Darrell Huckaby - 05/15/09

I won't go into why I found myself standing outside Mrs. Wilkes's Boarding House in Savannah at 11 a.m. Wednesday morning, but the reason involved lots of liniment and even more Kleenex.

OK. Maybe I will explain. We moved our oldest child, Jamie, to Savannah. I spent most of one day carrying heavy boxes and furniture up a whole lot of stairs and most of the next day wiping her mother's tears. My reward was getting to eat at Mrs. Wilkes's.

Paula Deen's restaurant is the trendy place to load up on cholesterol in Georgia's oldest city these days. If you happen down to the coast, feel free to go there and eat. I am sure the food is quite good and you will get to rub shoulders with folks from all over the country who are looking for an authentic Southern experience - just like the ones they have seen on TV.

Besides, if you all go to Paula Deen's, it will make it easier for me to get inside Mrs. Wilkes's, which has been a Savannah institution since before Paula Deen was a gleam in her old man's eye. Nothing against Paula, understand, but Mrs. Wilkes's place - my, oh my!

They only serve from 11 until 2, Monday through Friday. Folks start lining up around 10:30 and the guy at the door admits them in waves of 80 at a time. We were in line at 10:55 and it was our turn to tie on the feed bag at 11:30 on the dot. It was well worth the wait.

What they do is, they bring you in in groups of 10 or so and seat you around a big round table that is laden with more good Southern food than you can say grace over. Well, maybe that's a bad choice of words, because we certainly did say grace over the food. Only a heathen would fail to be thankful for such a spread.

There was fried chicken, of course - and it was crisp on the outside and steaming on the inside. Delicious doesn't begin to describe the taste of that fried chicken. There was also sliced barbecue and meatloaf and beef stew. And there was rice and gravy and black-eyed peas and creamed corn, not to mention potatoes and lima beans and macaroni and cheese and rutabagas and collards - yeah, there were really rutabagas - and sweet potato souffle and green beans and squash and - I ain't making this up, y'all. They had all of this stuff on the table, and more. Lots more. I didn't even mention the cornbread and biscuits, for instance - or the blueberry cobbler and banana pudding they served for dessert.

And they didn't even ask if you wanted sweet tea. They just went ahead and served it. And when we got through eating they asked us to take our plates and silverware to the kitchen, just like we were at home, which, quite frankly, I felt like we were.

But the folks sharing the table with us - not so much. Oh, they were a friendly enough bunch, all right. But they were a long way from home. From Kansas, they told me, and they were with a tour group that promised to immerse them in Southern culture for a week. They had seen most of Savannah and gone on a ghost tour and even attended a cooking class where they fried up some green tomatoes and tried to make grits - but they were a little lost around the table at Mrs. Wilkes's.

For instance, they had never encountered rutabagas. One brave soul decided to give them a try and pronounced that they were the worst baked apples he had ever tried to eat. And every one of the Kansas folks at the table said they would pass on the "spinach." They were good sports, though, and after I explained to them that the delectable greens in the bowl they were passing around the table with such disdain contained collards, not spinach, they each decided to try some. They listened intently as I taught them how to doctor up their greens with a little pepper sauce and chowchow and by the time we had finished the meal they understood about pot likker and cornbread and were sopping up the juices from their collards and field peas like old hands.

An interesting bunch, this Kansas crew. Very friendly people and before dinner was done - and yes, I had to explain to them why what we were eating was "dinner" and not "lunch," and that they would be eating "supper" later in the evening - but before dinner was done, they had invited me to come to Kansas and sample some grain fed beef and whatever else folks in Kansas eat that we don't.

And maybe I'll take them up on it, too - some weekend when I'm not real hungry. In the meantime, I hope the price of gas drops this summer, because I think I might be burning up the road between Conyers and Savannah - and I might even visit Jamie while I'm down there eating at Mrs. Wilkes's Boardinghouse.

It's better than snuff, and not half as dusty.

Darrell Huckaby is a local author and educator. He can be reached at dHuck08@bellsouth.net.