Northern liberals on a fried-chicken pilgrimage to the converted slave quarters of Fanny Williams are sometimes taken aback when the knee-high black boy pokes his head through a hole in the menu board, registers a big grin and begins to chant: "Aunt Fanny says, 'Howdy folks, what'll it be? Our famous fried chicken, gen-you-wine Smithfield ham, charcoaled broiled steak (or) fresh rainbow trout?' Please don't leave hongry. My name's Wesley, at your service.'"
Black waitresses in slave-style calico dresses and bandanas bustle about with platters of chicken, spicy squash souffle, piping- hot cornbread and deep-dish apple cobbler, belting out black spirituals, even joining good ole boys in hearty renditions of "Dixie" and chiding tourists to "eat your turnip greens."
This is a scene from the New South: nightly doings at Aunt Fanny's Cabin, a plantation-style eatery that draws hordes of tourists to the outskirts of the region's modern capital of Atlanta by merchandising slavery and southern fried chicken. Beyond commercialism, though, it symbolizes new taboos being broken just as the old taboo of racial segregation was destroyed by civil-rights legislation.
"We don't play up the fact that it's a slave cabin, but that's what it was," says owner George (Pongo) Poole, 51, a white insurance agent who doubles as backslapping maitre d'. The few complaints he gets usually come "from some northern liberal who feels the atmosphere is degrading.
"So, we just try to explain as nice as we can that this is the way it's always been and people seem to love it. Everybody at Aunt Fanny's is one big happy family."
Indeed, black waitresses like Jo Ann Trimble, 35, a single mother of three, in plantation-style pinafore dress, who supplements her income as a registered nurse, calls it the best job she's ever had. "Maybe some people come here because it's the slave thing," she says, "but no one treats me like a slave."
Waitresses say they pocket upwards of $12 an hour in tips. Clara Johnson, 50, has put four children through school working at Aunt Fanny's. Wesley, the menu boy who carries around a glass full of dollar bills, is banking his tips for college. He is 12, born almost a decade after the bloody civil rights marches he has read about in history class. But he can't relate to that and appears confused when asked if he regards the menu as a yoke.
"It makes me feel good to work here," he says, "because I'm doing it for myself."
In the kitchen, Tommy Barbour, the white manager, teases the help. "You goin' get whupped good tonight!" he says.
"Oh, please, don' whup me tonight, massuh Tommy," laughs Jo Ann Trimble, playing along.
Some gasp that such goings-on border on bad taste, or worse. Others regard such scenes differently, as the New South demystified, suggesting an era beyond mere accommodation, one where blacks and whites have evolved far enough that the old ways can be huckstered without hangups. At places like Aunt Fanny's, the South is finally learning to laugh at itself.
Discrimination still exists, of course, but racism down South is generally becoming more subtle, as it long has been up North. Whites don't lynch people nowadays; they legislate.
Race isn't as simple as black and white; it is full of new contradictions. Whites who once controlled majority black-counties where the Voting Rights Act put blacks into power now accuse blacks of stuffing the ballot-box, one of their old tricks. In Alabama, plenty of blacks voted for former segregationist George Wallace for governor. Blacks and whites regularly dine together beneath crystal chandeliers at the Mississippi governor's mansion. A few years ago, vigilantes would have strung up Gov. William Winter for race-mixing.
A few miles from Aunt Fanny's, thousands of migrants from Ohio are putting down roots in Cobb County. They cheer for the Braves and Herschell Walker but have no kinship to Dixie. Such newcomers helped send a Republican named Mack Mattingly to Washington two years back; legendary Sen. Herman Talmadge held no magic for them.
Indeed, as the New South becomes more homogenized and begins to resemble the rest of the country, it survives frozen in time only in small hamlets off the interstates -- or as a caricature of its old self in spots like Aunt Fanny's.
Entrepreneurs like owner Poole find such nostalgia selling like never before, usually to white tourists who relish the atmosphere as much as the food. A quarter-million people dropped in last year to sample the South as endangered species at Aunt Fanny's. Visiting celebrities stare down from the walls: Don Knotts, Jackie Gleason, Lauren Bacall, Broderick Crawford, Liberace. One deep- fried-Zen adage advises: "It takes 13 muscles to smile and 33 to frown. Why overwork?" Black children once tap-danced atop the tables, but Aunt Fanny's dropped them after being socked with a hefty cabaret tax.
