Saturday, June 25, 2011

Ossabaw Island: Culture Preserved on the Coast of Georgia

The barrier islands that line the Georgia coast offer special opportunities to explore history and culture of the American South. Ossabaw Island, about twenty miles south of Savannah, has a rich history that can teach us many lessons about survival, freedom, and perseverance.

Ossabaw is the third largest barrier island of Georgia, according to the Ossabaw Island Foundation, which promotes and manages educational and scientific programs on the island. Not linked to the mainland by bridge or causeway, the island is used by colleges, universities and researchers as an “unspoiled living laboratory for monitoring environmental changes over time and for learning from one another in a setting where humans lightly tread.”

For example, the foundation has presented programs with the Georgia Historical Society on interpreting the Gullah/Geechee heritage. The Gullah/Geechee people were enslaved Africans captured from the rice-producing regions of Senegambia, Angola, and Sierra Leone in West Africa and brought initially to the port of Charleston. When Georgia removed its ban on slavery in 1750, many West Africans were brought to Ossabaw Island and other parts of coastal Georgia as enslaved labor.

On the island are three restored tabby cabins built in the 1820s-1840s by skilled enslaved labor. The cabins were the homes for enslaved families who worked the fields and tended livestock. The buildings were later used by their descendants who worked as sharecroppers for the island’s owners. To create tabby, a cement-like material, the enslaved workers mixed oyster shells, sand, and water with lime from burned shells, according to Paul Pressly, Director of Ossabaw Island Education Alliance. Other examples of early life on the island that are less visible are now being uncovered by scholars.

For example, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga has conducted investigations at North End Plantation, one of the plantations where indigo, rice, and sea island cotton were grown, to develop an archaeological record of enslaved Africans at that part of the island. The earliest human artifacts found on Ossabaw date to more than 4,000 years ago when Native Americans inhabited the island. Records of early Spanish explorers (who left hogs that became feral and produced offspring that still survive 400 years later) indicate that a Guale Indian village called Asapo was probably located on Ossabaw. In the 1730s the British began to occupy the area, although an early English treaty reserved the island as a hunting and fishing area for Creek Indians. However, the Creek in 1758 (25 years after Savannah and the colony of Georgia were established) were forced to convey the island to King George II.

In the decade before the American Civil War, almost 300 enslaved people called Ossabaw home, according to Allison Dorsey, professor of history at Swarthmore College, with whom I visited the island as part of a workshop. During the war, Union General William T. Sherman confiscated the Ossabaw plantations as part of his March to the Sea campaign. In the spring and summer of 1865, under the authority of Sherman’s Special Field Order No. 15, the plantations were redistributed in 10- to 40-acre allotments to former U.S. Colored Troops soldiers and emancipated blacks. The field order was in response to Sherman’s meeting in January 1865 in Savannah with black leaders who convinced him that true freedom required ownership of land “to turn it and till it by our own labor.” However, the U.S. government revoked the order and returned the land to its Confederate owners in January 1867, thus ending the hope of freedmen to start life anew on Georgia’s sea islands.

The Ossabaw Island Foundation sponsors several events each year, including a Gullah Geechee day trip in the spring so participants can learn about the African roots of enslaved and freedmen families who lived on the island from the early 1800s through the mid-20th century, although the island is no longer inhabited by African Americans. In the late 1890s after severe hurricanes, island residents began moving to the mainland and established the Pin Point community (where U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas was born in 1948).

In 1978 the state of Georgia acquired the Ossabaw. The island has now been set aside as the Georgia’s first Heritage Preserve, which restricts its use to natural, scientific and cultural study, research, and education. However, the island, with 26,000 acres of forest and tidal marshland, is still listed as one of America’s 11 most endangered historic places by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

When I visited the island as part of a workshop on African American culture and history conducted by the Georgia Historical Society for the National Endowment for the Humanities, Ossabaw seems more than 20 miles and minutes away from modern America. I hope to return one day and learn more about its rich history.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Motivated Students and Dedicated Instructors

Imagine being a student in the first class of a school that provided the opportunity to achieve an education that had been long denied. Consider being an instructor in that school as it opened and being able to educate such a student. Because firsts in American education are such major achievements, the Beach Institute in Savannah, Georgia, has a noteworthy place in the heritage of educational triumphs, particularly in the American South.

