Wednesday, April 16, 2008

The Hostesses Of Savannah

Savannah would steal you away if it could. The pride coursing through that fine town these days is unlike I have know it in ten years. It awakened to a bright morning when people began to come see her, stroll through her dazzling parks, heads always tilted up to the trees. If the city could have a moment of perfect Alice-like innocence with you in which to entice you to follow a rabbit down a hole and into a magical world, I imagine Savannah's loving residents would take you by the hand through street after street, more national treasures than you could hope to absorb, peeking into tiny gardens over wrought iron gates, treating you to more delicious food than any of us have a right to consume of an afternoon in a rabbit hole, and leaving you, dazed, head-spinning, charmed, on a park bench. It is hard for them to stop smiling when they talk about their city and after one of the longest and most grueling historical renovations in the nation, they should be grinning, and look more fatigued.

But they are glorious and pleased. Preceding Savannah into preservation, Charleston began to take on enormous numbers of travelers more than a decade ago, in a successful bid to pull their city up by their knees. Savannah, still in the midst of it's own struggle to save all of it's historic gems, saw a good deal of overflow from Charleston. Now, she is a queen city all her own once again.

There are reasons Savannah is on the not-to-be-missed travel map of seemingly everyone these days: This one of the most romantically beautiful cities I have ever known. I imagine it is a perfect place to get engaged or married, and several people I met yesterday were honeymooning there. Word about the country's first planned city got out through two significant events, well, three, if you count the murder: First, a gentleman called Jim Williams, was murdered in one of the magnificent homes on the square, the Mercer-Williams house,as it is now known, is open for tours. While the name of the house may not be familiar to you, the book which chronicled the murder surely is: Midnight in the garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt, a book which ran on the New York Times best seller list for 216 weeks. They came to see the city, the house, and the cemetery which is achingly and satisfyingly creepy.

And then came Paula Deen. After two television shows, seven books, her sons, their television shows, their books, Savannah has a whole new phenom in it's midst and it is managing it's new celebrity graciously as any great Southern hostess would.

As I mentioned yesterday, fulfilling along and at times hapless habit of ours, Josh and I headed to The Lady and Sons, because both of us are always curious about all the Food TV hype. Josh had not been there before and it seems important, given what I have told you about the place and it's odd choices and processes, to see it for oneself. The food is good, it is the first food I ate when I came to the South and it makes me feel comforted regardless of its ultimate affect on my health: Fried and baked chicken, mac and cheese, cheesy meatloaf, field peas and okra, collard greens and yams. But my favorite part was before that buffet from which I ate sparingly. Oh, those hoe cakes they bring to the table when you arrive. They are perfectly crunchy crisp on the outside and soft and mealy inside. All the frustration of the lines was made it worth, and I scrapped my plan to hang out after lunch at my table drinking wine and chatting until well after dinner service began just to get even over the debacle downstairs.

We began a stroll around downtown Savannah and dropped in to see a few of my other favorite hostesses: The Tea Room Savannah on East Broughton Street is a true tea room, in the Scottish fashion whose proprietors are a family of gracious and gorgeous women who are truly gifted hostesses. You will walk in past the apothecary-like retail area to the tea room itself where white tablecloths perch under small fresh arrangements in rooms of calming warm tones and a barely noticeable chatter level (perhaps the most lovely part). When you go, ask to sit in the library which feels like a true salon, fireplace, armchairs and all. It took me back to a lucky afternoon sometime before.

A few years ago my Husband and I were lucky enough to be in London on a perfectly arctic New Years. We decided we would forgo the usual New Year's dinner in favor of high tea at the Brown's Hotel, a meal which I had heard about for many years. It was no easy feat to talk Josh into this, but once he saw all those paneled walls, and older gentlemen reading the papers in what seemed a men's club of sorts, he found himself the sort of person who might enjoy champagne tea service in Brown's library. I was duly warned yesterday while at The Tea Room and discussing Brown's that the old hotel has "renovated" its tea rooms. And after going to the site just now in order to provide it to you, I see it is heartbreakingly true. The paneling and tea rooms are gone, a sanitized looking-hotel dining room in it's place. I will lick my wounds at The Tea Room Savannah. I thank them for hanging on to the tea tradition as I knew it. I hope I see you there. I will be the one in the high-back chair before the fireplace, sniffling, but looking well nonetheless.

