The Right Way to Eat Fried Chicken:
Paula Deen vs. Mrs. Wilkes
December 30, 2013 at 4:55pm
I finally made it to Paula Deen's restaurant, Lady and Sons. Mainly, I went because when people find out I'm from Savannah, they always say, "Oh, have you been to Paula Deen's?"
I grew up on Mrs. Wilkes, the original place that all lovers of good Southern food hoped to go when they died. Originally, it was Mrs. Wilkes' Boarding House -- really, an honest-to-God boarding house -- where even people who weren't living there showed up to eat until she finally said to heck with renting rooms, she just opened a restaurant. Even then, for years and years, there wasn't even a sign outside. You just drove down Jones Street at 11:30 until you saw people lined up on the sidewalk.
I'm proud to say I shared a table with Mrs. Wilkes herself before she passed away. She got mad at my sister because she was passing food in the wrong direction.
I haven't been to Mrs. Wilkes in years, mostly because it isn't open on the days I make it home, and because my mother insists that the food has declined in quality since Mrs. Wilkes died. ("They keep trying to fancy things up," she says. "Last time i was there, they put green bell pepper in the potato salad; who in the world puts bell pepper in potato salad?")
Is Paula Deen as good as Mrs. Wilkes? Of course not. Part of Mrs. Wilkes' charm was that you were sitting around a series of large tables -- ten or twelve to a table -- in a basement that was clean and well-lit, but not particularly fancy. The well-worn linoleum on the floor reminded you of your grandmother's house. You really felt like you had been invited into someone's home for dinner.
You passed the big, heaping bowls around the table and chatted politely with the person next to you, who might be from Australian or Germany or Los Angeles or Dallas. Or it might just as likely be your second grade teacher or the guy who sold you your first car.
I always liked sitting next to someone from another country. It was fun trying to explain to them what a hush puppy was.
My sister and I tried to go to Lady and Sons on Friday. We were prepared for a line, but my mother had found out that if you tell the hostess you are a local, they will take you right in. It's one of the concessions Paula makes for the hometown folk that gave her a start back when her sons were delivering her bag lunches.
If the brouhaha over her supposed racial comments has hurt her restaurant business, there's certainly no sign of it now. We got there around noon, and fought our way through the throngs of people to the hostess, a young black woman in a headset, clutching a tablet and wearing the slightly dazed expression of the shell-shocked. When we asked about getting a table, she closed her eyes, dropped her chin to her chest, slumped her shoulders, and sighed.
The line of people waiting -- the line that started at the hostess station, filled the foyer, blocking the restrooms, then wove through the gift shop and back out to the other side of the foyer -- well, several of them just laughed outright and shook their heads at our naiveté.
"No, I'm sorry, we are booked fully for the rest of the day," the hostess said. "Would you like to make a reservation for tomorrow?"
We made a reservation for 11:00 the next day. But we had to walk by the buffet table on the way out, and my sister whispered in my ear: "What do you think they'd do if I just grabbed a piece of fried chicken and ran? Would they chase us?"
"Karen, I'm 50, and you're 46; what makes you think either of us can actually run?"
We got there the next day at 10:55 (parking!) and people were milling about on the sidewalk outside, casting hungry glances at the closed doors.
Now, at Mrs. Wilkes, you lined up single file, and when the doors opened, someone counted off ten people, and those ten went in. This continued until all the tables were full. Oh, there might be a bit of a shuffle if someone didn't want to split up their party — but more than once, I've seen someone wave to their family and say, "I'll see you after the banana pudding." The rest of those in line had to wait until the first ten were finished, and then another ten were counted off.
At Paula's, the operation is far more high tech; then again, Lady and Sons has three floors -- that's right, I said THREE FLOORS -- of dining space. Two college-age women in headsets consult each other, their tablets, and someone on the other end of those headsets, while calling out repeatedly: "IF YOU HAVE A RESERVATION, PLEASE STAND ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE STREET AND WE WILL CALL YOUR NAME WHEN YOUR TABLE IS READY!"
Of course, the girls are repeatedly approached by people wanting to know, "Is my table ready yet? I have a reservation…."
Bless their hearts, the girls never seemed to lose patience. Whatever drug Paula is feeding them, I want some.
I did get a little of the global experience when I struck up a conversation with the woman standing next to me. She and her husband were from Woodstock, GA, but they had an Asian friend with them who had just spent some time in Italy. They were renting a condo out on Tybee, and yesterday they had taken a tour of Bonaventure Cemetery. They asked where I would recommend they eat. As always, I said Spanky's, and it turned out they had eaten at the one on at the beach, as well as the Crab Shack. Karen enthusiastically endorsed Garabaldi's, and I said that while the Pirate House was a tourist trap, it was still a nice place to go have a drink or dessert.
Though our reservation was at 11, we weren't seated until about 11:30. The smell of fried chicken was intoxicating. We were sent to the third floor, where a young black woman named Imani slathered us with Southern hospitality like butter on a hot biscuit.
Hot biscuits, in fact, were brought to our table by yet another black woman, whose job was apparently doing nothing but taking the hot bread around to everyone, fresh out of the oven, and reciting a well-worn speil. I'm not much of a biscuit fan, but the cornbread was very good: golden brown with nice, crisp edges. (My mother disapproves of Paula's cornbread because it's sweet.) Naturally, butter was available in abundance.
We chose to have the buffet, because, well, it was right there and ready, and I was ready to grab the drumstick off a stranger's plate. As usual, I bypassed the salad bar; seriously, are there people who would bother with lettuce and cucumbers at Lady and Sons? Apparently, there are, but they are the same people eating their fried chicken with a knife and fork. Why not just tattoo "YANKEE" on your forehead? I saw so many people using a knife and fork that I was tempted to climb onto a chair and rap a fork on my glass of iced tea to get their attention.
"Hey, ya'll are doing this all wrong! Put down that knife and fork right this minute! Pick up that chicken with your bare hands! Bite into it! Tear it off the bone with your fingers and then lick them clean! Gnaw it down to the bare bones! And you, that scrawny-looking woman in the corner with the grating Brooklyn accent; yes, you! If I see you pull the skin off your chicken and lay it on the side of your plate again, I will bitch slap you from here to Hilton Head! Don't you know that's the BEST PART?"
But I didn't. So often, other people simply do not get my sense of humor. Besides, I was too busy stuffing my face with the aforementioned fried chicken.
Everything was at least okay: the green beans were amazingly well cooked and yet still a bright green, though I thought they had a little too much salt. I enjoyed the corn pudding -- or was it just creamed corn? The mac and cheese was nowhere near as good as my mother's, but it wasn't bad. The greens -- I confess I don't know if they were turnips or collards -- were well done, but in that slightly vinegary way that has never been my favorite, simply because I grew up in a household where we never, ever, put vinegar anywhere near our collards. I skipped the stewed okra, because I think it's slimy, as well as the sausage and red rice, because I don't like that either. But my sister said they were really good.
But damn! Say what you will about Paula Deen, the woman knows how to fry a chicken. That chicken was perfection and well worth the trouble of a visit to Lady and Sons.
Damn…. now I want a drumstick.