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The tasty ten
Our resident foodie compiles the ultimate Savannah menu
Local seafood purveyor, restaurateur, and gourmand Charlie Russo Jr. with number three on our list - photo by Tim Rutherford

 When it comes to defining Savannah cuisine, well, is there one singularly suitable definition?

The very historical foundation of this city was built on various ethnic groups, who would not have abandoned their comfort foods - but adapted those dishes to fit the ingredients they found.

Seafood, of course, and shellfish play an important role, but so do grains - like grits and rice. Pecans are an indigenous nut and wild pigs were likely even more prevalent in the 1700s than they are today.

For the modern adventurer "landing" in Savannah, we offer this primer on foods that say, "Savannah!"

First up, a double header: Shrimp and Grits. Big, sweet, locally caught shrimp, often marketed as Wild Georgia Shrimp, are the best money can buy from our waters. Try a side-by-side taste test with imported, farm raised shrimp - you won't go back.

Boil those shrimp perfectly - a relaxed, pink "C" means they're done - and then top off a buttery mound of grits.
We're partial to denser, grainier stone ground grits from any one of several south Georgia or South Carolina mills. Treated gently - and dressed with cream, butter and salt and pepper - stone ground grits can be as creamy as mashed potatoes. Don't think all grits are created equal.

Numbers 3, 4 and 5 on the line-up continues the seafood theme: Blue Crab, oysters and clams.

The flavor-rich, earthy taste of the blue crab appeals to everyone - from roadside crabbers who fish for sustenance to fancy diners who count on crab cakes formed from meticulously picked fresh crabs. Either way - and any preparation - is outstanding.

Steam 'em whole and pick your way through a feast - or score packaged meat for homemade, nicely spiced crab cakes!

Most oysters you will find in local restaurants are from Bluffton, S.C.'s, May River - or are imports thanks to modern shipping methods. Our native Eastern Oyster rarely shows up on menus - the industry took a hit in the early 1900s due to pollution, and later minimum wage laws.

Still, private fisherman cater hundreds of oyster roasts annually and serve freshly dredged local oysters - the best ones are gnarly-looking clusters that yield mildly briny, plump and meaty oysters.

Georgia's wild clam beds were over fished long ago but today, commercial clam "farmers" are raising a variety of clams in five coastal Georgia counties - including Chatham. Most of their crop heads to Northern restaurants, but acknowledgment that Georgia's ecology is conducive to a yet untapped new segment of the fishery industry might just help make clams make a splash.

Ask your fish monger about finding wild clams - which are often huge in size!

What about a classic side dish? Just about as ubiquitous as sand gnats on a hot summer night is No. 6, slow-cooked collard greens. This tough, leathery field green is virtually indestructible without cooking for a couple of hours.

Local chefs have their favorite recipes, but I prefer a quick wilt by sauté in hot olive oil, a covering of chicken broth, a splash of white vinegar, a dash of red pepper flakes and a big old ham bone -- with a little meat still hanging on. Simmer until tender. Now you're eatin' Savannah style!

And, at least in the coastal region, there's not more quintessential hand food than No. 7, boiled peanuts. The process is quicker than roasting, requires less sophisticated equipment and produces a satisfying snack that can be eaten anywhere you can throw away the wet shells. Roadside boiled peanut stands are the best source -- and offer ramped up seasonings.

These slick little goobers go down easy. Pair 'em with ice cold beer -- or that other Georgia home brew, Coca-Cola.

Now for a little something sweet! Lots of folks around Savannah claim invention of the Chocolate Chewy cookie -- but the recipe is prolific around the U.S. The chewy, rich cookie is perfect for our hot, humid weather -- the decadence of chocolate with the melted mess in your palm.

We scored our stash for our No. 8 entry at Baker's Pride Bakery on Derenne Avenue. I can sometimes find a lonely grandma who will bake a batch for me. I bring the milk.

The other indigenous nut that's prevalent in Georgia is the pecan -- duh! It's great in pies, candied as a snack food but throw this big, beautiful nut in with brown sugar and cream, stir continually over high heat and what comes out is No. 9, a Praline.

Yeah, New Orleans likes to take credit for this confection with French roots but, shhhh, let the touristas think we invented 'em! Walk more than a block or two on River Street or City Market and you'll find a praline store. They are best hot and fresh, but pack and ship beautifully -- without losing any sugary richness or calories.

We've eaten, we've snacked, we've had dessert, what's left? A drink, of course.

In an city where the first question of a stranger is, "What will you have to drink?" there is no more prevalent refresher to round out the Top 10 than the classic Gin and Tonic. Savannahians take theirs seriously, often served in 12-ounce tumblers with minimal ice, a splash of tonic and enough gin to take you from civil to lawless in one glass.

I prefer some restraint: a shot of gin, lots of ice and tonic water to fill a rock's glass. Skip the typical lime wedge and ask for a slice of cucumber for a real refresher.

Go forth and eat my friends! Conquer this basic Savannah menu and even if you're not a native, you'll eat like one.