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Savannah Food: A delicious history, and a loving chronicle

DOCUMENTING a food scene as rapidly evolving as Savannah’s—especially recently—is a challenge. But the new book Savannah Food: A Delicious History, by Stu and Donald Card, does an admirable job of hitting the high spots and trends.

I’m a sucker for cuisine books with a healthy dose of history. And the history in Savannah Food is compelling, but never overwhelming or tedious.

As you might expect, the journey begins in the Colonial era. One of the first notable gathering places in town was Tondee’s Tavern, site of sedition against the crown. While the tavern itself burned in the great fire of 1796, occupying the Broughton Street lot today is The Coffee Fox—a wonderful nod to the continuity that food and drink traditions can bring to a city. 

There is an intriguing spotlight on the Habersham House—what the world knows better today as The Olde Pink House. The home of James Habersham was also the place where the Declaration of Independence was first read aloud in Savannah. 

An extensive portion of the book is devoted to Smith Brothers Butcher Shop, representative of not only a great old Savannah name in cuisine, but one of the hottest new businesses in the continuing renaissance of the downtown district. 

As you’d expect, Savannah Food delves a good bit into local seafood market lore, though really an entire book could be devoted to just that. Here, the focus is on the extended Russo/Mathews clan and their collective influence on local taste buds. 

A large chapter is devoted to the African-American food tradition in Savannah, with a nice effort to delve into the culture and folkways of the Gullah-Geechee tradition which informs so much local life.

The authors spend a lot of time talking with Teresa Weston, current owner of Wall’s BBQ downtown. While this mention—along with a sidenote on Clary’s Cafe—might inspire criticism for focusing on tourist-frequented places, the authors’ segment on off-the-beaten-path Randy’s BBQ establishes their barbecue bona fides.

Particularly interesting is the segment focusing on River Street’s oldest restaurant, the Boar’s Head Grill & Tavern, one of those old school classics that can get lost amid the inevitable hype of the next hot new place on the foodie scene.

Intriguingly, the authors make the case that the Boar’s Head might have the best shrimp ‘n’ grits in town—the starting point for a spirited local debate.

No chronicle of Savannah foodie history would be complete with something about the Crystal Beer Parlor, which, according to the book, has a claim to being the first restaurant in the U.S. to sell alcohol immediately following the repeal of Prohibition, while it was owned by the legendary William “Blocko” Manning.

“Reports insinuated that the booze was already on the premises on December 5, 1933, and that not only the police but also the customers were aware of Blocko’s ongoing bootlegging and speak-easy,” the authors write.

Savannah Food features a nice, up-to-date look at the rebirth of this great local name, since 2009 under its new ownership of John Nichols—who himself could get a chapter all his own! Maybe next book...