Savannah’s Got Soul
The first time I had honest-to-goodness soul food was shortly after I moved to Savannah, Georgia, over a year ago. The place was called Sisters of the New South, a two-story brick building, with peaches painted on one wall, next door to a dog groomer and across the street from a KFC.
For less than the price of a downtown-Savannah cocktail, my blue Midwestern eyes widened as one of the sisters filled a Styrofoam clamshell with fried chicken thighs, mac and cheese, candied yams, and lima beans, all atop a golden hill of yellow rice—a turkey gravy river ran through it.
After scooping up the last bite of syrupy-sweet yams, I leaned back with an audible creak in my chair to view my bloated abdomen. It felt almost sinful to be so outrageously full on a day that wasn’t Thanksgiving, or at least the Fourth of July, but every bite had been worth whatever gastrointestinal hell I had wrought.
Since that first helping, I’ve gone back for seconds many times. And while I’m into the haute Southern cuisine craze like pig ear lettuce wraps or sweet potato crème brule as much as the next culinary junkie, I’ll take a meat ‘n’ three, a “say hi to your mommy for me,” and a couple “all right darlin’”s from these Savannah soul-food joints any day.
7010 Skidaway Road
Order: Fried chicken, collards, butterbeans, yams, corn bread, and red velvet cake.
Behind the hand-painted still-life of fried chicken, collard greens, rice, and biscuits on the storefront window, behind the wooden counter and a whiteboard covered top to bottom in meats and sides, you’ll find Cynthia Cornish, one of Savannah’s sweetest souls. She started MaRandy’s nine years ago when she moved from Jacksonville, Florida, to Savannah with her daughter. Since then, she has grown a devoted fan base that regularly fills her tiny restaurant in a strip mall at the outer reaches of Savannah’s city limits. I have yet to see someone walk in who she doesn’t know, if not by name then at least by order.
Cynthia has been cooking since she could barely see over a countertop (the first thing she made by herself was a pound cake at eight years old), and everything listed on that whiteboard shows her dedication, from her fried-to-order chicken to her perfectly seasoned collards. Here, more of a fuss is made if you ask for no rice and gravy than if you do, and there are few problems too big that a slice of her glorious red velvet cake can’t solve.
Neighborhood Soul Food
504 ½ W. 42nd Street
Order: Oxtails or Smothered Shrimp, okra and tomatoes, red rice, mac and cheese, cabbage, corn bread, and sweet potato pie.
Hidden between two houses on one of Savannah’s more notoriously narrow streets, what Neighborhood Soul Food lacks in visibility it makes up in reputation. “We’ve had the mayor up in here, the governor, preachers, all kinds of people,” says Brenda Williams, who has worked there for nearly four years. Still, Neighborhood Soul Food, barely as wide as a two-car garage, maintains an underrated charm. Pictures of owners Ida and Willie Gadson hang crookedly on the wall over slices of red velvet cake stacked in plastic to-go containers; their grandsons’ construction-paper art work is pinned above one of the two sit-down tables across from the six-seat counter.
At lunchtime, men who work at Savannah’s ports stand in their orange reflective vests at the back of the restaurant where the buffet line starts. Brenda and LaDonia Mathis, another employee, say the oxtails and the baked spaghetti are their number-one sellers, but the smothered shrimp is popular too. No matter your order, Brenda guarantees: “We’re not selfish with the food.”
Masada Café at the United House of
Prayer for All People
2301 West Bay Street
Order: Fried chicken or smothered pork chop, collards, mac and cheese, corn bread, and banana pudding.
Whether you’re God-loving, -fearing, or -doubting, the soul food at Masada Café inside the United House of Prayer for All People is shout-hallelujah good. Served cafeteria-style on cream colored trays engraved with the church’s symbol, the soul food at Masada is prepared and dished out by church members, including the pastor’s wife Bonita Jackson and parishioner Mary Bacon, a walking endorsement for eating what makes you feel good: At age seventy-three, she doesn’t look a day over fifty.
Mixed in amongst the classics like the oft-praised fried chicken, red rice, and mac and cheese, there are sides like Crowder peas, a thoroughly Low Country dish that’s hard to find on other menus in town. First-time visitors are always happily shocked to find a square of flat corn bread and dessert included in the eight-dollar meal.
In between lunchtime customers, I asked Archie Washington, a cook at Masada, about the secret to making such large amounts of food while maintaining so much soul. He said: “Love. You got-ta, got-ta have that. But, you know, I cook for people like I would cook for myself and my family. I put love in everything that I do.”
Now, that’s a creed worth following.