When I think of the South, I think of moss-covered trees, historic homes, hot and humid weather, and of course, Southern Cooking. Southern cooking is that regional culinary form of states that are south of the Mason-Dixen line. The most notable ethnic influences on southern cuisine are English, Scottish, Irish, German, French, Native American and African American,. We don't have the moss-covered trees, but we have trees and lots of them, as well as the histoirc homes. Lately we've also had the hot and humid weather. But most importantly, where this blog is concerned anyway, with the exception of African American and the substituion of Native Canadian, we have most of the same ethnic influences in our local fare.
On a recent visit to Savannah, Georgia, we had the great pleasure and fortune to lunch at the famous Mrs. Wilkes' Boarding House, where, since 1946, dish upon dish of prepared items come to the table, where you sit, communal style, strangers and acquaintances together, and eat 'til you/re full, sipping on sweet tea, and then taking your plate, cutlery and glass to the kitchen door. Mrs. Wilkes' is a cash only operation, and they don't take reservations. Eager diners are advised to start queing up at 10 am for the 11:30 am to 2:00 pm lunch only service.
Over the years, there have been many notable patrons to Mrs. Wilkes', including President Obama, (who was one of the few ever allowed to skp the line), newsmen Walter Cronkite and David Brinkley, Vogue editor André Leon Talley, Author John Berendt, and actors Chris North, Greg Kinnear, Kevin Spacey, Deniis Quaid, Carol O'Connor and Charlize Theron, as well as the famous comedien, Red Skelton.
There's no set menu at Mrs. Wilkes'. It depends on what's in season, what they have on hand and what the cook wants to cook! Regardless of season, there are a couple of things that you're pretty sure to find though, one of which is the fried chicken. The servers all wear t-shirts that say, 'If the Colonel made chicken this good, he'd be a General.'. It certainly was the best fried chicken I've ever eaten, hands down, including my own! (I dare not try to compete with Mrs. Wilkes'!).
Other staples such as meatloaf, beef stew, black eyed peas, rutabega, collard greens, mashed sweet potato, okra, grits and corn bread, are sure to be placed in front of you. All in all, some 15-20 different dishes will be laid on the table, and my best advice is to try a little of everything, and then resign yourself to soup and crackers for dinner later on!
In Newfoundland, substitute fiish for the chicken, and split peas, turnip, turnip greens, pease pudding, green peas, and dumplings, and the similarities are hard not to see. A traditional Newfoundland family dinner probably has 10-15 dishes: turkey, salt beef, gravy, mashed potato, carrots, turnip, turnip greens, peas, blueberry duff, pickled beets and mustard pickles would be your typical Sunday dinner.
Reminiscing about the unforgettable meal we had at Mrs. Wilkes', I decided to do a little southern-style meal for my family. It was only going to be three of us, so I had to cut back on the number of sides, or try in vain to stuff my fridge with leftovers. I settled on Cajun Spiced Roast Turkey Breast with Mildly Spiced 'White' Gravy, Southern Style Sweet Potatoes, and Skillet Okra and Tomato Succotash.
Yes, there really is a dish called Succotash, and it isn't just a word that Sylvester the Cat invented! Its actually a Native American dish that became quite popular during The Great Depression, because of the relatively inexpensive and more readily available ingredients. If you 've never tried Okra, I strongly encourage you to do so. It tastes somewhere between green beans, zucchini and asparagus, and is much better pan or deep fried than it is boiled. Okra has its origins from North Eastern Africa and is a good source of Vitamins A, B complex, C and K as well as folate. It's inexpensive and can be found at most local grocery stores.
Savannah is a beautiful city that was spared General Sherman's scorched earth march to the sea and there are many theories as to why. One was that the city was needed as an intact major port for military supplies. Another is that Sherman was persuaded to leave the city untouched by a mistress. I, in my always romantic 'Gone With the Wind'ish mind, prefer to think that even such a strong and determined man as Sherman could be swayed by the charms of a sultry mistress.
Savannah and in fact the whole of the South, draws you in with little whispers on the wind, faint voices of those who were there before you, leaving you feeling forever grateful for allowing you to experience a small piece of their history and cuisine. You cannot help but want to return, whether in person or through food. I am admittedly smitten!