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.

1 comment:

  1. What a great blog, Ray! It is a wealth of information. Mrs. Wilkes was just a good as you've described. I'd happily eat there again today with you! :)