Thursday, January 8, 2009

Savannah on My Mind

Arriving in Savannah, Georgia mid-afternoon on an unseasonably cold and rainy day in October the warmth of the taxi dispatcher washed away the aura of anger reverberating from my fellow flyers. Hearing my accent, the dispatcher - Norman Whipple – knew I was from New York and presented me with his business card indicating that he was Georgia’s Regional Director of The Guardian Angels. Suddenly I felt at home – now I had two angels in Savannah; Mr. Whipple and the renowned statue that graces the cover of John Berendt’s true crime tome, “Midnight in the Garden of Good & Evil,” that brought international acclaim to this sweet southern town. This was just the first in many coincidences.

The Catherine Ward House was my first outpost. Leslie the proprietor, who is warm and offbeat, puts the quirk in quirky, but her knowledge of who to see and where to eat are encyclopedic. The bed & breakfast is idyllic, beautifully appointed, the rooms and baths spacious, clean and luxurious and centrally located. Each morning chefs studying at the Savannah College of Art & Design (SCAD) arrive to prepare breakfast for the lodgers; fresh fruit; orange walnut French toast – hard to put my fork down but reminding myself I had many more meals to go before the day was over.

Visiting a long list of museums, historic homes, art galleries and Savannah’s amazing culinary trail what comes to the fore rather quickly is the residents fervent protection of Savannah’s legacy coupled with Southern eccentricities. The 2.5 square miles of the Historic District of Savannah may sound diminutive but a week is not nearly enough to walk through every park; dine in each exceptional restaurant; drink at each bar; shop; sightsee; visit museums and get to know the people who make the town tick. Savannah takes its role as the belle of the south quite seriously and private and government funds and elbow grease have been dedicated to restoring and up-keeping of, according to the Convention & Visitors Bureau, is the largest urban historic district tin the United States with its stately homes (many open to the public) and 22 lush green public squares and parks.

Each square has a unique style that tips its hat in homage to local, national and international heroes as well as local scandals. From Troup Square (new-age-y in feel) to the classic Bull Street (the dividing line between east and west) Squares, lovingly captured in “The Movie” shot on site in 1997, just one of the 20 movies filmed in Savannah. On a morning stroll I encountered a trio of women deep in search of “Forest Gump’s” bench. With a pride that came out of nowhere (Savannah had apparently wrapped me in her loving arms) I explained that this was indeed Chippewa Square where the bench was located in the movie, but that it was now on view at the Savannah Historical Museum. The Spanish moss dripping from the majestic oak trees shade the squares from the southern sun creating a dramatic green canopy over the city.

Just a few days before Halloween, it was clear to see how much fun the locals have (any reason to celebrate is welcome in Savannah) – dogs and cats dressed to the nines sauntered through the squares and shops, urging their owners along to the next outstretched hand bearing a treat.

To say that dogs are important in Savannah is an understatement after spending an hour with attorney Sonny Seiler – owner of Uga, the English bulldog mascot for the University of Georgia – his attire is hand sewn by a professional local seamstress. Don’t make the mistake of calling Uga cute in Seiler’s presence – noble, tenacious, strong are terms better suited and nearly demanded by the imposing elder statesman. When not attending games and writing books about Uga (I came away from the visit with an autographed copy of “Damn Good Dogs!”) Seiler is a prominent attorney best known for defending Jim Williams who was tried for the murder depicted in “Midnight of the Garden of Good & Evil”; though Seiler played the role of the judge in “The Movie.”

I had the temerity to ask Seiler to name another case that he would like to be remembered for and he cited the intellectual property trial regarding the trademark Vidalia Onions; properly pronounced “Vie-dahl-ya” according to Seiler. As with so many experiences with Savannah personalities, spending time with Seiler was like peek inside an exclusive men’s club with a character right out of an ante bellum novel. “Williams – who died of congestive heart failure eight months after being released from prison -- was “being tried for being homosexual not for murder,” stated Seiler who worked diligently reminding the city of how much Williams did to restore the many buildings including Seiler’s elegant office. Near the end of our visit Swan, Seiler’s daughter, Director of Public Relations for Georgia Power, popped her head in to say hello and a softer glimpse of this good ole boy brought the hour full circle. “We’ve got it all right here in Savannah,” says Seiler more than proud of his hometown and his family including seven grandchildren – none of which are attorneys.

