It was 39 years ago almost to the day that I drove over the old Talmadge Bridge for the first time and had a strange sense that I was coming home – to a place I’d never in my life been before.
I’d come to Savannah for a preservation internship and spent one of the hottest summers on record documenting the endangered architecture of our fanciful Victorian District. Despite the heat, humidity and periodic encounters with wolf-spiders the size of a salad plate, that feeling that this place was home never faded.
At the end of that summer, I left to finish my degree, then worked out my internship in South Florida, but my heart stayed right here. The rest of me returned as soon as possible.
Of all the things about this lovely old city that made me fall in love with it, nothing has touched my heart and imagination quite as much as Savannah’s unique cuisine. It was that which led to an unexpected career change from architecture to food writing.
In 1987, inspired by that unique cuisine, I began researching my first cookbook rediscovering the roots of Southern cooking. My Savannah kitchen became a history laboratory where many lost recipes, untouched for two centuries, were brought back to life.
Twenty years later, I made a stab at capturing the cuisine that had started it all with my “Savannah Cookbook.” It was not just a culinary portrait of the city that had become my home, but was also reflection on a lifetime of becoming a Savannah cook.
More than 10 years later, a working copy of that book stays within easy reach in my kitchen. Every page recalls a dear friend, the exhilaration of rediscovering unique culinary treasures that had been lost to time, and hundreds of long, lazy midday luncheons and candlelit suppers on shady porches and elegantly appointed dining rooms.
The dishes I find myself going back to again and again are those from that sweltering summer of 1980, when my 40-year love affair with Savannah began.
Some of the recipes that follow here have appeared in my columns through the years, but they’re worth visiting again.
Lowcountry Crab Au Gratin
My first meal in Savannah was this gratin, its mellow, creamy sauce thick with crabmeat under a tangy golden blanket of toasted cheese. It was one of the first seafood dishes I learned to make and became a lifelong favorite. Serves 4.
• 1 pound picked crabmeat (preferably both lump and claw meat)
• 3 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon unsalted butter
• 1/2 cup finely minced shallots or yellow onions
• 3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
• 3 cups light cream or half and half
• 2 tablespoons medium dry sherry (amontillado)
• Ground cayenne pepper
• Whole nutmeg in a grater
• 2 tablespoons freshly-grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
• ¼ cup fine cracker crumbs
• 1 cup (about 4 ounces) grated extra-sharp cheddar
1. Pick over crab and remove bits of shell and cartilage.
2. In heavy-bottomed pan, sauté onion in 3 tablespoons butter over medium heat, stirring, until softened but not colored, about 3-4 minutes. Sprinkle in flour and cook, stirring, 1 minute. Slowly stir in cream and bring to simmer, stirring constantly. Reduce heat to medium low and cook, stirring, until thickened, about 3 minutes. Add sherry, return to simmer, and turn off heat.
3. Position a rack in the upper third of the oven and preheat to 400° F. Lightly butter 4 6-inch gratin dishes or 1½- to 2-quart gratin or shallow casserole. Fold crab and Parmigiano into sauce. Season to taste with salt, cayenne, and nutmeg and pour into prepared gratins or casserole.
4. Melt remaining teaspoon of butter in small skillet over low heat. Stir in cracker crumbs and toss until butter is evenly absorbed. Sprinkle cheddar evenly over top of gratin and top with crumbs. Bake until filling is bubbly and cheese is melted, about 15 to 20 minutes. Serve hot.
Vichyssoise (Chilled Leek and Potato Soup)
In that summer of 1980, I lived on the top floor of the imposing Victorian house on the corner of Gaston and Habersham streets, then owned by Jean Soderlind, who took this naïve upstate boy under her wing and became a kind of surrogate mother. After she discovered that I loved this cold soup as much as she did, there was always a jug of it in her refrigerator.
This is close to her version of that still-popular summer soup. Serves 6-8.
• 2-3 young, fresh leeks
• 1 medium yellow onion, trimmed, split, peeled and thinly sliced
• 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
• 1 pound mature Russet potatoes, peeled and thinly sliced
• 4 cups chicken broth or water
• 2½ cups half and half
• ½ cup heavy cream
• 3 tablespoons thinly sliced chives or green scallion tops
• Whole white pepper in a mill
1. Lay leeks flat on cutting board, slice off root end without removing root base, then, with knife parallel to board, carefully cut in half lengthwise. Wash each half root-end-up under running water, folding back leaves to wash away sand and dirt between leaves. Drain and thinly slice both white and pale tender greens. You will need 2 cups. Lay aside other greens for stock pot.