Standing next to a chalkboard first used only two years after the American Civil War had ended, I had a sense of awe when I stood at the front of a classroom in the Beach Institute. As I looked the desks used when the school opened for newly emancipated African Americans, I tried to understand the obstacles that both students and instructors faced and consider their goals to improve lives through education.

The Beach Institute opened in 1867 with 600 students. With only eight classrooms, the institute was operating at more than full capacity as it tried to meet the needs of such eager students. A male principal led a staff of nine female teachers, most of whom were white and from the North.

Although Georgia custom and law prohibited teaching slaves to read and write, several secret schools in Savannah helped many enslaved Africans become skilled readers and writers (as the example of Susan King Taylor illustrates). Thus, when the Beach Institute opened, scores of students who enrolled could already read and write. According to Vaughnette Goode-Walker, director of cultural diversity and access at the Telfair Museums in Savannah, the number was as high as 200 (because learning was not against the law – only teaching).

Named for Alfred E. Beach (a philanthropist who donated land for the building), the institute was funded by the American Missionary Association (AMA), a society founded in 1846 by Congregational, Baptist, and Presbyterian abolitionists of New Haven, Connecticut. After the start of the American Civil War, the AMA began focusing on education for freed slaves. By 1868, the AMA, which also established many historical black colleges and universities, had more than five hundred teachers and missionaries throughout the South.

When the Beach Institute opened, its Greek revival style of architecture made it an impressive building. Even more impressive than its architecture is its social history, including efforts to fund and build it, supply skilled teachers and administrators, provide a credible education to its students, and maintain the structure as a historic structure when its days in education had ended.

Located in the historic district of Savannah, the three-story wood frame structure is the oldest surviving African American educational center in Georgia. The Beach Institute continued as a school until 1970 and has had only a few modifications to its floor plan, even though it also served as an elementary school high school, trade school, and center for adult education. It has now been recast as the Beach Institute African American Culture Center with a charge of collecting, interpreting, preserving, and presenting African American history and culture through educational events and exhibits, according to Darlene Wilson, a staff member and docent. As a result, the center continues its ability to generate public interest that dates back to October 3, 1868, when Harper’s Weekly featured the institute in an article about newly constructed schools for African Americans.

Other college instructors who were participating in a workshop on African American culture and history conducted by the Georgia Historical Society for the National Endowment for the Humanities shared my sense of awe when we entered a classroom. Although the original student desks are hard and uncomfortable by today’s ergometric standards, no one could pass the opportunity to sit at such historic desks and imagine being in the classroom in 1867. The educational challenges of today seem so minor when compared to the significant achievements that others before us accomplished.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Ossabaw Island Hog: 400 Years Later

Although I once believed that the hog and everything from ham to pulled pork were originally and uniquely Southern, I soon learned that the hog was a present to the Americas from Spanish explorers. However, I was really surprised when I encountered a hog in Georgia that closely resembles its colonial counterparts.

As part of a workshop on African American culture and history conducted by the Georgia Historical Society for the National Endowment for the Humanities, I visited Ossabaw Island to learn more about how culture has been preserved on the coast of Georgia (see “Ossabaw Island: Culture Preserved on the Coast of Georgia” for details).

The island’s mixture of salt marshes, freshwater ponds, forest, sandy beaches, and dunes has also helped preserve a special resident – the Ossabaw Island hog, which has flourished on its namesake Georgia home for about 400 years. Many historians believe the Spanish left hogs on Ossabaw in the 1500s.

The Ossabaw Island hog remains the closest genetic representative of the historic stock that Spanish explorers brought to North America, according to The Maryland Zoo in Baltimore. Because of the Ossabaw hog’s isolation, Oklahoma State University also considers it to resemble accurately its Spanish heritage unlike other Spanish pigs that escaped, became feral in southeastern forests, and eventually mixed with domestic pigs.

