This past President’s Day weekend found us in Savannah, Georgia, that storied Garden of Good & Evil.
How can you not like a town where you can get a Bourbon Pecan Pie martini to go (a “traveler”), or, for that matter, any drink that way? Just pour those last few ounces into a paper cup and walk (no driving) away. So civilized. Savannah is lovely in other ways as well. The city is well endowed with shaded green parks accessorized with monuments, benches, walking tours, and blooming niceties, and most parks are looked upon by noble and sentimental antebellum homes. It is a place with one foot in the past and the other carrying forward the edgy generation attending the Savannah College of Art & Design. The three-day weekend refreshed my style sense (boots with everything, happily casual scarves, abundant shiny bling) and administered a rainbow shot in my visual arm as my color-starved eyes gobbled houses clad in teal and pink, a bicycling woman of a certain age all a-purple, and the art gallery in the City Market bulging with primary, secondary and every other color in between.
We bypassed the restaurant of the (in)famous diabetic cook, Paula Deen. My knowledge of celebrity cooks could be transcribed onto a 1″ x 1″ Post-it note, and we are as goats when it comes to eating. We did, however, partake of a local and tourist experience by eating at Mrs. Wilkes’ Boarding House. Meals here are served family style, which means you are seated at table with an assortment of strangers, passing bowls and platters to each other, everyone eating what’s placed in front of them. For this privilege, I waited in line 3 hours with Karen from Minnesota, Paula from Kentucky, and 100 or so other folks. I’ve never waited that long to partake of any restaurant, and I probably won’t do it again. But I learned something while standing in line with and eating elbow to elbow with strangers.
I’ve been wondering about our national obsession with eating, and how in this era labeled “depression” or “recession,” restaurants are still going strong. The answer is not solely the food, though despite being a grateful omnivore I do understand that if the food is terrible the restaurant will likely fail. But how much better than the last great meal eaten can the next great meal be? Perhaps the answer to why we continue to eat at restaurants, why we stand in line 3 hours for a seat in one we’ve heard mentioned in passing, is the possibility of a special experience, and the chance to share that experience with someone. Dining out can provide so much more than a medium grilled pork chop served by polite waitstaff on a gleaming white plate flanked by a linen napkin. After 3 hours in line with Paula Kentucky and Karen Minnesota, I knew Paula was kind to her administrative assistant, mindful of her special-needs daughter at home, still called her own father “daddy” in Southern fashion, and wouldn’t get that autographed Paula Deen cookbook because she was hesitant about walking to the book-signing alone, and that Karen was close to her military brother, fascinated by seeing hair colors other than blonde, would be traveling soon to Germany instead of Ecuador, and would be single for some time to come because the force of her personality would allow no compromise and her tongue no mercy. After two hours, our camaraderie was well enough established that we warbled together the happy birthday song for Marla who was behind us in line (and we were not the least disturbed on learning her name was actually Darlene; we simply regaled her again.)
This was the experience of a fried chicken platter, bowls of rice, cabbage, mashed potatoes, gravy, rutabagas and a jumble of other traditional Southern foods handed swiftly among not-quite strangers , an iPad appearing briefly for a photo, the drift of conversation from the next table in a snug, slightly overheated dining room. This was the experience of seeing the disbelief on the server’s face at the fact that someone (I plead guilty, being held hostage by the cabbage) could have passed up banana pudding dessert. And this was the experience of the same server demanding the attention of all in the dining room to instruct us to carry our plates, boarding house style, to the kitchen when we were finished. This was the experience of being expected to interact like a family at a dinner table, right down to taking responsibility for helping clean up afterward. This is why, when people are scattered and running and rushed, we make time to eat together at a restaurant, that substitute for the family table in today’s world. I’ve had better food, but not more memorable food. I may not see or sing with Karen or Paula again, but for a few hours they were my family, and they will always be part of my memory family. This was indeed the experience of comfort food.