Ray Ellis

Gracious Beginnings – Savannah

Weathered rolling pins, rustic wooden mixing bowls, floral dish towels faded and worn from years of use, an old recipe box with dozens of 3 x 5 cards in mother’s flowery script – welcome to the Southern kitchen!

First and foremost, Savannah is a Great Lady. She has met what life brought her with amazing grace, courage, and style. She has weathered wars, fires, epidemics and floods. She has entertained presidents and patriots, and a few pirates along the way.

Perhaps her most special gift is her ability to preserve the historical past and to evolve into modern times, allowing her legacy to serve as a catalyst for her future.

My first visit to Savannah many years ago has led to a lifetime of discovering her majestic charms. Always I’ve loved this place and thought it to be one of the most beautiful, magical cities in the world. It continues to be a joy to wander along her cobblestone streets, peek into manicured gardens, rest awhile on park benches in oak-shaded squares drizzled with silvery Spanish Moss. Art, culture, festivals, concerts, live theater, outdoor cafes, and gourmet restaurants and true Southern hospitality thrive in this city built on the bluff above the river.

Bonaventure – Serene, Sacred Icon of Savannah

It was a sweltering July afternoon when I decided to visit Bonaventure Cemetery. I had heard its charms were the inspiration for Johnny Mercer’s song Moon River so I wanted to see this extraordinary place for myself. It’s most famous as the “Garden” in the murder mystery Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. I knew from history that Bonaventure was once a gorgeous plantation, famed for hospitality and fabulous parties. Indeed, one of those parties has left a lasting impression to this day. Here’s the story as it was told to me over tea one afternoon at the Ziegler House on Jones Street.

It was late autumn around 1800 when in the midst of a party, the owner, Josiah Tatnall, Jr. was told that Bonaventure was ablaze. The fire was raging in the massive wooden structure and nothing could stop it. Tatnall asked his guests to take their dinner outside, while the servants moved tables and chairs onto the grounds. dinner continued far into the night as stories were swapped and tales were told about dinners and notable events once enjoyed at Bonaventure in the past. Toasts were made by all as glasses were shattered, as was the custom of the day. By morning, Bonaventure was ash and timbers.

Many years later, in the 1860s, Bonaventure became a cemetery; one of the most beautiful anywhere. On cool autumn nights, if you listen closely you can still hear the sounds of a party, with laughter and music. Legend holds that it is the sound of glasses shattering against oak trees that can be most clearly heard.

Its haunting beauty lingers in my memory since that day I stood there under a cathedral of towering oaks. Walking through its grounds I noticed Oscar Wilde and Johnny Mercer to be among those buried there. What better place, I thought, to rest in peace for all time – where the party goes on and on.

Savannah Mint Juleps with Cheese Straws

Mint Juleps served on the veranda, shaded by branches of ancient live oak trees, have long been a cherished Savannah tradition. Served in frosted sterling silver cups with silver spoon straws, they are a luxurious and time-honored experience. However, tall frosted glasses with decorative stirrers will serve just as well for enjoyment of this most classic Southern drink. It’s simple to put together. Just have plenty of mint from the garden, sugar, ice and sour mash bourbon and don’t forget the cheese straws. Cheese straws are the most favorite of Southern standby snacks or “pickups,” a delicacy, crafted from flour, butter, cheese, and a little red pepper. They are to be enjoyed slowly and sparingly. For the quickest cheese straws, roll the dough into a log and slice to the desired width.

Benne Bits

Another staple for Savannah cocktail parties is Benne Bits. Africans, who planted them for luck, first brought benne seeds to the colonial coast. Black plantation cooks brought benne seeds into Southern kitchens and toasted them into seed cakes and candies for good luck. Even in the early days of the 20th century, African-Americans would sprinkle benne seeds on their doorsteps for good fortune and scare off the “haints” The most well-loved use of benne seeds is still the delicious toasted bits.

Hush Puppy! Hush Puppy!

Ever wonder where this name originated? Most accounts refer to the days when there was a need to carry food from the kitchen to the main houses. In the early days, kitchens were detached to help prevent fires from spreading to the main houses and to prevent extreme heat. Everyone had dogs loose in the yards for protection and one can only imagine the difficulty of carrying prepared food across the yard without being knocked down. Fried cornmeal balls carried in their pockets could be tossed out as far as possible, allowing enough time to reach the house. As the balls were tossed, the cooks called out “hush puppy, hush puppy.”

Savannah Taffy

Cool autumn evenings conjure up memories of days gone by when taffy pulls and mint pulls were pastimes for our entire family. All that was needed was a cold marble slab, buttered hands, and plenty of straining muscles. We’d have a great time in the kitchen pulling the taffy and stuffing little mason jars with the wrapped treats. The taffy was made by stretching and pulling the sticky mass of boiled sugar, butter and flavorings and coloring it until it produced tiny air bubbles resulting in a light, fluffy and chewy candy. Once this process was complete, we’d roll the taffy, cut it into small pieces and wrap them in wax paper.

Today we can enjoy taffy, pralines, and everything imaginable made by the Savannah Candy Kitchen on River Street.

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