As a result, Colonial Williamsburg in 2005 began using Ossabaw Island hogs in its educational programs about animal husbandry and culinary practices of the 1700s because how closely they resemble their colonial counterparts (although they can no longer be removed from the island). “Their hair was heavy because they lived outside, and they were dark and oval. Today, pigs are rectangular and pink,” says Elaine Shirley of Colonial Williamsburg.

The hog that I encountered during a field trip to Ossabaw Island was not the typical Piggly Wiggly. In contrast to modern hogs, Ossabaw Island animals are typically black and have thick coats, upright ears, and long snouts; they also are rarely more than 20 inches in height or weight more than 100 pounds in their natural habitat. On Ossabaw, they also reproduce so frequently that one of the two Georgia wildlife technicians on island has a quota of reducing the swine population by 1,800 each year.

According to the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, the Ossabaw Island hog is phenomenal because it has survived in a challenging environment known for heat, humidity, and seasonal scarcity of food. Although it may be as small as 100 pounds, it can store amazing amounts of fat to survive when little is available to eat. In addition, it has also been highly tolerant of dietary salt as it has learned to survive on the Georgia sea island.

Although the hog is not native to the American South, how we enjoy food from ham to pulled pork is connected to the culture of the region. The next time you eat high on the hog or fry some bacon, thank the Spanish explorers for contributing to our foodways and the Ossabaw Island hog for being a living record.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Sapelo Island: Preserving the Past and Studying the Forgotten

The Georgia coast and its barrier islands have been invaluable for recording and preserving information about the people and cultures of the American South. Islands such as Sapelo, about sixty miles south of Savannah, are treasures of Geechee-Gullah heritage; the sea islands were also early scenes of vibrant African Muslim communities whose traces have faded over time. Even with a documented historical importance, only a few locations have been protected for future generations (and sometimes unintentionally by unknowing stewards).

Gullah-Geechee Heritage

The Gullah-Geechee were taken from the rice-producing regions of Senegambia, Angola, and Sierra Leone in West Africa and brought to rice plantations of the American South as enslaved labor. They were brought to Sapelo in 1802 when Thomas Spalding, who introduced the cultivation of sugar cane and manufacture of sugar to Georgia, began buying portions of the island and created several plantations (which included a sugar mill) operated by as many as 400 enslaved workers in cotton, sugar cane and livestock activities.

The porous soils, temperate climates, tidal influences, and saline atmosphere of Sapelo and its marshes are ideal for the cultivation of rice and Sea Island cotton, according to Buddy Sullivan, manager of the reserve when I visited as part of a workshop on African American culture and history conducted by the Georgia Historical Society for the National Endowment for the Humanities. In fact, the freshwater rivers of the Carolina and Georgia coastal areas permit rice cultivation to thrive, particularly as alternating cycles of flooding and draining fields (skills brought by enslaved West Africans to the Atlantic coast) are repeated; this coastal system was later adopted by the planters on large river plantations.

The 1860 census indicates that the Spalding family had 252 enslaved residents living in 50 cabins. Following the American Civil War, the freedmen created several communities throughout Sapelo, although only Hog Hammock now remains. This community, home to about 50 Gullah-Geechee descendants, includes the historic Behavior Cemetery and the First African Baptist Church that traces its origins to 1866. Because Hog Hammock no longer has its own school (the last one closed in 1978), children take the ferry to the mainland and then a bus to school.

Accessible by only ferry or airplane, the island is remote. Because the Gullah-Geechee were so isolated, many generations were able to preserve their distinct culture. When I visited Sapelo, I met Cornelia Bailey, storyteller and folklorist, who wrote about growing up on the island and preserved many Gullah-Geechee memories in her book God, Dr. Buzzard and the Bolito Man. “We still drink, love, hate, and remember we are still living for our ancestors,” says Bailey (who traces her lineage back to an African Muslim named Bul-Allah, the head enslaved manager for Spalding) in her essay “I Am Sapelo.”

