On our way to Savannah we stopped for breakfast at Cahill’s Market, in Bluffton, South Carolina. Cahill’s serves up Southern comfort foods for lunch and dinner — waffles and fried chicken, pork chops, oysters and crab cakes.
But breakfast at Cahill’s is all about the chicken, as we realized when we pulled into the parking lot at 7:30 a.m. and saw a large chicken coop out back, filled with several dozen fryers, snowy white in the early morning mist, strutting about and regarding us with chickeny indignation. As it was unseasonably cold, most were clustered around a heat lamp. Life is nasty, brutish and short, for a chicken, but I had the satisfaction of learning these chickens were just for show — a Potemkin coop. As I discovered, their numbers couldn’t possibly sustain Cahill’s business for more than five minutes.
Cahill’s has its own farm and sells its produce next door, where the setup reflects the world’s prevailing food fashion, with labels promising “locally grown,” “organic” and “pesticide free” beans, rice, grits and other Southern specialties.
But the breakfast menu is unabashedly old school, offering heaping platters that promise not so much pleasure as personal injury, such as the Gut Buster and Belly Bomb.
This divided soul is what’s interesting about the South: contradictions and elisions everywhere you look. The anxious desire to move with the times, and a lingering echo from lazier, more carefree times — carefree, at least, for some folks.
In keeping with the chicken-and-physical-mayhem theme, I opted for the Widow Maker — a platter of eggs, grits, toast and chicken livers.
Without really thinking it through, this clueless Northerner somehow expected sautéed livers, as I would prepare them at home: maybe dredged in a dusting of seasoned flour, possibly finished with a dash of balsamic vinegar.
They were in fact thickly breaded, deeply fried and piled so I high I recoiled when I saw them — the way you might flinch before something eats you.
But, abetted with ketchup and hot sauce, I polished them off. I then wiped my face on my sleeve and we drove to Savannah.
General Sherman’s mistress
I’m a champion flâneur, paractically incapable of boredom. I don’t need museums or walking tours of haunted houses. I don’t care to see historic bullet holes or taffy being pulled. Instead, I’m perfectly content spending the entire day on a bench with a book or loafing about aimlessly.
Yes, indeed, countless unproductive hours I’ll never get back. (Of course, these periods of deeply satisfying lethargy alternate with spells of frenetic running, so go figure.)
Savannah is therefore the perfect city for me. Its downtown is a compact checkerboard of 21 squares, each one surrounded by great old homes and churches, flower gardens, ancient live oaks and, most important, lots of benches. There’s also the great Forsyth Park to loaf around in (about 1.3 km around, if you’re considering a tempo run or intervals), with its picturesque fountain, spreading oaks and local flâneurs draped over benches.
Historians are still puzzling out why General Sherman didn’t burn Savannah to the ground, as he did so many other Southern cities. Maybe he forgot. Or, as some suggest, he spared the city because his mistress happened to live there. I think she deserves a statue, even if the story isn’t true.
We had an excellent dinner at Vic’s on the River, where I ordered pretty much the same meal as last time: fried green tomatoes, a salad, and shrimp and grits. If I’m going to eat at Vic’s every two years, and I’m perfectly happy with what I ate last time, I see no good reason to change.
But the most interesting meal in Savannah was lunch at Zunzi’s, a sandwich counter — literally a hole in the wall — where folks line up on the street to order what are reputed to be America’s best sandwiches. Their slogan is “Shit yeah!” Amen to that.
“Shit yeah!” is plastered across their cars, ads and signs. You can ask for half a dozen sauces at Zunzi’s, including Shit Yeah Sauce and Hot Shit Sauce.
There’s a line-up all day, but it moves quickly. Behind the counter, in an impossibly narrow space, nine surprisingly happy kids scrambled to keep up. Meanwhile, on the street, two greeters talked up passers-by, explained the menu, handed out “Shit yeah!” stickers and directed eat-in customers to tables set up in the adjacent parking lot.
The young African-American woman wrangling customers at Zunzi’s bubbled with energy.
“How y’all like my city?” she demanded, clearly proud of her hometown, its booming trade and street life.
“Shit yeah!” we said.
I read somewhere that, in the wake of slavery, Civil War, a failed Reconstruction period and the Civil Rights struggles, African Americans have adjusted better to the national trauma than have white Americans. They’re not in denial about what happened, they understand there is no road leading back, and they’re ready to move on, if given the chance.
Well, I can’t vouch for the truth of what I read. I’m just a know-nothing Canadian passing through. But it’s an interesting notion to think about.
I think, too, of the many contradictions and ironies I sensed at Cahill’s and just about everywhere we went — and not just the free-range basil plants cheek-by-jowl with deep-fried moon cakes.
In nearby Savannah, for example, Zunzi’s is owned by a husband-and-wife team from South Africa named DeBeer. Irony upon irony.
• • •
Back home now and struggling with a short story. I know…about time.