It's midday at 14 West Harris, the 1840s mansion that Ethelyn McKinnon and her family bought in 1946 and transformed from a boarding house into a comfortable, high-ceiling home filled with antiques, flowers, family portraits and photographs. It is cool in the house. Street noises are muffled. The sound of ice clinking in glasses is much clearer.
"I wish everything hadn't gotten so big," said Mrs. McKinnon, as she chatted with guests before lunch. "I loved the intimacy of it all."
To the visitor, the town James Oglethorpe laid out 250 years ago is still charming. Gen. Sherman's headquarters, now the St. John's Church Parish House, is right across the street. Solomon's, the "oldest drug store in the U.S.," stands at the far end of Madison Square. Johnny Mercer's "Moon River" flows just south of town and the nearly 30 residences and garden in this year's tour of the historic area (the 45th annual) are all within a few minutes walk.
But to Mrs. McKinnin the 20th-century sprawl that surrounds old Savannah is something she won't get used to. Without giving away any secrets, she and her cook, Susie English, are the same age and have enough years between them to stretch back to 1820, the last year of the Madison administration. The meal they have planned ("dinner" in these parts) is to be a careful orchestration of well-known and well-loved foods: a cold soup, chicken, squash casserole and "red" rice, some corn bread and a dissert called either "saltine cracker pie" or "nut crisp pie."
Before grace and the placement of the linen napkins and the lifting of monogrammed silver, there is another ritual to complete: drinks. "It was called a two-drink lunch" in a time when life was slower and many families had cooks, explains Billy McKinnon, Ethelyn McKinnon's son who is now a successful restaurateur in Atlanta. "It was the big meal of the day. You sat down at 2 p.m., but everyone arrived at 12:30 and had drinks first." So cheese straws and shrimp butter on crackers were passed. People talked of relatives and mutual acquaintances and -- for awhile -- time stood still, just like it does in Southern Gothic novels.
But not all the stereotypes hold true. The myth of the Southern kitchen as one oversized deep-fat frier dies quickly once you leave the restaurants for a homecooked meal. "Southern cooks will panfry foods, but mostly they use the oven," said Lynn Glendinning, Mrs. McKinnon's daughter, who was on hand along with her son, Richard. "Their 'broiled' fish or chicken is really baked in the oven and basted until it is the right color."
Susie English, who has been cooking all her life, relies on instinct and experience. To keep her rice dish from becoming gummy, she cooks the rise apart from the vegetables until it is partially done, then mixes the two together and allows the hot vegatable liquid to finish the job.
The quality of ingredients plays an important part in many of the recipes used here because so little is done to them. Fresh chicken halves, bought at a nearby market, are seasoned only with salt and pepper, but baked and basted to carefully that it seems there must be secret ingredients flavoring the golden-brown crust. Crabmeat and shrimp also are bought fresh and served in quantity. Onion is an important seasoning, so is red pepper or hot pepper sauce. Whatever may be said about nitrites and cholesterol elsewhere, bacon and bacon fat continue to be utilized and lend their special character to many dishes.
But before one becomes carried away with the purity of it all, realize that hot kitchens are hotter in the South than anywhere else. Prepared foots, "shortcuts" and no-cook recipes are a prized as a fine country ham and used with no sense of embarassment. "If it tastes good, it is good" seems to be the rationale if one need be applied.
Therefore, Lynn Glendinning combines clam broth and canned chicken broth into a cold soup and tops it with a dollop of whipped cream that has been enlivened with the tang of horseradish. Susie English laughs at the lavish compliments here dessert receives. "It's so simple," she says. The recipe utilizes saltine crackers.
"I didn't grow up with gourmet food," said Billy McKinnon. "Sunday we would have turkey and lemon pie and sometimes some very tough steaks. Otherwise the food was very much like today's lunch. But when I got to college and was served side-orders of grease with everything, I knew there was a better way to eat.So I bought a cookbook and began experimenting."
Mrs. McKinnon, after asking her son to brush down his hair, talked about the rebirth of the city she has known so well. She played a part in the mid-1950s effort to save the Davenport House, which led to the creation of Historic Savannah Foundation, and then did procurement and decoration when it became a museum. "That was the start of the restoration trend," Lynn Glendinning said, "but mom came here much earlier. She was a real pioneer in resettling downtown."
The meal ends. Billy McKinnon apologizes that there were no homemade biscuits to make the meal completely authentic. "We didn't want to give Susie too many things to do," he explains.
"No," his mother cuts in as coffee is poured in the drawing room. "We didn't have biscuits because of my figure."
