Friday, February 26, 2010

Food and other matters

We left Savannah this morning, headed for home via Jacksonville, Denver, and Portland. Partway to Jacksonville we stopped and briefly toured a plantation, only it wasn't a traditional cotton plantation with a long lane lined with live oaks and a columned house at the end. Instead, it was like a huge park with massive live oaks scattered all over, and a normal farmhouse after you had walked for half a mile. And they had grown rice, not cotton, since that was better suited to all the swamplands. But it was still very labor-intensive, and the family lived a typical genteel lifestyle while 350 slaves worked themselves to death in the rice fields.

Like so many pursuits in the South, things went gangbusters for a while and then it all dwindled down to nothing. After the Civil War they grew less and less rice because the labor costs made it less profitable. Meanwhile the family had trouble producing enough surviving heirs to pass the land down to who also had the gumption to make it a profitable venture. Finally it was down to 3 siblings who started a dairy farm. The brother died and the spinster sisters kept it going through the Depression on into the 40s but then they were forced out of business by all the new government regulations for processing milk.

That all makes me wonder if years from now somebody will give tours of the Kropf-Knox-Smucker house and talk about the glory days of grass seed and how it all came to nothing with changing markets and government regulations. I don't think lack of heirs will be a problem, though.

Back to our trip: in Tampa Paul, who is great at sniffing out bargains, asked if the plane to Denver is overbooked. Yes, it is, and within minutes we were bumped off and given vouchers that will take us home tomorrow, the Lord willing, and that put us up in a nice Florida-style motel, and that will pay for future flights in such amounts as to almost pay for our trip to Savannah.

Need I say that Paul is happy?

Now I need to talk about food in the South.

At a gas station today I peeked in the stainless steel kettles that in northern climes would hold soup and instead I found whole in-the-shell peanuts swimming in hot water. I should have tried them I guess but I had no clue how to eat them. Do you eat the shell and all? Plus they're kind of gross-looking, to be honest.

We went out for supper at a seafood place in Savannah one night and bought the "everything" plate, with hush puppies, oysters, shrimp, fish, Brunwick stew, and more. That was a nice taste of local seafood.

Then we asked the host with the missing tooth about uniquely Southern food and his eyes lit up and he said we have to go to Mrs. Wilkes, we really have to.

Before I tell you about Mrs. Wilkes, let me say that Paula Deen is all over Savannah. Books, restaurants, brochures, billboards, kitchen supply stores. I'm sure Paula is very nice and her cooking show is interesting and her food is good, but I felt a bit reactionary toward all the hoopla.

So, in contrast, Mrs. Wilkes. First I figured it was a cute take on Melanie Wilkes of Gone With the Wind. Wrong. Mrs. Wilkes was the real name of a determined woman who took over a boarding house in the historical district many years ago. Every day she cooked up a huge dinner and fed the men in her boarding house--think Millie in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. Slowly this turned into a daily dinner for whoever showed up at 11:00.

Mrs. Wilkes kept this up until she finally handed the operation over to her granddaughter, who was close to 60 years old. She runs it today with the help of her sons and a bunch of staff.

So we decided to try it, and for Paul's nephew Randy the entrepreneur who has ideas for a Mennonite restaurant, this might be the way to go.

About half an hour before 11:00 a crowd of us gathered around the front door. It was very hard to find. Right next to it is a big splashy old 3-story house with two curved stairways out front, but the Lord was not in the wind, so to speak. Looking around we saw a tiny sign by the street: "Mrs. Wilkes." And then on the wall next to the big house was a small faded sign: "Welcome to the Wilkes.'"

At 11:00 the doors opened and we were swept into a basement with four or five tables set for 9 or 10 each. We filled the tables family-style and as soon as we were seated, the host led in a prayer of thanks. And then we attacked the vast variety of white bowls arrayed on the table in front of us.

There was fried chicken, barbecued pork, macaroni and cheese, creamed corn, green beans, black-eyed peas, lima beans, rice, mashed potatoes, gravy, biscuits, cornbread, beef stew, cucumber salad, collard greens, cooked cabbage, chicken and dumplings, fried rice with sausage, rutabagas, sweet potatoes, potato salad, and probably more that I can't recall.