2. Warm butter in heavy-bottomed 3½- to 4-quart pot over low heat. Add leek and onion and cook until softened and translucent, about 8-to-10 minutes. Add potatoes, stir, and warm through.
3. Add broth or water and raise heat to medium high. Bring to boil, adjust heat to simmer, and season with salt. Cook gently until potatoes are tender, about 10 minutes. Puree in batches in blender or food processor. Let cool completely, cover, and refrigerate until well chilled.
4. 1 hour before serving, stir in half and half and if soup seems too thick, thin with chilled water. Taste and adjust seasonings. Chill to allow flavors to blend. Serve garnished heavy cream, chives, and white pepper.
Bonnie’s Perfect Poached Shrimp
One of my oldest friends here is Tybee Island native Bonnie Gaster, who has also been my go-to person for any question about local fish and shellfish. Of all the things I’ve learned from her, this simple, fool-proof method for poaching shrimp is one of the things I value most.
Serves 4-6 (depending on how they’re served).
2 pounds medium to large local shrimp
1. Bring 4 quarts water to a rolling boil over high heat. Prepare large pitcher of ice water. Add shrimp and cover. As soon as shrimp are curled and pink and first one floats, they’re ready; it’ll take as little as 1 and no more than 2 minutes, even for large shrimp. Drain quickly into colander.
2. Shrimp will continue cooking for a minute after they’re drained. Pour ice water over and toss with ice to stop cooking. Sprinkle lightly with salt and toss. Let stand 2-3 minutes.
3. Can be simply piled on platter and served as is, with cocktail sauce, lemon butter, or lemony mayonnaise. Each diner peels his own. If intended for another recipe, or if you are a neat freak, peel, then devein if desired. They’re easier to peel if you don’t let them sit too long.
My other favorite way of cooking local shrimp came my way while researching my “Savannah Cookbook.” One hot, rainy afternoon in June, Connie Hartridge and I sat down with frosty glasses of iced tea and half a dozen old family manuscript cookbooks. This gem practically flew off the page at us from her grandmother’s manuscript.
Prepare for a little old Savannah magic courtesy of the late Elizabeth Malone Smart. Serves 4.
• 8 tablespoons unsalted butter
• 1 large clove garlic, lightly crushed and peeled, but left whole
• 48 large shrimp (about 1½ pounds), peeled
• Salt and ground cayenne pepper
• ½ cup dry sherry
• 3 tablespoons chopped flat leaf parsley
• 3 cups Lowcountry Steamed Rice or 1-2 crusty baguettes
1. Put garlic and butter in large, heavy-bottomed skillet or sauté pan over medium heat and cook until garlic is golden, about 2 minutes. Remove and discard garlic. Add shrimp and sauté, tossing often, until curled and pink, about 3 minutes. Season with salt as needed and cayenne (inlet brown shrimp often don’t need salt), and remove with slotted spoon to warm platter.
2. Add sherry to pan and bring to boil, stirring and scraping pan, and let boil ½ minute or until vapors no longer have alcoholic sting. Stir in parsley and pour it over shrimp. Serve at once, over rice or with crusty bread to sop up sauce.
This homey dish has been all but forgotten, but when I first came to Savannah, it was still beloved. Don’t be fooled by its simplicity: the object is to bring out the rich, briny essence of our local cluster oysters without getting in its way.
In the “Time-Life Foods of the World” volume “American Cooking: Southern Style,” Southern bon vivant Eugene Walter wrote of learning how to make this from the late Mary Aiken, wife of Savannah’s poet laureate Conrad Aiken.
Mrs. Aiken stirred the oysters with her bare forefinger: when the liquor became too hot for her finger, she knew the oysters were done. You may use a spoon and watchful eye instead. Serves 2-4.
• 1 pint shucked oysters, preferably local Bluffton Oysters
• 4 pieces firm, home-style bread
• 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, plus more for toast
• Worcestershire sauce
• Hot sauce
• Whole black pepper in a peppermill
• 1 tablespoon chopped parsley
• 1 lemon cut in wedges
1. Drain oysters in strainer set over bowl to reserve the liquor for at least 15 minutes. Meanwhile, toast bread, lightly butter one side, and keep warm.
2. Melt 2 tablespoons butter in shallow, heavy-bottomed pan over medium heat. Add oysters and enough liquor to half cover. Cook, stirring constantly, until gills begin to curl, about 2 minutes. Season with Worcestershire, hot sauce, and pepper. Remove pan from heat, taste, and adjust seasonings, adding salt if needed (local oysters won’t need any).
