WHEN VISITORS ask me about places in Savannah to get "Southern food," I smile politely and ask what they mean by "Southern."
They usually respond with a list of menu items like fried chicken, shrimp and grits and collards. Fine. I have recommendations for those things.
But a growing number of people are starting to think of Southern food less as a menu choice and more as an ingredient source, locally grown and raised.
Is it Southern if it arrives by ship from China, by plane from Chile or by truck from California? No, Southern food comes from places around here, like McIntosh County.
For that, we have farmers like Rafe and Ansley Rivers. At three years old, their marsh-front, organic Canewater Farm has taken off in the local market for soil-grown love.
“With all the traditional cuisines of this area, the year-round growing and all the seafood available, there’s a really wonderful year-round local food scene that’s growing,” says Rafe, the dirty hands of the operation. “We’re happy to be part of that.”
When I rambled down scenic Hwy. 99 to meet them, down their dirt road near Darien, Rafe was riding a tractor and his eggplants and tomatoes were bursting out of the ground.
Rafe gave me a tour of his partly-wooded, partly-plowed 50-acre paradise, starting with the new barn he built and something called a “hoop house.”
I’d never head of such a contraption. Sitting unused in the summer, it resembles a mobile greenhouse that warms crops in the cooler months. They can jump-start tomatoes with it.
“We’re always trying to figure out how to grow better,” he says. It makes me think of how farming has been a task of continual improvement, although not without tradeoffs.
“We’re always learning what we can and can’t do,” he says. “Things that worked other places we’ve farmed don’t work here.”
The Atlanta natives learned the soils of Vermont, New Mexico and California before settling on the Georgia coast to start their own farm. That’s their hands-on education.
But Rafe’s actually a degreed graduate of a sustainable agriculture program at the University of California Santa Cruz. He wanted to do this. This is his dream.
“I wanted to be in the environmental field in some way,” he says, citing poet-activist-farmer Wendell Berry as an influence. “This felt like the best way that I could actually take action. I love working hard and staying extremely busy. That’s what a farm is.”
Coastal Georgia just happened to be a place that enchanted the couple.
“My family moved down to Savannah,” Ansley says. “I’d grown up coming here in the summers. We spent a lot of time in the summers on Cumberland Island.”
A professional photographer and the design side of the farm, Ansley also runs an artist residency at Canewater Farm called The Thicket. Artists apply to spend a few weeks here, soaking up the creativity latent in the seductive views and marsh air.
“It’s nice to have access to an urban place like Savannah but still be out in the country on this beautiful piece of property,” she says.
A side benefit for the artists? Eggplants, peppers, tomatoes, watermelons and squash in the warmer months. Greens, arugula, radishes, kale and collards in the cooler months.
The farm also grinds grits. Well, it sounds like a menu coming together, doesn’t it? Find their bounty at restaurants, markets and food co-ops from Savannah to St. Simons Island.
And make whatever you want out of it! Italian, Mexican or down home wherever, it makes no difference to me. As long as it’s grown or raised the South, it’s Southern food.