Nita’s Place

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Back in the ’90s, Juanita Dixon helped usher in Savannah’s soul food revival,winning over the passions and palates of celebrities, city leaders and simple folk alike.  Photography by Beau Kester.

Juanita Dixon’s strong and supple hands stir the air as if she’s conducting a symphony. She uses them as she talks—to amplify a point, to clap in celebration, to demonstrate the proper way of sprinkling flour over caramelized onions for gravy.

“You got to know the consistency in the hand,” she tells me from across her dining table.  “You can feel it.  The hand is the gift that God give you, so God be making sure that everything is felt through the hand.”  She cups her palm and taps it with a finger.  “For cooking, your hand is your measurer.”  She takes an imaginary pinch and tosses.  “Your fingers, when you pick up the flour, it’s the dash.”

That brown gravy she’s making, poured with care and pride over a steaming plate of shrimp and grits, drew legions of fans—Clint Eastwood and Meg Ryan among them—to her downtown outpost, Nita’s Place, throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, when Juanita served up some of Savannah’s most savory soul food.  Her sour cream and buttermilk biscuits were legendary, and she shrewdly offered free hoecakes to passing trolley riders, enticing them to return to her 12-seat luncheonette on Abercorn for fried chicken, candied yams, collard greens and a squash casserole that people still rave about a decade after her doors were shuttered.

Loaves and Fishes

Biscuits were the first things Juanita learned to make at the age of 5.  The second of seven children, Juanita took over the household cooking so that her mother could work to support the family.  Her older sister had already moved out of the house, so it was up to Juanita to make sure the younger siblings were dressed and fed.

Her mother and aunts never wrote down their recipes, so they brought Juanita into the kitchen and taught her everything they knew by letting her observe and repeat.

“I had to get up and do, and they’d tell me, ‘Don’t you mess up,’” she remembers.  Food was a precious commodity and nothing could go to waste.

“My mama would say, ‘Don’t overcook that cabbage, Nita; you want a crunch to it.’  I had to learn fast.”

By her tweens, Juanita was cooking and cleaning for a family that lived on East Broad Street.  As a teenager, she got a job as a coffee girl for Morrison’s Cafeteria.  Later on, while she raised her son and daughter, she shuffled between four jobs: cooking and serving hearty breakfasts out of food trucks to longshoremen at the port; stocking shelves at Savannah Wholesale; prepping food for Memorial University Medical Center’s doctors’ lounge, and helping out at a funeral home on weekends.

But Juanita never dreamed she could have her own restaurant until she started catering house parties in Yamacraw Village.  That’s when she discovered her joy for cooking, and she learned she could make money from it.

“We used to have rent parties, honey,” Juanita recalls, her deep, rich laughter filling the house.  “We’d start them off on a Friday and they’d end on a Monday.  (Governor) Lester Maddox closed down the clubs at twelve o’clock on Saturday nights then, and we didn’t have no place to go so we would crank up the house.”

Juanita would make chicken, pig’s feet, chitlins, macaroni and cheese, potato salad and cornbread, charging a small fee to help raise money for rent.  On Fridays, she made sure she offered crisp fried whiting with red rice—a standard on many African-American tables, even today.

“Every Friday was the day for fish,” she explains.  “If you see a fish market with black people lined up, it’s a Friday.  Whiting is the African tradition here in the South.  It was so plentiful.  At the shrimp boats in Thunderbolt, they give you the whitings.”

She tells me how she prepared the fish whole, not filleted, with their bones and heads intact and the eyes carved out.  She dredged them in golden cornmeal and flash-fried them for crunch.

Breaking Bread

Red rice and whiting were staples on the menu when she opened Nita’s Place in 1992 with just a household refrigerator, a freezer, a four-burner stove and a steam table.  Back then, customers sat on Coca-Cola crates and would help serve sweet tea and slices of sweet potato pie if she was needed in the back.  Pretty soon, food and travel writers from Southern Living, Travel+Leisure, The New York Times, the San Francisco Chronicle and the BBC were extolling the virtues of her victuals.

