In my continuing quest for "authentic" Southern food in Savannah, Georgia, I found myself at Garibaldi's, an upscale restaurant specializing in Northern Italian seafood. I had had enough wine to convince myself that on a metaphorical level, I was on the right track, when I started talking to the chef, Gerald Green. I must have said something right, because he invited me to his Super Bowl party.
He told me that it would be a "low-country ball" with local oysters, crabs, and shrimp. I got excited by images of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil-style elegance and insanity. Maybe there would be a murder! Or seersucker!
Before I drove off in a suit and tie, my Atlanta-born girlfriend reminded me that with a Southern accent, "boil" sounds a lot like "ball." So I was going to a Low Country boil. For the Super Bowl, this made more sense.
They were peppery, and they were tender. Burns's wife, Tasha, was working hard to make sure everyone for a couple of counties knew they were ready.
The event turned out to be much, much more than just the boil. When I arrived at 4:30, Green's fellow Gerald, Gerald Burns, was manning a giant grill stacked with chicken next to a projector that was shining CBS on a couple of white sheets hanging from the garage. There were lawn chairs and outdoor space heaters in front. (Southerners, apparently, require outdoor space heaters in 48-degree weather.)
Directly in front of the house, a few tents contained a temple to the side dish, where a long table displayed just about every dish that has ever been mentioned in connection with the American Southeast: chicken of all preparations, jambalaya, mac and cheese, potato salad, pasta salad, curry (if it wasn't Southern, it is now). No cornbread, curiously. Green ladled a pot of gumbo into a serving tray and brought it over.
Photo by Dave Thier
The Geralds—Green and Burns—have been doing this party for 12 years. Burns is from Charleston, and they trade off hosting other holidays, but the Super Bowl is always in Savannah. Chefs and staff from Garibaldi's, as well as from other prominent Savannah restaurants, usually attend. It started as a family event, but now, Green guesses, 300 people come each year.
Burns says Green takes care of the "clean" food, like the upscale cooking at Garibaldi's—but over at the grill Burns takes care of what he calls "dirty South cooking."
A little before kick-off, I was getting full and there hadn't even been any boiling yet. That was to take place on the other side of the house from the grill, in a big steel vat full of a bubbly orange concoction.
Vinnie Burns, Gerald's brother and the executive chef at Savannah institution The Old Pink House, filled the vat with live blue crabs that looked confused, even for crabs. A couple of minutes later he poured them out on the table red and dead. I wasn't quite sure what to do with a crab without a big, blunt instrument until a guy in a brown newsboy cap named Freddy showed me how to peel open the back, pull the shell apart, and eat the eggs and the meat in one bite, spitting the shells on the ground. There still isn't that much meat.
"All this is is conversation food—it won't fill you up," he said.
After a few rounds of crabs, the chefs started to crack into 50-pound sacks of oysters. I'd only had steamed oysters once before—pathetic shriveled little things at a restaurant in Hilton Head I won't do the disservice of naming—but these ones were exploding with the Geralds' secret seasoning. They came in clumps of three or four, and there was a biker-looking guy with a white beard manipulating a clump like a delicious Rubik's Cube. Freddy could be heard offering confusing wisdom:
"If I can't enjoy myself enjoying myself, then I'm not enjoying myself. Man, where's the hot sauce?"
Photo by Dave Thier
As the sun went down the projection came into relief against the white sheet, and the food kept rolling out. The crowd around the grill was as least as big as the one around the screen, but not quite as big as the one around the bar. People were toasting on a regular basis. By halftime, there were still two full pork tenderloins, a whole salmon's worth of filets, and 10 racks of ribs on the grill. The first ribs came off when the Saints pulled ahead in the fourth quarter, but I think that was a coincidence. They were peppery, and they were tender. Burns's wife, Tasha, was working hard to make sure everyone for a couple of counties knew they were ready.
"I just want a rib, ma'am," someone said. "I just don't want to get hollered at."
Tracey Porter made a 74-yard interception return for a touchdown that gave the Saints a commanding lead. It was good, but not nearly as good as the ribs. I didn't have room for any of the salmon that had been smoking along with them. Or the tenderloin. Probably something else, too.
"Every year we always say, we ain't having that party no more, that's the last one," Green said. But as guests started to clear out, there were still a couple of bags of oysters, a basket of crabs, and an entire table covered in chicken and side dishes.
"Party tomorrow!" he added, a traditional chorus of "Who Dat?" in the background as the Saints clinched their first ever Super Bowl victory.
A guy in a white hat was on his phone. "I told you," he was yelling. "Always roll with the South!"