West Jones Street is a boulevard of antique brick houses with curving steps and graceful cast-iron banisters. At 11 o'clock each morning, a line begins to form at No. 107. There is no sign on this house, nothing to indicate why people start to gather here just before lunchtime.
Any Savannahan who likes to eat can tell you what is going on. At 11:30, Mrs. Wilkes will ring the dinner bell, and those who have waited in line will enter and find a seat at one of the large oval tables shared by strangers. Mrs. Wilkes says grace, then all assembled will dig into one of the most abundant feasts in Georgia.The tabletops are crowded with great platters of fried chicken and cornbread dressing, sweet potato souffles, black-eyed peas, okra gumbo, corn muffins and biscuits. And nobody is shy about helping himself. This is one place where a boarding-house reach is quite appropriate.
Passing the platters back and forth, chatting with friends and tablemates, heaping your plate with seconds and thirds of whatever you like best: What a party! This is a social event at which the cast of characters is always changing - townspeople, traveling families and chowhounds of every description drawn together by the lure of fried chicken, red rice, biscuits and fruit cobbler.
There aren't many boarding-house meals like Mrs. Wilkes' left. Interstate highways have passed boarding houses by. Too many travelers settle for predictable franchise food rather than take their chances at an unknown restaurant in an unfamiliar town.
For adventurous eaters, the few such kitchens that do survive are some of this land's finest culinary treasures. Dining at the oval tables in the brick house on West Jones Street is a taste of a bygone way of living - and eating - that Savannahans hold dear, and a few travelers through the South are lucky enough to know.
Because so many of Mrs. Wilkes' customers are regulars, the menu changes each day. There is always fried chicken, with alternative entrees such as pork sausage and hot peppered rice, or country-style steaks smothered in onion gravy, or peppery crab stew spiked with sherry.
As at any Southern feast worth its cracklin' cornbread, there are constellations of vegetable casseroles: great, gooey, buttery bowls full of squash au gratin and scalloped eggplant, cheese grits, corn pudding, pineapple-flavored yams topped with melted marshmallows, and creamed corn enriched with bacon drippings. Mrs. Wilkes intends to put some meat on your bones!
Among her repertoire of vegetable specialties are three different varieties of glorified rice: green rice (mixed with broccoli and celery), brown rice (with mushrooms and soy sauce) and the low-country legend, Savannah red rice. Every coastal cook in Georgia has her or his own red rice recipe. All contain rice and tomatoes; some are simply that - seasoned side dishes.
Mrs. Wilkes' red rice is delicious even if made without any meat other than the bacon and its drippings, but we suggest you save this recipe as a terrific catchall for leftovers. Just about any ham, pork or poultry fits right in among the Tabasco-spiced grains of rice. A pound of meat turns this recipe into a swell one-dish dinner.
Now available! Nearly 200 of the most-requested recipes from this column, all in one book, "A Taste of America." It includes Jane and Michael Stern's favorite restaurants, as well as photos from their coast-to-coast eating adventures. Available in paperback, it can be ordered by sending $9.95 plus $1 for postage and handling to Taste of America, in care of the Deseret News, P.O. Box 419150, Kansas City, Mo. 64141.