For a source of local recipes Mrs. McKinnon and her daughter recommend the "Christ Church Cook Book." A recipe from an early edition of the book appears below along with several others. The book is available from Christ Church Parish House, 18 Abercorn St., Savannah, Ga. 31401, for $5.50 including postage. SUSIE ENGLISH'S RED RICE (8 to 10 servings) 1/4 pound bacon, diced 2 small onions, chopped 2 green peppers, seeded and chopped 1 can (2 pounds) tomatoes, drained 2 cups rice Salt and pepper to taste
Render bacon in a heavy bottomed pot. Add Onion and peppers and cook until soft, then tomatoes. Meanwhile, cook rice, covered, in 4 cups of water for 10 minutes. Mix into vegetables and cook, covered, atop the stove for 20 to 30 minutes COLD CLAM AND CHICKEN SOUP (6 servings) 2 bottles (6 ounce size) clam broth 2 cans (14 ouce size) chicken broth 1 package heavy cream, whipped but not stiff Horseradish
Mix clam and chicken broth and chill. Remove surface fat and pour into serving cups. Top with a tablespoon of whipped cream into which you have mixed horseradish to taste. SHRIMP BISQUE (8 servings) 1/2 stick (4 tablespoons) butter 3 rounded tablespoons flour 1 quart milk 1 pound cooked shrimp, peeled 1/2 cup heavy cream Salt and pepper to taste 1 dessert spoon A-1 sauce 1 dessert spoon Worcestershire sauce 3/4 cup sherry Paprika
Melt butter in a saucepan. Stir in flour slowly until well blended and smooth. Add milk slowly. Stir slowly so as not to lump, until you have a thick sauce. Add shrimp, add cream, adding seasoning and sauces. Add sherry last after soup is good and hot and smooth. Warm soup plate, place thin slice lemon in plate. Sprinkle lightly with paprika. -- From "Savannah Kitchens" SQUASH CASSEROLE (8 to 10 servings) 2 to 2 1/2 pounds squash, cooked and mashed 1/2 stick (4 tablespoons) butter 1 small onion, chopped 1/2 package herb stuffing mix, or fine bread crumbs 1 can cream of chicken soup
Combine everything in a large casserole. Spread stuffing mix on top. Bake in a 400-degree oven for 30 minutes. LYNN GLENDINNING'S CRAB CASSEROLE (6 to 8 servings) 1 pound crabmeat (claw or backfin) 1/2 pound cheddar cheese (Cracker Barrel preferred), grated 3 tablespoons flour 3/4 stick butter 2 cups milk 1 teaspoon salt 1 teaspoon white pepper 1 cup (about) bread or Ritz cracker crumbs Paprika
Pick over crabmeat and grate cheese. Make a sauce by stirring flour into melted butter, cooking for a minute and adding milk slowly. Stir until thick and smooth. Add salt and pepper. Make a layer of crabmeat in a 1 1/2-quart casserole. Top with cheese, then sauce.Repeat twice to make 3 complete layers, saving some cheese. Top with a generous amount of crumbs, then sprinkle on remaining cheese and paprika to taste. Bake in preheated 350-degree oven for 30 minutes, or until bubbly and brown on top. LACY CORN BREAD 1/2 cup Southern ground corn meal 2/3 cup cold water 1/4 teaspoon salt
Mix ingredients into a batter. In a large, heavy skillet heat 2 or 3 tablespoons oil or shortening. When hot, put in 1 tablespoon batter per portion. Hold a spoon high to avoid spatter. If they are not lacy, thin batter with water.
Serve with okra and tomato soup. RETHA'S CORN BREAD
Cream together 1/3 cup vegetable shortening and 1/3 tablespoon sugar. Add 1 egg and cream it. Sift 1 cup corn meal, 1/2 cup (all purpose) flour and 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder into the creamed mixture. (Add enough milk to make a thick batter. (Pour into cornbread molds or an 8-by-8-inch baking pan.) Bake at 450 degrees for 20 to 25 minutes. SALTINE CRACKER PIE (Makes 1 pie) 11 saltines, rolled fine 2 teaspoons baking power, sprinkled over cracker crumbs 3 egg whites, beaten to a meringue with 1 cup of sugar added 1/2 teaspoon vanilla (or almond) extract 1/2 cup chopped pecans 1/2 pint heavy cream, whipped with sugar added to taste 1/2 can shaved chocolate
Fold crumbs into meringue, add peacans and extract. Grease a 9- or 10-inch pie pan well, fill it and bake at 350 degrees for 25 minutes. Top with whipped cream and shaved chocolate.