Thursday, November 6, 2008

Mrs. Wilkes Boardinghouse Restaurant



Savannah, Georgia

Every weekday, hungry folks wait in line for a table in Mrs. Wilkes Dining Room. By 11:30, the crowd snakes around the corner of brick paved Jones Street, in heart of Savannah. No reservations are taken and no credit cards accepted.

Mrs. Wilkes restaurant was legendary, long before John Berendt’s, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, hit the bestseller list. His story included references to the boardinghouse food and my husband and I wanted a sample.

Being just a party of two, were quickly called to the front of the line. By tradition, the restaurant seats and serves family style; so this was our lucky day.

We entered a ground level room with a low hanging ceiling, giving it a cozy close feel, like dining at grandma’s house. Oilcloth covered tables were laden with so many side dishes, I lost count. In front of me rested bowls of lima beans, coleslaw, yellow squash, black- eyed peas, pickled beets, mashed potatoes and gravy. Next to Jay, an bevy of containers were brimming with beef stew, barbequed pork, succotash, collard greens, corn bread stuffing (called dressing in the South), mashed sweet potatoes, creamed corn, macaroni and cheese, tomato and okra gumbo and biscuits.

The server filled glasses with sweet iced tea and took orders from non-southerners who desired the unsweetened version or water. But our attention turned to the high-piled platter of fried chicken being presented. This entree was still sending off currents of hot steam and, I believe, made some folks drool.

The poultry gleamed golden brown, lightly breaded, not greasy. Without hesitation, customers, really more like guests, began politely digging into the feast. And, no wonder Jim Williams (of the famous book) had food from Mrs. Wilkes delivered to his prison cell. This chicken oozed finger licking goodness, as should a James Beard Award winner.

Seated with us were friendly strangers: a retired couple traveling the USA in their pick up truck, another retired couple who had piloted and flown in on a small plane, just to have lunch at Mrs. Wilkes, and a third couple from Arizona, vacationing in the historic city.

We quickly got to know each other while consuming delicious mouthfuls and trading opinions on the meal. The offerings were passed a second time; but only one or two took extras. I considered a spoonful of the yams, a sweet intriguing mingle of spices and raisins. I just had to ask about the recipe and was told it included coconut.

Before long, dessert was served, a small dish of creamy banana pudding, finishing the yummy, but hardly heart-healthy, banquet.

Traditionally all diners at Mrs. Wilkes carry their own plates to the kitchen. Then they pay in cash on their way out. The luncheon costs sixteen dollars, a bargain that lasted me the rest of the day.

Mrs. Sema Wilkes was a dearly beloved woman who passed away in 2002 at age 95. She took over the boardinghouse in 1943 and worked hard to maintain it all those years.

Her great-grandson Ryon Thompson now manages the establishment, along with help from his mother, Mrs. Wilkes granddaughter, and her husband. They keep about 200 long-term customers and tourists happy by preparing the original, time-tested menus and recipes.

The cuisine is not gourmet, and it never intended to be. But, you can’t find a more authentic home-cooked southern spread anywhere. Mrs. Wilkes Dining Room is an unpretentious and cherished Savannah shrine worthy of a visit and, however long, a wait in line.

If you go:

Mrs. Wilkes Dining Room is located in the historic district.

107 West Jones Street, Savannah, Georgia

912 232 5997

Here is a perfect Thanksgiving recipe from Mrs. Wilkes Boardinghouse Cookbook. In fact, Mrs. Wilkes used to say, “a lot of people buy my cookbook just to get this recipe.” Add me to that list.

Sweet Potato Soufflé

4 pounds sweet potatoes, pared and sliced

1 ½ cups sugar

2 eggs

½ cup raisins

Grated rind and juice of 1 lemon

½ teaspoon cinnamon

½ teaspoon nutmeg

½ cup evaporated milk

½ cup chopped pecans

½ cup butter or margarine, melted

½ cup shredded coconut

Miniature marshmallows

Place the potatoes in a pot and add enough salted water to cover. Cook until tender. Drain. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Mash and whip the potatoes. Add the remaining ingredients (except marshmallows) and mix well. Pour into a greased casserole dish. Bake for 30 minutes. Remove from the oven and cover with marshmallows. Return t the oven and continue cooking until brown. Serves 8. (Except if you have as many side dishes as Mrs. Wilkes, it will likely serve more!)



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