On we went across the street, crippled with devastating information but persevering somehow, to Paris Market and Brocante, where were were at least heartened to know Paris was still Paris, gratefully. Paris Market, I will guess is owned by people who know both Paris and Savannah intimately. Their store, two stories, is literally and magnificently filled to the breaking point with skillfully selected Parisian-inspired hostess items of all manner which are both artful and of fine quality.

This is where average hostesses propel themselves to epically fabulous greatness, maybe wishing to take with them to the grave the frivolously fantastic absinthe spoons which were placed over delicate footed glasses of an iced-drink shape, only better, and sadly, they have not elected to place those on their website. And this is all really marvelous because I am all the time trying to get the absinthe serving thing down. Okay, you've got me there. My great friend Pinky did bring me some a couple of years ago, but I could never really understand what effect absinthe should have. Possibly, I was far too distracted wondering what the correct spoon might look like to feel any effect. Question answered, finally. And while they would not serve my lifestyle as it stands, not being the sort to lay about hoping to being hallucinating or, in my imagination, smoking long thin cigarettes in holders and discussing overtly revolutionary political ideas, I see this as an entree into a far less boring sweet tea service, as the store suggested it: Sugar cube placed on the absinthe or leaf spoon and placed across the top of the glass for service.
But, failing my actually being able to convince myself those will earn their keep, I will be focused on these lovely and necessary glasses which I hope to see in my house soon. When I am all through coveting those, I am sending these to a friend who collects bee-inspired pieces.

What a touch Paris Market has with every last detail, the way minute perfectionists do, like their kindred spirits at ABC Carpet and Home in New York, an endless mecca to rare, colorful, and beautiful home products. It is a place to visit the memories and imagination of another and get lost in a piece of Paris, dropped, gratefully, at our feet, without the language barrier or the pain of the Euro conversion.

And when the host and hostesses have recovered from their swoon at the sight of the bottom floor of Paris Market and been lifted into a chair in their Brocante to sip a bit of espresso and have a small French pastry, they can gather themselves for a visit to Kitchens on the Square
whose website does not do the store justice. It is a grand palace of well-selected kitchen, cooking, and baking items. Right down to every specialty spatula you might dream of.

Most importantly, when it comes to Kitchens on the Square, when planning on visiting Savannah, drop into their website to see if one of their cooking class dinners on Gullah occurs while you are there. These offerings will deliver both knowledge and perspective you would not get by eating in a restaurant environment during your stay. I am particularly referring to classes in the Gullah Cooking with Ms. Sallie series.

Gullah, aside from having an unusual and delicious food tradition, is a people and culture in need of protecting and preservation, and it is a pride-point of low country heritage with good reason. I say you forgo a night at a restaurant and head down and see Miss Sallie. You will meet a Gullah hostess and get to know something very true and deep about this part of the South. You were going to spend that $50 in a restaurant anyhow, why not learn something great, protect something precious, and have dinner at the same time?

One last note as I leave you still musing on this wonderful city for hostesses, on a business I have visited a couple of times on the advice of nearly everyone, including no less an authority on everything than the New York Times, called the Back in the Day Bakery. Located at a very long walk or a few minute drive from downtown Savannah, it is raved about constantly. Naturally, then, I needed to see what was going on at this retro-inspired bake shop. Now, I am a New Yorker and I have long been a fan of Magnolia Bakery because their cakes warmed my heart and reminded me of my Grandmother who I miss sorely. And so, I get the concept of taking us back to something more pure, homemade,and less commercial than buying a cake at the supermarket. I understand from the website that this bakery makes cakes, though I have not actually seen one in their shop. There are usually a few cupcakes around. But the cakes are still eluding me. I get the idea they make a great sandwich though I cannot actually vouch for them, so you may want to drop around, hoping for a retro-cake and planning on consuming a sandwich instead. Confusing, I know, I share the feeling.

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