A Fish Out of Water

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Talking Savannah’s culinary traditions with Damon Lee Fowler

If you seek something headier than nectar and tastier than ambrosia and more palatable than manna / Set your teeth, I beg you, in one of these specialties de Savannah.  —Ogden Nash’s introduction to Harriet Ross Colquitt’s Savannah Cook Book (1933)

Growing up in Ohio, on the eastern edge of “America’s Breadbasket,” my tastiest childhood memory was catching the scent of the Wonder Bread factory while riding past it on the highway. Ohio’s cities pride themselves on culinary traditions pulled from everywhere but Ohio: Polish pierogies, German sausages, chili-smothered Coney Island hot dogs. The most quintessential native dessert I can think of is a bite-sized Reese’s peanut butter cup impersonation called a Buckeye — a basic truffle in the image of a poisonous tree nut.

So just imagine the romance, after ten years of visiting, of my relocating to Savannah and marrying into a Savannah family, acquiring in the process a cuisine with a sense of place, and a place with a real sense of cuisine. It’s a city with a lot to offer, and as a rookie, I wanted to do it right — I wanted to know what to order, what to eat and where to get it. So, I began asking around: What are Savannah’s classic dishes? What is Savannah cuisine? 

The answers I received were plentiful — and disparate. And after many a chat about boiled shrimp versus fried, where to go for fried green tomatoes and the merits of shad and shad roe, I tracked down food writer, award-winning cookbook author and resident culinary historian Damon Lee Fowler for a conversation about what foods he says are real Savannah. 

Photo by Beau Kester

At first, he balks a little at my question: “We can’t hold onto the past,” Fowler tells me over the phone, “Savannah dishes will continue to evolve, and in another generation, what people think of as classic Savannah cooking will be very different than it is today.”

This evolution in the city’s culinary tradition has been monumental since Fowler, a north Georgia native, came to town in 1980. Most notably, he says, he’s seen Savannah embrace contemporary American cooking — and not just for its flavor profile.

“The Internet has changed everything,” Fowler says. “Just Google a recipe and you’ll find a mountain of information. That flood of new ideas is changing the way Savannahians are cooking and eating.”

The broader availability of exotic or out-of-season ingredients — fresh herbs, ripe strawberries or a spring chicken in the dead of winter — has also spurred change. On the one hand, modern food distribution makes cooking easier. On the other, Fowler says, the way food is made and distributed now has its drawbacks, too: “Just like in the old days, you still have to candy your own orange peels. Everything ready-made is full of nasty high-fructose corn syrup.”

Those factors haven’t just affected Savannah alone — they’ve changed the way people cook worldwide. But lucky for locals and tourists alike, traditions in historic places like this one are slower to fade.

For example, Fowler says, many local rice dishes and seafood dishes are much the same today as they were a century ago or longer. 

In part, this is because we still have access the same prize ingredients: “When we cook at home, we’re mostly getting our seafood locally — brown creek shrimp, briney local oysters, crab — and the recipes we make with those have stayed fairly consistent,” Fowler says.

Of course, not every Savannah seafood tradition is what it used to be: “Crab cakes have, unhappily, become something I kind of wish they wouldn’t,” he laments. “There’s a new relationship with hot pepper that is just misbegotten. Crab meat is a delicate thing! I think there’s a carelessness about the way people are sometimes introducing these flavors. They’re not thinking about whether it really works — and a lot of the time, it doesn’t.”

Will new flavor trends mean the dissolution of the authentic Savannah crab cake altogether, or just an update? Some recipe adjustments become so ingrained, it’s hard to remember that they were ever different. Fowler points to the 19th-century Southern staple hoppin’ john. 

Photo by Beau Kester

“Every time I write about hoppin’ john in the newspaper, I get a catfight started with old Savannah,” Fowler says. “White Savannahians from younger generations swear by black-eyed peas in their hoppin’ john, which was actually not traditional at all … but don’t tell them that.”

Fowler recalled Juanita Dixon’s café on Abercorn, Nita’s Place, and the way she made the dish: “She always used little tiny red peas — cow peas,” Fowler recalls. “There’s been a lot of confusion as to what exactly ‘cow peas’ are — they were just wild field peas, but fairly unique to here. They were such an old part of the recipe that it got lost, to the point that even old Savannah doesn’t remember it.”

Often, fundamentals like this are written out of history because, Fowler says, the things people used to make all the time — the recipes Savannah chefs knew by heart — were the least likely to be written down. But in Harriet Ross Colquitt’s definitive 1933 Savannah Cook Book, there it is: hoppin’ john ingredient number one: cow peas.

However you make your hoppin’ john, Fowler says, all can agree it’s quintessentially Southern. Same with Savannah red rice, which Fowler says is not from Savannah at all. “It was first called Savannah red rice on the menu at the Pirates’ House,” Fowler says. “But really, it’s just a tomato perlo.”

Perlo included, a lot of Southern and Savannah dishes are derived from West African cooking, Fowler explains. Some of the enslaved people who came to or through Savannah were brought from West African countries specifically for their rice-growing knowledge, and with that agricultural wisdom, they brought recipes, too. Two centuries later, their dishes are still turning up on local tables.

It’s as true in Savannah as it is in Ohio or anywhere else: The story of local food is the story of immigrant food, Fowler says. “Few of Savannah’s most iconic dishes are from here,” he assures me. “Most of it started in other countries.” 

Fair enough, I say, but there must be a few dishes all Savannahians agree are part of the cultural fabric. “What do you like to cook at home?” I ask.

Suddenly, there are too many to list: “Deviled crab, soft-shelled crabs in butter, panned oysters or oysters in brown gravy,” he says. “Lila Elliott Habersham’s crab soup with tomatoes, Bonnie Gaster’s ham and crab gumbo with hambone broth, Daisy Redmond’s chicken Madeira, Emma Adler’s chicken in Champagne.”

He mentions the St. John’s crab salad he adapted from the cookbook of the women at St. John’s Episcopal, the sour cream pound cake and, finally, Connie Hartridge’s grandmother’s sherried shrimp, in its joyfully ruinous quantities of butter. “Now, that’ll just make you roll over and play dead,” he says.

* * * 

On the back cover of Colquitt’s cookbook, Ogden Nash writes: “Certainly every schoolboy knows that famous remark made by the late Mark Hanna / I care not who makes our Presidents, as long as I can eat in Savannah.” 

It turns out Senator Hanna was also an Ohioan. He and I agree, Savannah is a jackpot for the palate.

I’m keeping my eye out for the dishes Fowler named, and now I know I’m partaking in tradition when I order Elizabeth on 37th’s Savannah red rice, Garibaldi’s shrimp Savannah with button mushrooms and Pernod cream sauce, The Grey’s take on chicken country captain and anything from Mrs. Wilkes.

Still, I suspect, like Fowler, the Savannahians honoring these traditions most faithfully are doing so in their home kitchens. So as I settle into my own Savannah home, there’s one age-old local offering I’m after: Invitations to dinner parties.