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My lunch with the mayor 

Otis Johnson on healthy eating, healthy living, and Geneva's good cooking

SAVANNAH MAYOR OTIS JOHNSON and I are getting to know each other over lunch at Geneva Geneva’s restaurant. We’re discussing his travels across the globe, and I ask him about the different foods he’s eaten in different countries.

“I had monkey in Africa, especially in the Ivory Coast,” says the mayor. “They stew it up, it’s good. It’s the seasoning, onions, a lot of peppers that makes the difference. They have a member of the rodent family called agouti. It’s like a rat. It looks like a rat. It’s a jungle rat. They cook it up and it tastes not quite like chicken. They call stuff like that ‘bush meat’ in Africa.”

He tells me about deep fried grasshoppers and caterpillars in Mexico, conch salad with onions, bell peppers, lime and orange juice in the Bahamas, raw squid in France, ostrich in South Africa.

He even tells me about a local Savannah tradition that I don’t know: During the Georgia-Florida football weekend, some local restaurants serve alligator, the Florida mascot.

I ask what role his diet played in recent heart attack: “I was eating pork chops, barbecue, hamburgers, macaroni and cheese, pizza, things that contribute to coronary disease and stroke. You name it, I was eating it,” Mayor Johnson says. “I’m a lover of Southern cuisine, but that often carries more salt, more fat than necessary.”

While some things have been eliminated from his diet, he now takes an everything-in-moderation approach. Consider his lunch at Geneva Geneva’s: Stewed salmon over rice from the specials menu, broccoli and apple salad and baked squash, sweet tea and a glass of water.

Along with the daily specials, Geneva Geneva’s has big menu to select from. A couple of weeks before my lunch with Mayor Johnson I went to Geneva’s to do background research -- to eat, of course.

Geneva joined us that day, and she brought out a smorgasbord of food for us to sample. It started with a very expensive-to-make corn bread so saturated with butter that the wax paper underneath was drenched. Not exactly healthy, but wow--it was forget-the-moderation good.

I tried Geneva’s collard greens, the famous crabcakes, mac and cheese, shrimp and okra, the New Orleans Jambalaya, Shrimp Creole, oxtails and the sweet potato pie.

Even though we were in her restaurant it seemed like we were just two friends hanging out over lunch. Greg Ludwig, who shoots photographs for some of my articles, came with me that day, and after we left the first thing he said to me was that Geneva embodies the archetypal Southern hospitality he’d heard so much about before he moved here from Trenton N.J.

And Geneva’s interior design of the restaurant reflects that. It’s an eclectic, multi-niched, restaurant-atypical mix and match array of tables and chairs and art work that has the nuanced depth and uniqueness to make an interesting interior design article.

For the first visit we sat on stools at a free-standing counter in the middle of the restaurant, but when I dined with Mayor Johnson we sat in easy chairs around a table.

There is a small stage for live music and a separate fully equipped banquet room (with a wet-bar) for parties as large as 170 people that Geneva says is “the best looking banquet room in town that’s affordable.”

Geneva Geneva’s Home Plate is the fourth restaurant Geneva Wade has owned here. The first was back in 1983 at Hall and Habersham Streets called Geneva’s Country Cooking. During the course of her culinary career she’s written over 400 recipes! Plans are in the works for three Geneva’s cookbooks. I ask her where it all comes from, how she gets so many ideas and translates it into food we can all enjoy she related how.

“Some people are gifted to be an actor, or a dancer or a music writer or song writer or photographer -- well, I’m gifted to be a cook,” she explains. “It’s so natural for me! Sometimes when you’re asleep in the middle of the night and you get up and you write and all of a sudden you’re writing something you had no idea you were going to be writing but there it is. Then all of sudden you cook it and it’s perfect!”

In the kitchen, Geneva’s son Michael “MJ” Jackson is the chef. She says he’s “home trained by his Mommy” and has been working with her ever since that first restaurant, when he was nine years old! On the day Mayor Johnson and I have lunch he’s off, so Geneva is in the kitchen cooking.

That leaves the mayor and me 45 minutes (his budgeted time) to get in all of the questions and answers for this article. Since that isn’t much time, I jump right in:

Having worked in restaurants from Boston to California to Washington D.C. as well here in Savannah for half my life, I know that without “illegal aliens” working in kitchens, lots of restaurants could not hire enough labor to survive. I ask Mayor Johnson his thoughts on this subject:

“I don’t like the term ‘alien,’ and ‘illegal alien’ has a negative connotation. The undocumented workers are here trying to make a better life for themselves and their families. And if this economy did not need them, they would not be here,” he says.

“They’re looking for a better way and I don’t appreciate the attitude of this government, though Bush is almost to be commended. He’s not doing anything, he’s taking a passive approach,” Johnson says. “They’re doing jobs that Americans are refusing to do and it has to be done. I respect those folk.”

Staying with the restaurant theme we discuss smoking laws: “There’s a health risk from second hand smoke,” he says. “Now, I don’t have a problem with designating a restaurant or a bar as a smoking facility and only smokers or those who choose to go there and know what the second hand risk is go their on their own, I don’t have a problem with that. I want people to have a choice.”

We talk about the law requiring restaurants to maintain 50 percent of their gross sales in food in order to sell alcohol on Sundays:

“That’s something we inherited. You have to understand you’re in the Bible Belt, and there are still dry counties in Georgia,” the mayor explains. “It was probably in the second half of the 20th century that the ‘blue laws’ in Savannah and Chatham County were overturned, so there is a residue of that kind of attitude,” he says.

“If we had referendum on it, I don’t know if it would pass or fail, but there would be a strong lobby against that. I’m gonna leave that well enough alone.”

We also talk about whether or not he does much cooking himself, and how with a busy schedule he manages to eat balanced regular meals. Turns out that back when Mayor Johnson’s schedule was less hectic, he used to make batches of spaghetti sauce and meatballs and “eat on that” until it was gone. Crockpot gumbo was another specialty.

Now he just doesn’t make the time. Almost all of his meals are in restaurants, both for schedule and economic reasons. He makes sure to get breakfast everyday, and always eats a solid healthy lunch and dinner; while we’re at Geneva’s our waitress even reminds him that he has to have his vegetables!

One of the last subjects we come around to is how he thinks he’s making a difference while in office. He has several answers, but the one relevant here is his “Healthy Savannah 2012” initiative.

“Over the next five years we’re going to be working on increasing the awareness that you can eat the same foods but you don’t have to eat them as often, and you don’t have to eat as much of them, and you have to balance it off with exercise,” he says.

“We have a serious problem of obesity. Now it’s childhood obesity as well as adult. We have high levels of diabetes; we have folks who do not exercise at all,” says the mayor.

“So we’re going to be working on creating a community awareness around things you can prevent and also being aware that a lot of it is hereditary, so if you know that certain things like heart disease and stroke are in your family then early on you need to start watching your diet and exercising and making sure that your blood pressure is normal and your sugar is normal. Those are things you can do,” concludes Mayor Johnson.

After an hour and half of questions and answers, friendly conversation, and Geneva’s delicious food, our time is up. We’re able to coax Geneva away from her busy kitchen briefly for some pictures, after which we simply say our goodbyes and go back to the jobs we love.

Geneva Geneva’s is at 2812 Bee Rd., 356-9976, www.genevashomeplate.com

To comment, e-mail us at letters@connectsavannah.com

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