Actually, that is not true. I bear sole responsibility for my weight gain. But if the Savannah food was less delectable, less tempting, less abundant, I might have been able to resist. Maybe.
Last week Michael and I visited Savanna, Georgia. It was one of those bucket-list things. I’ve always been fascinated by the story of this quirky, beautiful town. It is the oldest city in Georgia, founded in 1733 as a place for impoverished Brits to make a new life. City founder General James Oglethorpe befriended the Yamacraw Tribe and established laws allowing freedom of religion (except for Catholics), but outlawing “rum, lawyers and slavery.” Later that year, a group of 42 Jewish refugees, mostly Portuguese, arrived in Savannah after their ship ran aground in North Carolina. Not everyone wanted them, but Oglethorpe welcomed them, arguing that at least they were not Catholic. The Jewish settlers included a doctor, who had quinine to treat yellow fever, so they were allowed to settle. For some time, Savannah had one of the largest populations of Jews in North America.
But this period of brotherly love only lasted for a while, and within a few years the anti-discrimination laws were overturned. Economic self-interest trumped idealism, and Savannah (as well as other parts of Georgia) became wealthy on rice, cotton, and tobacco. An active port, Savannah boomed, resulting in many stately 17th and 18th century mansions and an interesting mix of cultures and cuisines. The Southeast Asian immigration in the 1980's and the massive expansion of the Savannah College of Arts and Design throughout the city has increased the city’s cultural diversity.
Seafood is abundant. We had oysters raw, grilled with hot sauce and melted cheese, baked with spinach and mornay sauce, and fried in sandwiches. Lots of grits. We had chicken and waffles at the café where they shot the scene of Jenny working the counter in Forrest Gump. We had an incredible chateaubriand at our hotel 17Hundred90 accompanies by several ghosts. We had the most amazing smoked chard at a restaurant called Grey. And we wanted more, but we had to go home.
Ubiquitous dishes were the Low Country Boil, seafood gumbo, and bourbon bread pudding. The Low Country Boil is sublimely simple, but you do need a bib and washcloth.
Low Country Boil
This dish can be comprised of any combination of shellfish, but it seems there is usually more of shrimp than anything else. At the Savannah Seafood Shack (run by a Vietnamese family), it was unshelled shrimp, clams, mussels, crawfish, king crab, sausage, onions, potatoes, and corn on the cob.
1. To a big pot of boiling water, add Old Bay seasoning to taste, but a fair amount. Or use Zatarain’s crab boil.
2. Throw in one or two peeled and quartered sweet onions, some garlic, a mess of baby red potatoes, and let ‘er boil for 15 minutes or so.
3. Then throw in big chunks andouille sausages and whole corn on the cob and simmer for another 8-10 minutes.
6. Finally, throw in your washed shellfish. Up to you how much, but at least three pounds of unshelled shrimp. Cook until the shrimp has just turned pink and the bivalves open. If your crab is already cooked, then put it in at the last minute to heat up.
Drain the whole mess in several colanders and dump it on your tables, covered by several thicknesses of newspaper. Sprinkle extra Old Bay on top, just for the hell of it.
And don't forget the washcloth.
This one is a little more complicated but can use the same combination of seafood you find in a low country boil. Now, if you eat shrimp or crab often, it makes sense to accumulate the shells in a bag in the freezer for a while until you have enough to make your own shellfish broth with aromatics like onion, carrot, and celery. But you can also use commercial shellfish broth or chicken broth. Or a combination, about six cups.
It makes sense with gumbo to get all your ingredients prepped ahead of time. Chop up an onion, a green pepper, and a couple three sticks of celery and three or four cloves of garlic. Slice up about a pound of andouille into half-inch chunks.
Now for the tricky part, which is the making of the roux. If you have bacon fat and want to use it, I won’t stop you. But you could also start with a cube of butter. Melt the fat, and then dump in about ½ cup of flour, and stir that around until it turns darkish—maybe a little darker than a brown paper bag. Don’t burn it. If you burn it, I’m afraid you will have to start over.
Throw in your veggies and the andouille and toss them around to cook them as best you can without burning the roux. Stir in most of your broth slowly to create a nice thick sauce, but save some in case you need it later. Now you can add a cup of diced tomatoes, a package of frozen okra, some bay leaves, some thyme, red paper, white pepper, black pepper, a spoon of tomato paste, and some Cajun seasoning to taste. You may want to add a little sugar and hot sauce. (I like habanero sauce) Simmer everything for about an hour, stirring occasionally.
While that’s going on, you will be making your rice and preparing your seafood—deveining your shrimp, cleaning your crab, whatever you decide to include. I’d use about 2 pounds of shrimp and whatever else suits your fancy. Dump that into the gumbo sauce and add two teaspoons of file gumbo and a little Worcestershire. Taste it and add the seasonings that make you happy. Add more broth if you need to. And, this may be heresy, but I sometimes add a little liquid smoke. Cook everything until it seems done. (I hate overcooked seafood.)
To serve, put the gumbo in shallow bowls, plop a lovey scoop of rice in the middle, and garnish with smoked paprika, parsley, or whatever.
Bourbon Bread Pudding
This is what will really make you fat. But you’ll feel sooooo good. For this you can use cubed day-old brioche or croissants or a combination with some French bread—whatever you have as long as it comes to about a pound. Place the bread into a 9 x 13 greased pan and sprinkle about a cup of pecans on top. Mix 5 cups of half and half with 5 eggs, 1 cup brown sugar, 3 tablespoons each of bourbon and vanilla, a little bit of cinnamon and nutmeg, and a pinch of salt. Pour this over the bread and let it soak at least an hour. It’s good with a little apple pie filling thrown in as well.
Heat your oven to 350, bake for 50 - 55 minutes, and it is good. Even better with ice cream.