“It was fun.  My cooking was fun,” she reminisces.  “All these people coming in here to eat from me?  It was fresh vegetables that made Nita’s.”

The notoriety created long lines and even longer waits.  By the late 1990s, Juanita’s friends and patrons talked her into moving from her pocket-sized place on Abercorn to a larger storefront on Broughton Street, where, off the trolley line, Nita’s Place got lost among the other shops.  Rising costs and fewer feet walking past her door led her to make a wrenching decision in 2003 to lock up for good.

“I had a goldmine in my hand—and a gut feeling I shouldn’t move,” she says now.

Juanita has since settled into catering special events and cooking for dinner parties.  But it’s not the same as having something to call her own.

“I miss feeding the people,” she says with just a pinch of melancholy.  “I would sing songs to them.”  At Nita’s Place, the jazzy, improvisational blues of Billie Holiday often played as the soundtrack—a lyrical representation of Juanita’s tactile, visceral way in the kitchen.

“Food is an art, just the way people play music by ear,” she says with her palms face up, holding an invisible platter filled with a bountiful feast—a feast crafted by hands that know exactly how to take the measure of things.

Kitchen Confidential

If Nita’s short on cornmeal for her signature crispy whiting, she’ll dredge the fish in all-purpose flour that’s been bedazzled by turmeric.  “That’ll give you that golden color that’s so important,” she says.  She always buys her whiting from “Charlie”—that’s Russo’s Seafood for those of us not on a first-name basis—who will butterfly the whole fishes for her.

Nita Dixon’s Crispy Whiting and Savannah Red Rice

(Serves 4)

Crispy Whiting: 

4 whole whiting, butterflied with eyes removed

Kosher salt and ground black pepper

Cornmeal, or all-purpose flour with turmeric

Canola oil

Red Rice:

2 tablespoons olive oil

½ pound large shrimp, peeled, deveined and tails removed

½ cup celery, coarsely chopped

½ cup yellow onion, coarsely chopped

½ cup green bell pepper, coarsely chopped

2 tablespoons minced garlic

1 tablespoon dried rosemary

1 tablespoon dried sweet basil

1 tablespoon dried Italian seasoning

4 bay leaves

3 tablespoons butter

1 cup fresh diced tomatoes

4 cups canned diced tomatoes, in liquid

2 cups tomato sauce

One 6-ounce can tomato paste

Wash and pat dry the fish, then sprinkle all sides with kosher salt and ground pepper.  Set aside in the refrigerator until ready to pan fry. 

Position a rack on the bottom rung of the oven and preheat the oven to 450°  F.

Heat olive oil in a heavy-bottomed stock pot over medium heat.  Add the shrimp and stir until the shrimp are coated with the olive oil.  Add the celery, onion, green pepper and garlic and cook for 2-3 minutes until the shrimp have started to turn pink and curl.  Then add the rosemary, basil, Italian season, bay leaves and butter to warm and release the aromatics.

Stir in fresh diced tomatoes, canned tomatoes, tomato sauce and paste.  Continue to stir until a loose sauce has formed.  Bring the sauce to a boil.

Slowly add the rice, one cup at a time, and continue to stir the tomato sauce until you feel the mixture tighten.

Pour the rice into a 3-quart casserole dish and cover first with plastic wrap then foil, and set the dish on the bottom rack of the oven to bake for 25-30 minutes, until all the water has been absorbed and the rice is tender.

When the rice is almost done, fry the whiting.  In a 12-inch cast iron skillet over medium, heat enough canola oil to pan-fry the fish.  Test the oil’s heat by sprinkling in some cornmeal or flour.  When it pops, you’re ready to fry.

Remove the fish from the refrigerator.  Pour cornmeal or flour with turmeric into a shallow dish then dredge the fish on both sides, shaking off any excess.  Gently place two fish, skin-sides down, in the heated oil, and let it cook for 3-4 minutes until golden brown.  Gently turn the fish skin-sides up and cook 3-4 minutes more until golden brown and flaky.  Remove the fish and let it drain on a paper towel.  Serve immediately.