Savannah is home to more than 10 major festivals annually and October features the Savannah Film & Video Festival (produced by SCAD and citing attendance of 40,000 this year) and Oktoberfest. In the spring Ron Gibson runs the music festival which is “absolutely fabulous,” according to Esther Shaver. There’s a yuletide tour of Historic Homes (Jingle Bells was written in Savannah); the infamous St. Patrick’s Day Parade in March; the Gay Pride Parade and many more. Savannah lays claim to being the city that invented the “to-go” cup as the law allows one to drink openly in public and the locals and visitors enjoy this option with abandon.

Savannah has been dubbed America’s Most Haunted City. And, I was informed that my room at the President’s Quarters (a luxurious duplex suite) was haunted. Had a ghost arrived in my room he would have found me in a deep sleep from all the walking and dining. If ghosts, goblins and ghouls intrigue you then Savannah serves up the right pinch of otherworldliness with walking lantern tours, rides in a converted hearse; a haunted pub crawl and the thousands of ghost stories told by those who dwell among the spirits.

The only time a car was needed was for a brief day-excursion to Tybee Island – via the Bonaventure Cemetery, where the brave were having cocktails on All-Hallows eve. I had the best “low-country boil” at The Crab Shack in Tybee. Also known as Beaufort Stew or Frogmore Stew, this simple one-pot meal includes shrimp, potatoes, corn, onions, and sausage – and each chef has their own secret ingredients which none would divulge.

Savannah is the culinary capital of the American South and has its own unique way with local fish and spices realized in recipes handed down from generation to generation at places such as Mrs. Wilke’s Boarding House; The Lady & Son’s (Food Network TV’s Paula Deen’s family run boite) to the Pink House, home-made chocolates and roasted pralines with southern flair. The Mellow Mushroom is the best pizza shop in town and dinner at Alligator Soul is a must if you are celebrating as the chef serves dessert amidst a highly creative flaming circle. Dining at Chef Chris DiNello’s ringside table in the kitchen is just one more reason to visit. Dinner and live music at Jazz’d Tapas Bar is also a relaxing way to end the day or rev up for an evening of live music at several venues.

Arrive early to stand on line at Mrs. Wilkes as lunch is the only meal served and reservations are not accepted. Lunch is $16 for all you can eat and cash is the only form of payment accepted. At 11:30 a.m. on the dot the staff leads the diners in prayer and the onslaught of hearty dishes served family style descend on the table. This meal is worth every calorie and every penny. One of my table mates, when noticing how shy I was about asking for the dishes to be passed stated that it was okay, “to reach across the table as long as one foot remained on the floor,” – must be where the term “boarding house reach” evolved from. The menu that day included a true southern repast: fried chicken, black eyed pea, creamed corn, red rice, collard greens, raisin, carrot & pineapple salad, butter beans, beef stew, mashed potatoes, okra, biscuits, cornbread, the list goes on including a superbly light and not overly sweet banana pudding for dessert. But the staff doesn’t let grass grow under the diner’s feet as customers “bus” their own dishes back to the kitchen before lining up to pay for the meal.

Several cooking schools offer programs for locals and visitors. I joined a group at the 700 Kitchen Cooking School at the Mansion on Forsyth Park (ultra-luxurious hotel). Chef Darin Sehnert leads one of the most entertaining and instructional hands-on classes this writer has ever attended. “No grits, no cake” is his cri de Coeur and the Yankee in me rebelled until I hesitantly tested his truly creamy grits. In any case the students and I would have spooned up dirt in order to get to Pecan Praline Angel Food Cake for dessert. Chef Sehnert, with a wink, says that “the Pecan Glaze constitutes Georgia’s four major food groups: butter, flour, maple syrup and pecans – just add bacon for a full day’s nutrients.”

After several years as director of food services at SCAD, Chef Joe Randall opened his cooking school in a one-room cottage just outside the historic district. A u-shaped counter serves as seating for students and the friendliest man not born in the south teaches everything from the basics to the ins and outs of southern cooking. “Low country cooking is rice-based,” says Chef Randall. “Africans were brought to the south to plant, tend and harvest rice and rice was served at every meal,” he continued. One-pot meals are a southern staple and Chef Randall’s Purlu stew elevates the one-pot to a gourmet meal including rice, oysters, shrimp, ham and bacon all simmered together. Georgia’s oldest African American community is in Savannah where the Gullah and Geechee people, descendants of African slaves, infused the area with their own food, music, religion and culture. A third cooking school is ensconced in a superb shop, Kitchens on the Square, features group and private classes.

