The same breeze that sways the Spanish moss and carries the dank smell of sulphur from Union Camp paper mill into town sends a draft of fried chicken out the basement door of Mrs. Wilkes' Boarding House. Inside, the portly minister from Beauford, full from that chicken, wants Sema Wilkes to autograph her cookbook for his wife.
To "Lydia Whay-dell," he drawls. "W-A-D-D-E-L-L." And then, as a thank you, he says, "you are so kind" to Wilkes.
Sema Wilkes has made a living out of being kind. For more than 40 years, as proprietor of Mrs. Wilkes' Boarding House, she has been comforter and caterer to railroad dispatchers, shipyard workers, college students and, more recently, tourists and celebrities looking for a disappearing slice of Americana.
There are no signs to alert diners to this 1870 brick house on West Jones Street, but it doesn't matter. Mrs. Wilkes is a find that's been found. After all, a lunch of cornbread dressing, cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, sweet potatoes, turnip greens, green beans, lima beans, okra, biscuits, muffins, sausage, chicken, rice and three desserts for $5 can't stay a secret for long. Especially when it all tastes good, and particularly when it's served family style on green vinyl tablecloths.
Unpretentiousness is obviously the appeal at this simple eatery, where diners bus their plates onto a counter that looks like a junk heap for chicken bones. No doubt the informality hasn't changed over the years -- and neither has the fried chicken -- but a lot else has happened since L.H. Wilkes moved from Vidalia to Savannah to work on the railroad and live in a boarding house.
During World War II and prior, before prosperity brought about condominiums and split levels, boarding houses were a popular living arrangement for singles (often predominantly men). This was a mutually beneficial exchange; homeowners were provided with a source of income, and boarders were provided with a bed and three meals. The cook, often the proprietor or wife of the proprietor of the boarding house, functioned as a kind of paid parent, serving up hearty home-cooked food.
When the Wilkeses moved to the boarding house in Savannah, Sema Wilkes started helping out in the kitchen. Eventually the arrangement changed; the Wilkeses bought the house and Sema Wilkes was in charge of the kitchen.
Soon the word spread about Sema Wilkes' top-notch cooking and locals were sharing periodic meals with the Wilkeses and their seven boarders. That was back when there was a wood-burning stove and an old-fashioned icebox in the kitchen and when a full-course meal cost 75 cents.
Now the Wilkeses serve more than 200 diners daily for breakfast and lunch, plus about 75 carryout patrons. Red Skelton and Richard Chamberlain have been some of their more noted clients, and framed and fading newspaper clippings hang on the flowered wallpaper on one side of the basement dining room.
Sema Wilkes now employs a full kitchen staff and has, with her daughter, assembled a cookbook, "Famous Recipes from Mrs. Wilkes' Boarding House in Historic Savannah," which sells furiously at the restaurant, perhaps because Wilkes personally autographs each, inscribing a "To Shirley" or to whomever on the title page. The Wilkeses moved to another home in the area and, about two years ago, converted the boarding house to an apartment building.
And although Sema Wilkes regrets that her regulars don't get as much attention as they used to, and that sometimes it gets annoying to overhear tourists ask "Who was Mrs. Wilkes? How long she been gone?" the operation has remained homey and family-run, with food to match.
Lunch starts at 11 a.m., or at least that's when the waiting starts, as diners assemble aside the graceful tree-lined street for the afternoon's first seating. Businesswomen in linen suits and matching pocketbooks share sidewalk space with local retired couples and eager newcomers. And then there're people like Lucille Spence, a small woman with silver wing-tip glasses and a powder-blue sweater, who's lived in Savannah since 1937 and comes to Mrs. Wilkes' about once a week. Spence remembers the days when she didn't have to wait in line.
By 11:15, the guests are ushered in and seated together at five or six round tables. Before the tiny room turns into a chaotic clamor, there is calm. Today, like every day, Mr. or Mrs. Wilkes says grace:
Good Lord bless this food to us
And us to thy service
"Enjoy your meal," concludes Sema Wilkes, the signal for the infamous "boarding house reach" to begin. An endless array of serving bowls, crowded with food fit for a family of nine or 10, go from one diner to another, so that the passing seems to occupy as much time as the eating.
By popular request, Wilkes serves fried chicken every day, made without any batter, just lightly coated with flour before deep frying. The restaurant uses about 350 pounds of chicken a day, says Ronnie Thompson, Wilkes' grandson, who manages the kitchen.
"It's the best chicken in town," says I.J. Jones, a retired chief railroad dispatcher who has been coming here for lunch every day for the past 40 years and says the food hasn't changed a bit.
If the food has changed, it has been in the creation of new dishes; Sema Wilkes knows she has to vary her menu to appeal to repeat customers. She has added a creole eggplant dish and, remarkably, even some semi-Chinese dishes, and although she doesn't do the cooking anymore, she says she tries to taste dishes before they come out of the kitchen.
Wilkes is a stickler for flavoring vegetables and always has bacon drippings or ham hocks on hand. She also seasons dishes with stock reserved from boiled and baked meats and today her cornbread dressing is bound with chicken drippings.
This is simple home cooking; in fact Wilkes' cookbook reveals that she uses several convenience products such as canned creamed soups and packaged puddings. Her recipe directions, too, are not always concise, so they don't always translate well to a home kitchen. And while it is the type of high-fat, high-calorie food that America has been told to cut down on, Sema Wilkes says diners "usually forget about that" when they come here. "We'll do that tomorrow" is their attitude, she says.