Islamic Heritage

Although the First African Baptist Church congregants continue to worship on the island, what has faded is awareness of how significantly Sapelo and neighboring coastal islands constituted the largest assembly of African Muslims in early North America. Such knowledge is the result of painstaking research by scholars such as Michael Gomez, professor at New York University, who describes the Muslim presence in the coastal American South as “active, vibrant, and compelling.” As Gomez points out, of the 388,000 Africans brought into British North America during the Atlantic slave trade, more than 224,000 came from regions influenced by Islam.

By analyzing interviews conducted by the Works Progress Administration in the 1930s and related family narratives, Gomez has identified how many practices of enslaved Africans show a picture consistent with serious pursuits of Islam, such as attempts to adhere to Islamic dietary requirements, observance of Muslim feast days, and other elements of Muslim life, such as prayer mats, veiling, and daily ritualized prayer. The longing of many to preserve their religion and culture is also shown by the pattern among American-born enslaved to carry Muslim names and retain vivid memories of their ancestors’ religious practices, even as the number of Christian converts increased. In addition, Gomez has confirmed Sapelo as an important Muslim community based on listings of enslaved Africans when plantations were sold as well as advertisements for enslaved runaways. (Names are clearly Muslim such as Mustapha, Sambo, and Mamado.) Other research by the Georgia Historical Society substantiates the Islamic influences in early African communities on the southeastern U.S. coast.


What protected Sapelo from the boom of coastal real estate development, the fate of some islands such as Hilton Head, S.C., that also share the Gullah-Geechee heritage? Several islands were acquired by wealthy Northerners in the fifty years after the American Civil War. The story of Sapelo is similar to Ossabaw and a few other islands whose purchase protected them from the typical development. For example, in 1912, Howard E. Coffin, a Detroit automotive pioneer, purchased all of Sapelo from its various owners except for the African American communities. During the Great Depression, Coffin sold his property to North Carolina tobacco heir Richard J. Reynolds, Jr., whose widow later sold it in two transactions (1969 and 1976) to the state of Georgia.

The 16,500-acre Sapelo Island, the fourth largest barrier island of Georgia, is now home to an estuarine research reserve (6,110 acres as part of the 27-reserve national system) and a wildlife refuge (8,420 acres). Equally important is that Hog Hammock is the last intact sea island community of Geechee-Gullah people in Georgia. As a result, Hog Hammock has been placed on the National Register of Historic Places by the U.S. Department of the Interior. Except for this small community (434 acres), the island (97%) is state owned and managed.

Preserving Culture

The Sapelo Island Cultural and Revitalization Society annually conducts several educational events, including a cultural day each fall that features storytelling, arts and crafts (including quilt-making and sweet grass basket-making), dancing, music, and food. These efforts, although small, are vital for preserving the full history of the American South. More concerted actions are needed to retain a critical awareness of how past generations have shaped our values and traditions.

Monday, June 20, 2011

The Ring Shout

How do you connect musically and culturally with traditions of past generations? Many of us in the American South are fascinated to learn how our contemporary music and other artistic aspects of culture have been shaped by our ancestors. When I experienced the “ring shout” performed in Savannah, Georgia, I connected immediately to several musical genres of the South — spirituals, gospel, blues, jazz, and others.

With features that are clearly West African in origin, the ring shout is a religious dance that combines a counter-clockwise movement, call-and-response singing, and percussion. Still performed in coastal Georgia, the ring shout is probably the oldest surviving African American performance tradition in North America. It has survived well beyond several generations of Africans enslaved in coastal Georgia and South Carolina on the cotton and rice fields who could preserve their own Geechee and Gullah cultures on the sea islands because they were so isolated from the American mainland.

The term shout, although used to describe all elements of the tradition, specifically refers to its dancelike movement. (The word shout may derive from the Afro-Arabic saut that refers to movement around the Kabaa in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, according to a linguist.) A “songster” (or song master) sets a song by beginning slowly at first and then accelerating to a faster tempo. His lines are answered by singers (known as basers) in a call-and-response pattern. The stick-man beats a simple drum-like rhythm with a wood stick, and the basers add rhythm with hand clapping and foot patting.

