Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Oglethorpe's Dream: Savannah

There is a legend that the name "Savannah" originates from the cries of a party of people on a boat trip on the river when a young girl fell overboard.

"Save Hannah! Save Hannah!"

During my one night and one day in the city, I could find no one to corroborate this story, and believe me, I looked. The general consensus is that it is actually named for its resemblance to the African Savannah, which is much less interesting to me.

Nevertheless, the city itself is fascinating, and so full of controversial American history that I scarcely know where the begin. The historic city center is a rectangle on the southern side of the Savannah River, and was thought up, planned, and founded by a very depressed British colonist called James Edward Oglethorpe in 1733. I learned all about him in the Savannah Visitor's Center* in a video narrated by a British Oglethorpe impersonator. He founded the 13th colony of Georgia in an attempt to create a Utopian society full of hardworking honest Protestant farmers, differentiated from the other more capitalistic and cutthroat colonies already in existence by its egalitarian nature and perfect economy. When the settlers arrived, a Yamacraw chief called Tomochichi showed them where to build the city. Oglethorpe was a bit of a micromanager and planned the city with 22 perfectly spaced tree-filled plazas, and made all of his followers plant mulberry trees to cultivate silk worms. All this planning proved to be for naught though, and a plague killed most of the settlers. The Protestant colonists allowed a group of Jewish doctors to settle in the city in order to get medical treatment for the rampant disease, but alas, the trees could not be saved.

Anyway, Savannah is flat, beautiful, and mostly parks filled with those famous Spanish moss draped oak trees, making it a perfect bicycle city, and luckily, I came into possession of one of those very machines. After an enormous mug of coffee and a pile of day old pastries that were practically free at The Sentient Bean**, I took off to admire artwork by Savannah College of Art and Design students, and chat with the helpful and friendly grandmothers that run E. Shaver, Booksellers. I bought a copy of Mark Twain's last travel book, Following the Equator, there, and they gave me recommendations for lunch.

Here, I should explain a phenomenon in Savannah: the family style, all-you-can-eat, lunch buffet. The most famous, where I had originally planned to dine***, is The Lady and Sons, the temple to southern cooking celebrity chef/goddess of buttery cuisine Paula Deen. However, all of the locals with whom I broached the topic pointed me in the direction of a different establishment, Mrs. Wilkes' Dining Room and Boarding House. This was not, according to all of the midday gluttons of Savannah, an overrated tourist trap that existed solely in order to propagate the Paula Deen cooking cult, but a long standing and locally favored, quality business. When I passed by the former eatery to take a look for myself, and was up to my elbows in Paula Deen cookbooks, and paraphernalia, and the cookbooks of chefs she endorses, and her husbands book about living with Her Butteriness, I knew I would not be able to keep down my lunch were I to eat there. It would have to be Mrs. Wilkes'.

In order to build a sufficient appetite for the impending southern food extravaganza, I explored the riverfront shops and instigated a praline war between the two rival candy stores of Savannah. Originally there was one store, River Street Sweets, owned by a married couple. They had a nasty divorce and the husband disappeared for ten years before returning to Savannah to open his own competing shop, Savannah's Candy Kitchen. One block away, no less. It has been a bitter rivalry since then. I interviewed employees and sampled the product at both locations in the name of science, and I can assure you, there is a very noticeable difference between the service and quality of the shops, but you will have to determine which is better in each category for yourselves. I will say, however, that River Street Sweets gave much larger samples.

I was not expecting to come across any obscure pieces of 19th century railroading history that day, but after so many months of doing just that, I should have known better...


*Housed, fittingly, in what used to be part of an extensive railroad roundhouse and garage, complete with a museum and a café in an old rail car. It was easily the most interesting visitor's center I have ever explored. They had a mind blowing exhibit on agriculture and nutrition through which I learned that Georgia is third in the nation for peach production, during American revolution, tea was unpatriotic so coffee and chocolate drinks were favored instead, BBQ originated with the Taino Indians, soy meat was first invented in 1954, and the ice cream sundae was invented in 1890s to get religious Victorian-era people to go hang out in soda fountain shops. There was also a Jazz Hall of Fame sponsored by the Coastal Jazz Association.

**Haha! Get it?

***Read: Gorge myself.

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