In the kitchen, a small, steamy room with a single window fan, eight cooks somehow juggle their jobs in their allotted spaces, the chicken fryer dredging pieces of chicken in flour before sliding them into a sizzling vat of oil, a staffer apportioning a heaping mound of mashed potatoes into a serving bowl from a pot practically the size of a trash can, servers navigating carts out the door.
There are trays, bowls and food everywhere. Huge ham hocks rest together in a pot, giant cookie sheets hold rows of pound cake ready to be sliced.In a storage area off the kitchen, cook Susan Kemnell keeps company with 10-pound cans of baking powder and 50-pound containers of vegetable shortening as she rolls biscuits between her floury hands, never measuring, never overkneading.
Off the storage room is the back door, the takeout entranceway for those in the know. This attracts the Mrs. Wilkes' Boarding House clientele of the past: town ambulance drivers, policemen, local business people who kibbitz with the kitchen help and get customized orders: "Put a little gravy onto my mashed potatoes," shouts one. "She Mrs. Wilkes raised me," says another, a boarding house client for 30 years who jokes that he's always wanted to open a chaise longue concession out front for overstuffed diners.
In fact, when it comes to overstuffed diners, that's how you can spot the newcomers in the crowd. The locals, who have already tasted everything, can pick and choose among their favorites. I.J. Jones concentrates on chicken, rice and green vegetables and Lucille Spence passes up more than one bowl as it comes her way. The first-timers, on the other hand, pile food on their plates as if they're stacking Lincoln Logs.
Preserving regional food is only part of Sema Wilkes' contribution. Preserving the setting in which it's eaten is another. Through family-style seating and serving, she has seen friendships develop and watched families grow up. And although Wilkes claims she's no matchmaker, meetings over her mashed potatoes have sparked more than one marriage. Jones met his girlfriend at the boarding house table, according to Wilkes, and has been dating her for 40 years.
Amidst all the noise in the dining room, Wilkes still treats customers as though they were the first to flatter her. "I came 900 miles for this," says one diner, as he pats a full stomach with a satisfied grin on his face.
"Bless your heart," she answers.
Here are adaptations of some of Wilkes' homey recipes: MRS. WILKES' FRIED CHICKEN (4 servings) 2 1/2-pound fryer, cut up and sprinkled with salt and pepper 2 tablespoons evaporated milk 2 tablespoons water Peanut oil for frying Flour for dredging
In a shallow pan, pour milk and water over chicken. Allow to soak for about 10 minutes. Heat enough oil in a heavy saucepan to cover chicken. Heat to 375 degrees.
Dredge chicken in flour, shaking off any excess flour. Deep fry, making sure chicken is covered with oil at all times. Turn pieces to brown evenly. Fry until golden brown on all sides, about 15 minutes. RED RICE (6 servings) 1 cup uncooked rice 4 strips bacon 1 medium onion, chopped 1 medium green pepper, chopped 16-ounce can tomatoes 1 cup tomato sauce 1 1/2 teaspoons hot pepper sauce or more to taste 1 tablespoon grated parmesan cheese
Cook rice according to package directions. In a large skillet, fry bacon until crisp. Remove bacon from pan, crumble and set aside.
Pour out about half of the bacon fat from the skillet. Brown onion and green pepper in remaining drippings. Add tomatoes, tomato sauce, hot pepper sauce and crumbled bacon and cook until bubbly and hot, about 10 minutes.
Mix rice and tomato mixture together until well combined. Pour into a greased 2-quart casserole, sprinkle with parmesan and bake at 325 degrees for 30 minutes. SUMMER SLAW (6 servings) 1 tablespoon dijon mustard 1/2 cup mayonnaise 3 tablespoons light cream 2 tablespoons vinegar 2 tablespoons finely chopped onion 1/2 teaspoon caraway seeds 3 cups finely shredded cabbage 1/2 carrot, shredded
Stir mustard into mayonnaise. Add light cream and vinegar and mix well. Toss onion and caraway seeds with shredded cabbage and carrot. Add only enough of the dressing to moisten cabbage and carrot. Toss and refrigerate until serving. SWEET POTATO SQUASH PIE (Makes a 9-inch pie) FOR THE NO-ROLL PIE CRUST: 1 1/2 cups flour 1/2 teaspooon salt 1 1/2 teaspoons sugar 1/2 cup oil 2 tablespoons milk FOR THE FILLING: 1 small butternut squash 3 or 4 medium sweet potatoes 6 tablespoons butter 1 cup sugar 3 eggs 1/2 teaspoon salt 1 1/4 teaspoons cinnamon 1 teaspoon nutmeg 1 teaspoon vanilla
Put flour, salt and sugar in pie plate. Mix milk with oil and pour over flour. Mix with fork. With your hands, pat out as thin as desired to fill a 9-inch pie plate.
To make filling, peel squash and remove seeds. Cut squash into chunks. Peel sweet potatoes and cut into chunks. Cook in saucepan with water to cover until soft, 20 to 30 minutes. Drain. With a potato masher, blender or food processor, process squash and sweet potatoes until smooth.
Cream butter and sugar together. Add eggs and remaining ingredients and beat until well combined. Stir potato and squash mixture into butter mixture until well combined. Pour filling into pie shell and bake 30 minutes at 350 degrees, or until crust turns golden brown.