With sweet tea, of course. And banana pudding and blueberry cobbler for dessert.

The expected protocol for manners was passing stuff around at first, but after that you reached for whatever you wanted, and if you couldn't reach you asked for it, and someone handed it to you straight across the table.

We weren't encouraged to linger but were told to take our own dishes to the kitchen on our way out. We each paid a set fee at the door while the staff rapidly cleared and re-set the tables for the next batch of customers. We were told that they keep serving in batches like this until everyone waiting by the door has eaten.

Striking, isn't it? With this unorthodox approach and no self-promotion (one of the big gourmet magazines once wanted to do an article on the restaurant, and Mrs. Wilkes said they could as long as they didn't say exactly where it was located) they've become the place that people say you just have to go to.

There's a lesson there, too, if we are still out looking for lessons.

And a note on sweet tea. A story on Southern food in a tourist magazine told me that the idea of "unsweetened tea" is a travesty. Tea isn't proper tea unless it's iced and very very sweet. Well, I get headaches on too much sugar, and straight sweet tea reminds me of drinking pancake syrup. So I try to mix it half and half, or better yet 1/3 sweet and 2/3 unsweetened. That combination, with lots of ice, is in my mind perfection.

Quote of the Day:
"Huh? You want hot tea, ma'am? You want sweet tea? Huh? Half??"
--a young waiter who couldn't understand my special recipe for tea. Thankfully he was an exception


  1. Sounds like a great time is being had! Congrats on the bargain stay in Tampa! :)

  2. Boiled peanuts are kinda gross, in my opinion although many people like them. We would always shell them to eat.

    Enjoyed hearing about your trip! Makes me want to visit Savannah.

  3. That's awesome! Never been to Savannah, but I'm missing all that Southern food and sweet tea already, just from reading your post. Hopefully get some of it in about a month. :-) :-)

  4. Yum collard greens, cornbread, black eyed peas, sweet potatoes----you are sure making me hungry:)
    Have a safe flight home!

  5. Oh, but you should have tried the boiled peanuts. The first time I tried them--I admit--I wasn't overly impressed. I just ate them to please my boyfriend. But they grew on me. I am not safe around them anymore. Just don't think peanuts--and you'll love them. No, you don't eat the shell.

  6. Mrs. Wilkes' menu almost made me cry. And you should have tried the boiled peanuts--they are delectable! And a great Southern experience, even if you find you don't like them.

  7. Our family is a transplant to the south, and there are some things that we still don't care for...but those peanuts floating in water can grow on you!! We boil them and freeze to enjoy later...yesterday I was going thru the freezer and found a bag, brought them in thinking they would be thawed enough to enjoy for supper Sun evening...well, most of them disappeared last evening already, still partly frozen and all!

  8. Oh yes, hot boiled peanuts (pronounced "bolled" in the deep south!)---especially the cajun ones, are a treat---even to some of us yankees who now live in the south! And sweet tea, ah there is a great deal of difference in that, depending on who makes it, but it really is best if it is good and strong, and of course with plenty of sugar! It was fun reading your impressions of the south; I've lived in SC for years now and love the quaint, unique culture of the south, even tho' I never used to dream of ever living here. We love it; it has become home, sweet home.

  9. You've had me laughing my way through these last two posts. We've done the same thing, gotten a nice hotel room and then had to preserve our dignity and our frugality at the same time. I'm a Virginia girl transplanted to GA and the first time I tried boiled peanuts, I wasn't impressed. But now, yum! And your Mrs. Wilkes dinner sounds like the real thing, for sure!

  10. Not a good read while fasting!

  11. Frieda Yoder3/02/2010 1:48 PM

    Very interesting, did you know that President Obama just made the news today about eating at Mrs. Wilkes? I had to come back here and leave a comment after I saw that on the news, having just read your update this morning. I tasted boiled peanuts once...all I can say is 'yuck' Glad you had a nice vacation!