SCAD, celebrating its 30th year, is a vital catalyst in the community bringing students and visitors from around the world to study at largest art school in the United States. SCAD injects creativity, youth and vigor into the community. The Gryphon Tea Room is one of four restaurants owned and operated by SCAD. The school’s Executive Director of Communications, Leanne Hand, met me at The Gryphon where we discussed the film festival over coffee and discovered that we lived just blocks apart in Atlanta where SCAD opened for classes in 2005. It’s the place for incredible macaroni and cheese on a cold afternoon and flakey croissants in the morning. Walking back in the early evening from a student art exhibition at Alexander Hall, Lulu’s Chocolate Bar was an oasis of plump, sweet dark chocolate covered strawberries a perfect interlude before dinner.

Culture, most specifically art, architecture and garden tours are one of the highlights of a trip to Savannah. 45 cultural and historical attractions include the Telfair Museum of Art (the oldest art museum in the South); the world-class contemporary art-filled Jepson Center for the Arts where Gospel Brunch on Sundays is the only place to be and the museum has several excellent children’s exhibition areas and an outstanding museum shop. The Telfair’s Executive Director, Stephen High, returned to Savannah in 2006 to take the post. During our visit he mentioned that his first job as a student was at The Telfair – another coincidence and one more person who has left the area and returned to participate in a city that is continuing to grow while maintaining strong ties to its history. The mission of The Telfair is to collect and exhibit art from the three centuries of Savannah’s existence and a $15 pass admits one to all three buildings (The Jepson, The Telfair and Owens-Thomas House). There is also a civil rights museum and a maritime museum in town.

The people are Savannah’s greatest treasure and on a sunny afternoon I met Stratton Leopold whose family has been in town since 1919. A successful Hollywood producer (Mission Impossible 3 – Paramount’s largest budget film ever made), Mr. Leopold has re-opened his family’s ice cream shop on Savannah’s main boulevard, Broughton Street. “Savannah is home,” said Leopold, “it’s what grounds me.” Chatting while he scooped ice cream for his guests, “made with cane sugar, no trans fats and egg yolks as emulsifiers instead of chemicals.” Following a shrimp sandwich of locally caught shrimp, I tasted the homemade coffee, pistachio and SCAD’s commemorative flavor, Sourwood Honey amidst Hollywood posters and old fashioned movie cameras. As one conversation leads to another, Leopold mentioned his favorite Greek Restaurant in town, Olympia Café on River Street. And the talk turned to Avgolemono soup, a recipe for traditional Greek Chicken soup that I have been perfecting over the years. Leopold and his wife Mary are of Greek descent and an invitation for dinner was proffered for a few days hence. It seems in Georgia that a stranger is just a friend one hasn’t met yet.

Leopold is currently at work on a documentary (Clint Eastwood is Executive Producer) about one of Savannah’s brightest stars, Johnny Mercer, who swept floors at Leopold’s Ice Cream shop at the age of 11, for a dime a day. The film will debut next year, the centennial of Mercer’s birth, along with a series of events indicating a perfect time to plan a visit to the area.

For those who prefer outdoor activities there are more than 30 golf courses; Tybee Island (Savannah’s beach area on the Atlanta Ocean); fishing; dolphin tours; hiking; biking; canoeing and kayaking. Strolling along the waterfront on River Street where restaurants inhabit restored cotton warehouses and live music abounds.

If shopping is one’s brand of relaxation there are antique shops, galleries and shops selling handcrafted items along with City Market, a pedestrian mall, which includes the artist’s colony, restaurants and shops. Savannah Artworks is one of the most interesting shops. According to owner Beth Martin, she sells “functional, folksy art for regular folks.” Hand forged oyster knives; bags and t-shirts made from recycled materials, paintings, sculptures and other must-have items made by Georgia artists are her stock in trade. Shaver’s bookstore was a pioneer retailer in the historic district when it debuted in 1975 and Mrs. Shaver is a fountain of great reading recommendations and knowledge about Savannah. While browsing I discovered a new illustrated version of the writer’s companion, “
The Elements of Style,” and couldn’t resist adding it to my collection. A quick visit to Deborah and Shane Sullivan’s The Book Gift Shop opened my eyes to the variety of things one can create to market a brand – the shop sells all things concerning “Midnight in the Garden of Good & Evil” from the book, to cds, clothing, brick-a-brac and other items to silly to mention.