As the tradition developed in America during slavery, Christian themes were grafted onto the practice (much like candomblé in Brazil). (In fact, when I observed the ring shout performed at the Second African Baptist Church in Savannah, Georgia, I was immediately attracted to the counterclockwise shuffle, call-and-response singing, and handclapping that I had observed in Brazil at a candomblé service conducted by African descendants.)

During the American Civil War, outside observers described in detail the ring shout’s practice in coastal Georgia and South Carolina. According to the Georgia Humanities Council, the ring shout continued to be practiced even as it was influencing forms of spiritual and gospel music and elements of jazz. However, because many communities had stopped shouting as early as the 1900s, experts thought that the ring shout was no longer being practiced until they learned in 1980 about the Bolden community in McIntosh County on the Georgia coast that annually performs the ring shout on New Year’s Eve at Mt. Calvary Baptist Church. (The ring shout continues to be separate from formal worship, although it takes place in the church’s annex.)

In fact, if not for this group, performing the ring shout may have become an extinct form of expression. (When the tradition became better known to outsiders, a performing group from the community that calls itself the McIntosh County Shouters was organized. The ages of their ten members range from 24 to 94.) Because all members of the group are related by blood or marriage, they have known each other since birth, and they have been interviewed and observed by historians, linguists, anthropologists, folklorists, and Gullah Gechee experts.

The ring shout has been shared by grandparents — and sometimes great grandparents — with their descendants. (In fact, at the performance that I attended, long-term member Harold Evans had been replaced by 24-year-old Brendon Jordan, grandson of baser Caretha Sullivan, as the stick-man.) To maintain the integrity of the ring shout, elders teach and practice it as they learned from their ancestors, although no two shouters “shout” alike.

As they move in a counter-clockwise pattern, each one has distinctive hand motions or other movements. The ring shout affirms oneness with the Spirit and ancestors in an expression of community cohesiveness. However, because the shout was criticized by white missionaries and some black clergy, it often occurred in the church after formal worship, in "praise houses" in the woods, and sometimes even in homes or barns. Yet the movement is “in the service of the Lord”; thus it is a forward shuffle -- the feet never are crossed or are raised high off the floor because, as the narrator at a performance explains, such movements could be viewed as “unholy” dancing.

The shout songs, once known as “running spirituals,” often carry coded references to slavery. When I observed the McIntosh County Shouters at the Second African Baptist Church (a historic church that has met at the same location since 1802 -- its history includes an overflow crowd to welcome Emancipation authorities in 1864 when the church was host to U.S. Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton and Union General William T. Sherman), their songs included “Teach Me, Lord, How to Wait” with references to Job and his suffering. The first verse ends:
Job said, “I will surely wait.”
Teach me, Lord,
Teach me, Lord,
How to wait.
Many congregants of Second African Baptist joined in response to the call of Freddie Palmer, a strong lead singer who became the songster when Lawrence McKiver, who had been the group’s patriarch, recently passed. In addition, C. MeGill Brown (a Savannah native), pastor of Second African Baptist Church, showed his connection by being a joyful participant in the call-and-response.

According to the Georgia Humanities Council, the ring shout has survived in coastal Georgia because the Bolden community has been relatively stable, and several elder practitioners have been deeply committed in continuing the tradition and encouraging its practice by a new generation, and the value of the tradition has received significant external recognition. For example, the McIntosh County Shouters were featured on the HBO documentary Unchained Memories in 2002. In 2010 they received the Georgia Governor’s Award in the Humanities. The book Shout Because You’re Free by Art Rosenbaum further documents this tradition.

Knowledge about the ring shout is also being expanded by websites. For example, a recent presentation in Washington, DC, is on YouTube (57-minute video). This performance with a narrator is basically the same program that I observed in Savannah (without the introduction by the Director of the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress and the Arts Services Manager for the Georgia Council for the Arts). Several short videos are also on YouTube, including a 39-second video showcasing the forward shuffle and a slightly longer one focusing on a baser.