It's often the last stop on jammed bus tours of Atlanta's magnolia-draped mansions, which nowadays include the rolling estate of a Saudi prince. Tourists also flock to Stone Mountain, which features a working plantation. They snap up instant grits and post cards with tufts of cotton.
Southerners have never had qualms about selling Yankee suckers. "We're always willing to make a buck at the old shell game if they're stupid enough to pay for it," says novelist Paul Hemphill.
Even the state has gotten in on the act. Recently in Toronto, its promoters dressed up state employe Pat Duncan, 35, like Rhett Butler. He sashayed forth to pitch Georgia arm in arm with a state-paid Scarlett. Canadian TV shows stood in line to feature his shtick. Locals swooned over the Clark Gable look-alike every time he drawled, "Frankly, my dear, I don't give a damn."
"They just wanted to hear us talk 'southern,' " says Duncan, promotion manager for Georgia's department of industry and trade. He was most frequently asked, "Where is Tara?" (It's nowhere, of course, just a mythical mansion in Margaret Mitchell's "Gone With The Wind.")
But that hasn't stopped Betty Talmadge from trying to cook one up. The entrepreneurial ex-wife of the former senator does a booming business hawking Talmadge hams and catering "magnolia suppers" for guests who romp with pet animals Ulysses S. Grunt, a pig; Rabbit E. Lee, what else, and Billy T. Sherman, a goat. She dreams of finding "a rich Yankee" to bankroll a reconstruction of Tara on her estate off Tara Boulevard, having just bought the house of Margaret Mitchell's grandmother which is believed to be the late author's inspiration.
"It's a kite that's gonna fly," she laughs. "Everyone wants romance and escape."
And some tourists are finding their southern fantasies fulfilled at restaurants like Aunt Fanny's Cabin. "I love the old songs, the little menu boy and the food," says John Giamopoulos, 35, a local restaurateur with three bemused out-of-towners in tow. "Whenever I want friends to eat 'southern' and see how things used to be, I bring them to Aunt Fanny's."
Some black diners have been known to take offense. But only one ever refused to pay because he couldn't stomach the atmosphere, says Poole. The manager suggested he might find the Smyrna jail even less appetizing. He paid.
"They aren't prepared for the atmosphere," says Trimble. "Some black folks ask me, 'How can you work in a place like this?' I tell 'em, 'Look, baby, we make nice money, we make nice tips. This is not about slavery, it's about freedom!' "
Employes are unfailingly loyal, working decades, then bringing their children, nephews, cousins, to work their way up at Aunt Fanny's. "We've never had to run a newspaper ad for help," brags Poole.
In 1939, Fanny Williams served up cornbread and okra soup for the owners of the former 15,000-acre cotton plantation to raise money for the Red Cross. Two years later, the restaurant opened and has been packing them in ever since. Aunt Fanny, who was born in the cabin, once greeted visitors at the door in her rocking chair, regaling them with grim accounts of Sherman's march through Georgia which she witnessed from the cabin, says a brochure.
She was "about 112 years old" when she died in 1949, says Poole. Nowadays, her portrait hangs in the hall, along with the Hollywood stars.
The only temporary jolt came during civil rights days when the restaurant lost a dozen menu boys who suddenly found "better jobs," says the kitchen manager. None ever complained about the blackboard worn around the neck. It has "a big hole so it fits (them) comfortably," assures a tourist brochure.
Carolyn Holloway, 33, an ex-waitress who now entertains guests with gospel favorites, took four days off after marching in Martin Luther King's funeral because her feet got blistered. But she went right back to work at Aunt Fanny's, encountering over the years only a few shouts of "Hey, mammy!" or worse. Poole boots out obnoxious rednecks. "My people don't have to take that kind of stuff," he says.
State Sen. Julian Bond, president of the local NAACP, says he "wouldn't go to Aunt Fanny's regularly." But he believes younger blacks who didn't live through civil rights days might actually find such plantation atmospherics "cute." Still, he says the eatery lacks the theatrics of the black man who dressed up like Uncle Remus and straddled a bale of cotton at one restaurant in the 1950s.
"Sometimes people ask us, 'How do you feel portraying slavery?'" says Carolyn Holloway. "But I don't feel bad about what I do. Aunt Fanny's is the most comfortable place in the world."
On a rowdy Saturday night, when the whiskey is flowing and the crowd is howling for the piano player to pound out one more verse of "Dixie," Trimble and the others often join in the chorus. "We love it," she says. "It's not a put-down for us."
If ex-slave Aunt Fanny Williams were to behold the sight, no doubt she would be pleased.