Harriet Meyerhoff is second generation in Savannah; a city she says was built on religious tolerance. Touring with Mrs. Meyerhoff was more like a friendly drive around town than a formal tour for which she is known. Relating facts and figures of interest (the first white child born in Savannah was Jewish) she escorted me through the synagogue (the oldest in the South founded in 1733 when a ship carrying 41 Sephardic Jews made land) and other Jewish-related icons and stops in town before dropping me off at the annual Jewish Food Festival. I sipped an authentic New York egg cream made with Fox’s U-bet Chocolate syrup, seltzer and whole milk while strolling and listening to live music. Good thing I was clocking about 20 miles a day on foot as gaining information (not weight) was the order of the day. Coincidence number 2; the gentleman who served me a hot dog was none other than Ron Schwartz, the father-in-law of a dear friend from Miami.

Just off Monterey Square is V&J Duncan’s Antique Maps, Prints and Bookstore where John and Virginia Duncan’s Cavalier King Charles spaniels, Emma and Sally, greet browsers. Like other residents, the Duncans had small speaking parts in “The Movie,” and to date has sold 12,000 copies of the book. “Savannahians are house-proud,” says John Duncan as he escorts me on an impromptu tour of his four-story home atop the shop; built in 1869, remodeled in 1897 and purchased by the Duncans in 1976. “People who live in houses with stairs live longer,” states the 71-year old Duncan. Stepping out onto the porch overlooking a sumptuous garden a bloom with roses and a bubbling fountain I am entranced and concur when Mr. Duncan avows that, “heaven will be a disappointment.” Just before leaving, Mrs. Duncan reminds me to visit The Telfair Museum where their collection of silhouette art is currently on display.

Speaking of “The Book” just one final time, a trip to Savannah isn’t complete without a tour of The Mercer House (built in 1860) the backdrop to the murder that inspired both the book and the movie. Take the guided tour with Marsha Dodd who has been a docent since the beginning. Jim Williams who singlehandedly restored many of the elegant homes designed an incredible home at Mercer House both serious and humorous in décor. His sister, Dorothy Williams Kingery, resides in the house to this day and if one is still her voice and movements above the main floor, the only part open to visitors, can be heard.

After a day of walking and films it was time for a bite and I stopped into the much-lauded 45 Bistro. While the bar was open the restaurant was closed because its culinary team was providing the fare at the film festival. Southern hospitality sprang anew when the bartender ordered a pizza from Vinny-a-Go-Go’s delivered to me right at the bar – service indeed!

Always independent I was one of the few young women for whom the Girl Scouts held no interest – but decades later after spending a few hours with Fran Powell Harold, the Director of the Girl Scouts, I changed my mind and was enamored of Juliette Gordon Low – who founded the Girl Scouts in Savannah in 1912 – one of the first truly integrated organizations in the south.

Mrs. Gordon Low – Daisy to her friends and family -- was born in Savannah and her home is now a museum and the national program headquarters of the Girl Scouts. What turned the tide was the telling by Mrs. Harold of the inception of the Girl Scouts. Mrs. Gordon Low was in London at a dinner party – chatting amiably with the man seated next to her. As the story goes, she was in an unhappy marriage and casting about for something to do that would truly make a difference in the world. Her dinner companion introduced her to the concept of the Boy Scouts which had recently formed in London and she realized that this was her answer; creating an organization that would prepare young women for a life beyond the home – a way for young women to support and care for themselves – a truly forward thinking concept given the year. Who couldn’t suddenly adore a woman who had everything, didn’t need to accomplish anything as her role in society was set and yet she put her efforts and her money into creating an organization that is still going strong internationally nearly 100 years hence?

The United States Army outpost in Savannah creates another unique group of residents – the military including spouses and children – add to the continental flavor of the city. Friendly and younger than I expected, Lt. Colonel Daniel W. Whitney, who runs the base, is very involved in the community. “Our soldiers volunteer to give back to community and many remain here long after their initial assignment because the quality of life and the superior public school system,” commented Whitney who is proud of the Base’s adopt-a-school mentoring program.

During recent months the electronic age has backfired on itself and the onslaught of bad news from the hi-tech universe of up-to-the-minute information about stock markets, banking institutions and corporations crashing creates the urge for a time and place of a gentler tone. Savannah, Georgia provides an authentic, elegant, down-to-earth genteel southern American experience that has enough to see and do to keep it truly interesting. With my return visit already in mind I keep the memories alive while replicating the recipes of Savannah’s finest chefs and restaurants in my formerly Yankee-oriented kitchen. Indeed, to echo John Duncan, heaven will certainly be a let down.

1 comment:

Norman "Whip" Whipple (aka) TJ said...

I am so glad you enjoyed our wonderfully, beautiful city, and I could get your visit off to a great start, and with a smile.
"Yall come back now, Ya hear"

Norman "Whip" Whipple