There’s a place where I feel free to be me. No, it’s not Paris, although I feel free to be me there, too.
It’s the historic district in Savannah, Georgia. A place exuding a vivid sense of the past, which I love.
There, Spanish moss hangs like lace curtains on nearly every branch and wire crisscrossing the sky above you. Houses built cheek by jowl line the streets, set on a grid designed by General James E. Oglethorpe in 1733. Red brick cobblestones ring with your footsteps, although you must watch carefully where you put your feet. It’s best not to gaze at the ornate ironwork railings or the brass door knockers adorning the houses as you meader along. You don’t want to trip and fall, splayed out on the uneven sidewalks, a casualty of curiosity. Stop and look, just like your mother told you about crossing streets.
But architecture is not the only thing drawing me to the streets of Savannah.
Known for its low-country cuisine too, Savannah boasts some of the best cooks in the country.
One of those was Sema Wilkes. Her life story is one that many Southern women could tell: Born in 1907, married at 16, motherhood at 21, she grew up in the tobacco-raising countryside of rural Georgia. She cooked because there was no money for servants and the like. As the oldest child in the family, she took over the care of her three siblings after they were all orphaned. A move to Savannah in 1942 found her working at Mrs. Dixon’s Boarding House. She bought the place after Mrs. Dixon’s health failed.
To get to Mrs. Wilkes’s Dining Room, you’d best park in the Liberty Street Parking Garage. Walk down Whitaker Street to W. Jones Street. 107.
You won’t miss the imposing house with its two spiral staircases, because you’ll see all the people lined up to get a taste of Mrs. Wilkes’s legacy.
Mrs. Wilkes Dining Room serves lunch from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Weekdays only. Cash only. There’s an ATM conveniently located inside.
For $30 a person, you’ll get meat and three, that is, three side dishes, all iconic Southern fare. Fried chicken or meatloaf. And the extensive and opulent menu makes it hard to choose, which three sides to order. You probably want a taste of everything … .
COVID put a dent into the traditional meal format usually associated with Mrs. Wilkes Dining Room. Now, instead of ten strangers sitting at a table, food served family-style in large bowls and overflowing platters, you scramble for seats at tables set out on the street in front of the house. A member of Mrs. Wilkes’s extended family takes your order as you get your turn at the front of the line. Leave your cell phone number and you’ll get a call. Then you wait as long as 45 minutes for that call. Step inside the door of the dining room and another member of the Wilkes family hands you a large flat box heaped high with a lot more food than you know what do with. Cooks now wrap up everything or fill styrofoam containers with the sides.
Packed in paper bags, the crispy chicken tastes greasy and salty. Just as it should be. Perfect.
Although you might think you have ordered just three sides, most of the time you’ll get a shock when you dig through the box: there will be far more sides than you ordered. And instead of four pieces of chicken, you might just get twelve. Or twenty.
Biscuits, cornbread muffins, and pound cake round it all out. And if you’re lucky, there just might be that all-time favorite, banana pudding.
If you’re like me, you’ll want the cookbooks, too. Especially the reprint of Mrs. Wilkes’s original cookbook. Printed in the staid community-cookbook format, it is wonderful. You’ll want to dart right into the kitchen and get cooking!
I did. When I got home, that is.
If you can still walk, waddle your way back to your car and head out to the Bonaventure Cemetery, a Victorian-style cemetery. Made famous by John Berendt’s book, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, and later a film starring Kevin Spacey and John Cusack, the place covers acre after acre – 100 acres all together – of Savannahians who have passed on to another realm.
Savannah of course offers a lot more to explore.
Maybe next time I’ll snag a reservation at The Grey.