According to the McIntosh County Shouters, they are like other cultural heritage organizations that help people “to remember and celebrate their shared experiences, traditions, identities, struggles, and aspirations.”

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Eating Family Style

How many bowls and platters are needed on a table to make a meal? At Mrs. Wilkes’s Dining Room in the Historic District of Savannah, Georgia, the number is more than 20. Authentic Southern food is the menu, and dining tables are crowded with more food choices than most guests can taste.

Like the early times of many Southern cities, Savannah’s early days include boardinghouses that offered simple rooms and hearty meals for laborers, teachers, bankers, and other workers that urban life attracted. When Mrs. Wilkes started her career in 1943, she agreed to only help in the kitchen of the boarding house where her late husband, Lois H. Wilkes, was staying. This part-time job grew into a thriving business that was built on word-of-mouth endorsements by customers.

The couple later bought and restored the home in 1965 as part of a Savannah Historic Foundation project. Although boarders are no longer taken, hearty home-cooked meals in the downstairs dining room honor the tradition of Mrs. Wilkes, who died in 2002 and once said, “We don’t need any recipes anymore. We just know what it takes to make food taste good.” In fact, four generations of the Wilkes family have continued her legacy of serving fine Southern food. However, the passing of Mrs. Wilkes has caused one major change: guests no longer wait for her blessings before scooping generous portions onto their plates.

The menu changes daily. Although several meat choices are available, Southern vegetables are the attraction of each table that is set with all the platters before any guest is seated. They may include black-eyed peas, butter beans, cabbage, candied yams, collard greens, cornbread dressing, creamed corn, green beans, macaroni and cheese, cucumbers, okra and tomatoes, rutabagas, rice and gravy, squash, and baked beans. The bread choices are biscuits and corn muffins. Finally, the meats include fried chicken (proclaimed by many to be the best in Savannah), beef stew, and meatloaf. Of course, sweet tea is available. When everyone at the table is ready for dessert, a server offers a choice of banana pudding or peach cobbler — the only time that a server interrupts the conversation except to offer more tea or water.

Food is still served family style, and the platters are continually passed around the table. Although locals drop by when they are hungry for a home-cooked meal, most guests are out-of-towners (and even the famous join the other guests at a table as a White House blog illustrates). If you don’t know everyone at the table, you soon learn who they are and where they are from. The conversations usually center on dishes that are favorites and family memories that they bring to mind. No one leaves as a stranger.

When you go, plan to wait outside until a table that seats up to ten is ready. Finding a line of people on the sidewalk in front of the dining room confirms that you have arrived at the right location; checking the street address (107 West Jones Street, an avenue paved with cobblestone and lined with live oak trees covered in moss) is unnecessary. In fact, the sign for Mrs. Wilkes was not placed in front of the dining room until 1987.

Beware: Mrs. Wilkes accepts no charge cards, takes no reservations, and is open only for lunch (11 to 2) on weekdays. The wait can be more than an hour. When I arrived, the wait was 85 minutes. However, departing guests provide words of encouragement to those in line and confirm that the food is well worth the wait.

The best part of eating at Mrs. Wilkes? You are treated like a member of the family. When the meal is over, guests are asked to take their plates and glasses to the dishwashing area as they leave. Then the process starts again as the table is cleaned and a cart of bowls and platters piled high with yummy food is brought from the kitchen for new guests.

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Is This Dining Experience Southern?

If you are searching for an authentic Southern dining experience, where should you go? Many people head to Savannah, Georgia, to find The Lady & Sons, the restaurant Paula Deen has operated for several years. But is the experience truly Southern?

Paula Deen has charmed millions with her folksy stories and her culinary talents on the Food Network since 2002. Once the teller in a bank, she changed her career after a bank robber put a gun to her head. She is the hero to many fans because, divorced and unemployed in 1989, she started The Bag Lady, a catering business with her sons – and her last $200. Eventually the catering business evolved into The Lady & Sons Restaurant, which opened in downtown Savannah in 1996 and most recently has landed at 102 West Congress Street (in the old White Hardware Building, a renovated 200 year-old three-story building plus basement with 15,000 square feet of space) where it has been named Georgia’s Small Business of the Year.

