Move over Paula Deen – the real queen of southern cooking is and always has been Sema Wilkes and the recipes that live on through her restaurant, Mrs. Wilkes. Started as a boardinghouse in 1943, locals and visitors have been lining up for her food since 1970. Mrs. Wilkes is no longer with us, but her recipes continue through 4 generations of family and workers who have been preparing them for decades.
I dont regret much in life, but I do regret not eating more at Mrs. Wilkes. Now wish I had that 2nd piece of fried chicken and another bisquit; I left satiated, not stuffed. In retrospect, this was one of the best meals I’ve had all year, including meals at Michelin starred restaurants.
“Get there before 10 for the 11am seating,” warned Rebekah, my co-worker and expert in all things southern, Brooklyn or food oriented. I followed her instructions and was there at about 9:45, putting me first in line. Seconds later, 5 women emerged from different cars and joined me. By 10am the line was down the block.
You get to know a lot about people when you wait with them for over an hour. Who’s been there before; who’s a first timer. Who prefers dark meat; who likes white. And I know the woman next to me from Long Island, but originally from a suburb of Savannah, was at Mrs. Wilkes to have her first real meal since losing 50 pounds. She cried over the red rice and beans. Really, I am not exaggerating.
Just before 11am, we were invited inside a small room with 4 large tables of 10, covered with large bowls of the best food Savannah has to offer. Collard greens, pulled pork, black eyed peas, creamed corn, mashed potatoes with cheese, cabbage, peas, macaroni & cheese, very unique sweet potatoes. I could taste the citrus, the woman across from me got coconut. Both are in the recipe – of course I bought the cookbook.
We also had a choice of sweet tea or regular ice tea.
A man already seated at the table, who confided he was a neighborhood friend who ate there regularly, suggested we pass the bowls to the left – and we just kept passing as more and more dishes were added to the rotation.
As these bowls emptied, they were replenished. The room was silent as we all began to eat.
Soon after the side dishes made their way around the table, servers appeared from the kitchen with platters of fried chicken. Next came corn bread and bisquits. Surely the best, flakiest bisquit I’ve ever had. Then, just when I thought it was over, huge bowls of the red rice and beans. Piquant and delicious.
I will definitely go back to Savannah – if only for another meal at Mrs. Wilkes.
Mrs. Wilkes, 107 West Jones Street, Savannah. The nearby Jepson Center and Telfair Museum make a great combined itinerary.
This article was originally posted January 24, 2012 – well before Paula Deen blew herself up!