s childhood in central Louisiana. “Mother always grew tomato plants that often bloomed extensively. When that happened, we’d wait till the tomatoes were just big enough and cull the green ones in order to give the others a better chance,” Clevenger said. The fried green tomatoes of her childhood were always served with pepper vinegar for sprinkling on top.

During Chef Tom Cowman’s time at the Upperline, he occasionally made a green tomato pie, flavored with warm brown spices for dessert, but when Fanny Flagg’s book, Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café was about to be made into a movie, Clevenger knew they belonged on her restaurant menu. After three days of brainstorming, on the fourth morning she woke inspired with an answer – Shrimp Remoulade! “We always had shrimp remoulade prepared in the restaurant’s kitchen, so it was easy from that point of view,” she said.

When Clevenger moved to New Orleans in her late teens, she had never seen shrimp served any other way than fried. The cold shrimp remoulade she discovered at A&G Cafeteria captivated her, right down to the plates it was served on. Upperline’s first chef, Clevenger’s son Jason, made his remoulade two ways, presenting chilled shrimp with both a red and a white version served on little oval platters reminiscent of the A&G originals. “I chose the red remoulade for its acidity and we served the new dish on those same little ovals,” Clevenger remembered.

When Chef Ken Smith took the reins at the Upperline, JoAnn challenged him to new heights with the lowly fried green tomato. At her direction, he substituted them for eggplant in Parmesan and used fried green tomatoes instead of English muffins for a new twist on Eggs Benedict. Long before vendors at the annual Oak Street Poor Boy Festival debuted their versions of JoAnn’s creation, she and Ken experimented with putting the combination on a poor boy loaf. That dish never made it onto the Upperline menu, but Clevenger remembers all the fun they had cutting that poor boy into little slices for diners to try.

In November of 2021, when Clevenger announced the Upperline would not reopen after two years of pandemic closure, legions of fans joined together in mourning the restaurant’s loss. The Upperline might be no more, yet in the thirty years since its creation, Fried Green Tomatoes with Shrimp Remoulade have joined ranks of the greats — like Oysters Rockefeller and Bananas Foster — in the canon of great Creole cuisine. For that alone, we all owe JoAnn Clevenger a debt of gratitude for her delicious vision.