Although John Berendt, popular author of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, proclaims that The Lady & Sons is “indeed the very heart of Southern cooking,” I beg to differ. The heart is missing; only the cash register remains. Although the food is tasty, the experience is not Southern. Considering a visit to Paula Deen’s restaurant to be dining in the South is like thinking that a trip to Busch Gardens is a visit to Europe. Although when I visited recently on a Sunday and the choice was limited to only the buffet, it was the experience of most guests because the buffet is so popular. (Except on Sunday, the daily menu includes a broader assortment of appetizers, sandwiches, entrees, and desserts.) My recent visit also reminded me of an earlier visit several years ago when a group of college students and I had eaten lunch there.

First, Southern dining is hosted by a real person. At The Lady & Sons, you instead are greeted by a cardboard replica of Paula Deen, even though the Lord admonishes us not to make a graven image (check Exodus 20:4) “of anything that is in heaven above or that is on the earth beneath" (thus, the heavenly nature of Southern food prohibits any image); however, for some the graven likeness of the lady is the high point of the visit. It’s amazing how many people enter and immediately want to take a picture of either themselves with the cutout or the mannequin alone. Sometimes the flashes of cameras and phones taking pictures are so frequent that you feel like you are on a dance floor with strobe lights pulsating to a silent rhythm.

Next, Southern dining typically offers local food. Imagine being on the coast of Georgia and literally blocks away from a waterway as rich as the Savannah River and not offering any seafood on the buffet. Yes, fried chicken is always on her menu, a Kentucky colonel guarantees that it’s a Southern staple, and my family always served fried chicken on Sunday – and only on Sunday. However, something is wrong when the buffet choices never include any local seafood.

Another significant difference between Southern dining and a meal at The Lady & Sons is “linger time.” Of course, no one jumps in to Grandma’s kitchen or sits at a favorite aunt’s table and expects to have permission to leave in less than 30 minutes; however, that is the experience of most guests at Paula Deen’s: Most “hit the buffet” (more than once) and are on their way in less than 40 minutes. With almost 330 seats, The Lady & Sons does not offer an atmosphere that encourages guests to “linger” and converse (a true characteristic of Southern dining). In fact, when my college class visited, I was surprised how speedily they “gobbled” their lunch and were ready to leave (some in less than 15 minutes). Perhaps the noise level of the dining area made them uncomfortable.

Finally, the desserts for the buffet diners are too scrawny. How can any self-respecting Southern cook limit a dessert to the smallest dish (when the buffet itself is unlimited)? At The Lady & Sons, guests who select the buffet may choose among three sweets: banana pudding, peach cobbler, or gooey butter cakes. (Most guests whom I observed chose banana pudding – clearly, an acceptable choice). In addition to offering such small servings, the gooey butter cakes are suspect. Even The Lady & Sons Savannah Country Cookbook proves how removed from Southern cooking the cakes are. Who prepares a family favorite based primarily on cake mix? Although Paula Deen proclaims that “Southern cooking comes from within,” sometimes it comes from a box. The gooey butter cakes are made by combining yellow cake mix with one egg and a stick of butter.

However, the popularity of The Lady & Sons is overwhelming. It has cast off its humble beginnings after many years like the cicada. Every day a hostess starts to take names at 9:30 a.m. for lunch and dinner on a first-come, first-served basis; the preferred times quickly are taken. To receive a seating time, guests must appear in person, although groups of more than ten can make reservations. In addition, the Deen store appears to be more popular than the food.

Paula Deen’s restaurant offers tasty Southern food, but it’s no longer Southern dining. The change is so lamentable. It’s like watching an infomercial and then comparing it to a serious news report – both have a lot of words but the experience is entirely different. One leaves you empty, and the other is satisfying. Love, y’all (well, isn’t that what a cardboard Paula would say?).