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?).