3. Put toast buttered side up in warmed rimmed soup bowls. Spoon oysters and juices evenly over, sprinkle with parsley, garnish with lemon wedges, and serve.
Marilyn’s Spanish Tomatoes
In the wake of the War Between the States, Leila Habersham, a young war widow who was renowned as a fine cook, opened a cooking school in the kitchen of her mother’s now demolished State Street home. Among the dishes she taught was this mélange of tomatoes, peppers, and onions, called “Spanish” for reasons that are lost to time. It was still around in 1980, although its preparation was more streamlined than Mrs. Habersham’s.
My first encounter with it was on one of the hottest days of that summer. The late Marilyn Whelply, whose sunny yellow house on Habersham Street became a favorite sanctuary, had invited us over to watch “White Christmas” on television (those were pre-VCR and Netflix days, when you actually had to plan around a network schedule). She’d been putting up tomatoes all day long but held back a few to make this dish.
We had it with steamed rice and a bit of sautéed local sausage while we watched the classic film about waiting for snow and pretended that cooler weather was on the way.
It’s a little early for good tomatoes, but they’ll be here soon, so keep this recipe handy. Serves 4 to 6.
• 2 pounds fresh ripe tomatoes
• 2 tablespoons drippings or unsalted butter
• 1 large Bermuda or yellow onion, trimmed, split lengthwise, peeled and thinly sliced
• 1 large or 2 medium green bell peppers, stem, core, seeds, and membranes removed, thinly sliced
• Sugar, if needed
• Salt and ground cayenne pepper
1. Put tomatoes in heatproof bowl, cover with boiling water, and let stand 1 minute. Drain, rinse under cold water, peel, and core. Over sieve set in bowl to catch juices, cut into thick wedges and scoop out seeds into sieve. Add wedges to bowl with collected juices and discard seeds.
2. Melt fat in large frying pan over medium heat. When hot, add onions and peppers and sauté, tossing, until onion is translucent and softened but not colored and peppers are bright green, about 4 minutes.
3. Add tomatoes and juices and bring to boil. Season with salt, pinch of sugar (if needed), and dash of cayenne. Cook until juices are thick and tomatoes are tender, about 20 minutes. Taste and adjust seasonings, let simmer ½ minute longer, and turn off heat. Serve warm.
While researching and developing recipes for my second cookbook, I was allowed to join the brigade of canners at St. John’s Episcopal Church who met weekly to make chutneys, preserves, and relishes to sell at the parish’s annual bazaar. It was so much fun that I kept doing it for 10 years.
Aside from the delightful companionship, one of the best things of all were the rare days when Jane Pressly brought her housekeeper’s okra soup for lunch. Almost every old Savannah family has its own version of this triad of beef and ham broth, okra, and tomatoes, usually with other vegetables such as butterbeans, yellow squash, and corn added to the mix. Serves 6.
• 2 pounds meaty beef shank (soup) bone, or 2 quarts beef broth, preferably homemade
• 1 smoked ham hock, about ¾ pound
• 2 medium white onions, trimmed, split lengthwise, peeled, and chopped
• 3 pounds ripe tomatoes, scalded, peeled, seeded, and roughly chopped
• 1½ pounds small, tender okra, trimmed and sliced
• Salt and whole black pepper in a mill
• ½-1 cup each small green butterbeans, sliced carrots, freshly cut white corn kernels, sliced or diced carrots, and/or diced potatoes
• About 1½ cups hot cooked rice
1. If using beef shank bones, put with ham hock in a heavy bottomed 6-quart pot. Add 3 quarts water. Bring to boil over medium heat. Reduce heat to medium low and simmer until liquid is reduced to 2 quarts, at least 2 hours.
2. If using broth instead, bring broth and ham hock to a simmer over medium-high heat, reduce heat to medium low, and simmer, loosely covered, at least 1 hour. Skim off fat, add onion and simmer until tender, about 20 minutes. Can be made a day ahead: cool, cover, and refrigerate. Remove fat from top before bringing broth back to simmer over medium heat.
3. Stir in okra and tomatoes, loosely cover, and let come back to simmer. Uncover, reduce heat, and simmer about 20 minutes.
4. Taste and season with salt and pepper. Simmer, uncovered, until okra and tomatoes are tender and soup is thick, at least an hour more — longer won’t hurt it. If adding other vegetables, add after first half-hour of simmer and continue cooking until vegetables are tender, at least ½ to 1 hour longer.
5. Remove bones and hock. Meat may be picked from bones, cut up, and added to soup. Discard bones. If meat is added, simmer 5-10 minutes longer. Serve with rice.