Photos by (clockwise from left) Rebecca Holohan, Getty Images, and Rebecca Holohan
I've never been outside New England for more than two weeks in my life. For someone who hopes to one day sit with his feet up and discuss a long, adventurous history over a glass of scotch or whatever beverage will convey a sense of gravitas in 2050 (Red Bull?), this was a bit of a problem. Having graduated college a few weeks ago, I packed up and moved to Savannah, Georgia last week.
Getting to know a new food culture was one of the things I was looking forward to most. To a Yankee, there was just something about Southern food that seemed so objectively authentic. When I arrived, I checked out the local farmer's market, local seafood shop, and farms in the area where I might be able to get vegetables and meat. All very nice, but I didn't think I was going to find my authentic southern cooking on Georgiaorganics.org. I've watched the Food Network. If I was going to live in Savannah, I was going to start my search with Paula Deen and her restaurant, The Lady and Sons.
Without mentioning the hour-long wait in the Georgia sun, the impossible buttery excess during, and the two painful, near-comatose hours afterwards, The Lady and Sons was excellent. Exceptional. The breading on the fried chicken was crisp, and the meat on the inside was juicy. The recipes showed surprising moderation in everything but butter, touching the collards and okra with just enough vinegar to soak through the vegetable. The most impressive part, however, was the scale. At maximum capacity, the restaurant seats 250 on three floors and takes around 60 employees to run. When I asked my waitress how much chicken they go through in a day, she said about 800 pounds.
I wondered. Can you really do simple home cooking on the order of 800 pounds a day? Can that be authentic? The chicken comes from Claxton Chicken, a family-owned operation an hour up the road that advertises "fresh-from-the-farm-goodness" and "premium quality, all natural chicken." Like Deen, it produces to scale: 300 million pounds of chicken a year, with customers that include the fast-food chain Chick-Fil-A. Deen also endorses Smithfield foods, the largest pork producer in the world. With the amount of pork the restaurant serves, it and Smithfield are natural allies. Whatever "authentic" meant, it didn't seem like this was it.
My mistake, I decided, was trusting celebrity. As Calvin Trillin said, "A careful traveling man has to observe the rule that any restaurant the executive secretary of the chamber of commerce is particularly proud of is almost certainly not worth eating in." Less popular must translate to more authentic. I kept looking.
To the locals, Lady and Son's is the tourist trap and Mrs. Wilkes' is the real thing. Savannah legend Sema Wilkes, one of Paula Deen's heroes, ran her restaurant from 1943 until 2002. Her family still runs it. Hers is not a big name outside Savannah and didn't get a show on Food Network. At her restaurant, the waiters don't wear walkie-talkies like at Lady and Son's. At Mrs. Wilkes,' you sit at a round table with 11 other people, friends if you came with them and strangers if you didn't. All of the food is put out in big bowls, and you're expected to bus your own dishes. Just like mom used to make, or at least, I assumed, someone else's Southern mom.
But were these mountains of butter and meat really authentic? Michael Perkins of Guerilla Food vociferously says that both Deen and Wilkes present a distorted, tourist-friendly, organ-meat-free view of Southern cooking. Southern cooking is birthed from poverty, he says. But these restaurants take a culture of frugality and turn it into a culture of excess.
Any regional cuisine is based on the local agricultural products and the local environmental peculiarities. Kentucky bourbon is Kentucky bourbon because of the limestone in the water. Southern cooking works with what grows and which ingredients on hand; it's more likely to use pork than some distant spice as a flavoring--and more likely to use it as a flavoring than a slab of meat in the center of the plate. Pork from Smithfield--raised in endless rows of cages and fed slurries of corn from Iowa and soy from Brazil--skips an important part of that equation. Georgiaorganics.org may be my answer after all.
If I am to have some idea of an authentic meal, maybe the best thing to do is to try cooking it myself. In the spirit but maybe not the practice of Paula Deen and Sema Wilkes, next week I'm going to head out to the Georgia countryside, find a chicken and some collards, and make them for some friends. Not being a stocky middle-aged woman or actually from the South, I might not do so well. But I'll do my best. Check in to see how it goes.
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