More than the recipes

A spate of new cookbooks brings local flavors home

DID YOU EVER eat something at a restaurant or party that you just had to recreate in your own kitchen?

If the chef doesn’t care to share his or her precious formula, you might drive yourself bonkers trying to blindly imitate their culinary genius.

Good news for you, a few of Savannah’s best chefs have decided to save you the trouble of guesstimating measurements and testing every jar in the spice cabinet. Three cookbooks with strong ties to the Hostess City have recently graced the shelves, each presenting a distinct and delicious take on what to serve at your own table.

Of course, a cookbook is far more than a set of instructions. Along with mouth-watering descriptions and lush photography, these guides to good eating also provide a peek into the trials, errors and back stories that inspired these locals’ favorite dishes.

Continuing the tradition

Like any Savannah supper worth its salt, the Johnny Harris Restaurant Cookbook starts with a stiff cocktail. Relaxing with a glass of the restaurant’s version of Chatham Artillery Punch is a fine way to peruse this homage to one of Georgia’s longest-running culinary and cultural institutions, celebrating its 90th anniversary this month.

Many locals still remember feasting and dancing the night away under the starlit ceiling of the grand ballroom on Victory Drive. Not as many might recall the petting zoo that lived on the back lot from 1937 to 1942, but Johnny Harris has been synonymous with good times in Savannah for generations. Lord knows how many millions of bottles of Johnny Harris Bar-B-Cue sauce have made their way around the world as souvenirs of a memorable meal.

Kermit Lynnwood “Red” Donaldson began managing the former speakeasy for its namesake in the 1930s; he eventually took ownership and passed it down through the family. Now Red’s granddaughter, Julie Donaldson Lowenthal, has lovingly compiled menu staples past and present as well as nostalgic memorabilia and profiles of its famously friendly staff members.

There are plenty of vintage shots of a time gone by, coupled with Mary Britton Senseney photographs that present the simple sapidity of Spicy Deviled Eggs and Crunchy Corn Salad.

This is quintessential Southern fare, plain and simple, with all the fat and flavor: Sweet and Spicy Short Ribs, Bourbon-Glazed Ham and Savannah Blue Crab Cakes are entrée standouts, begging to be served with Buttermilk Fried Okra and Vidalia Onion Rolls. Make sure you leave room for Maudie Belle’s Sour Cream Pound Cake!

Most of these recipes serve 8-10, some even 16—this will surely become a go-to resource for festive gatherings and family dinners. Put some big band music on the iPod and invite over your brood for a batch of Famous Batterless Fried Chicken.

The (not so) Secret to the Best BBQ

The tagline may be “secrets that old men take to the grave,” but Wiley’s Championship BBQ is an open book. If you’re looking to brush up on your basting and grilling skills, Wiley McCrary is your professor, and this is your homework.

Wiley and his wife, Janet, have served up their award-winning barbecued pork, chicken or beef out of their modest restaurant in a strip mall off Highway 80 since 2008. Though they may be competitive types, scoring top trophies from barbecue contests from Kansas City to Atlanta, the couple isn’t stingy with the wisdom. They were once novices themselves and admit they learned everything they know from mentors Ed and Muriel Roith of the heralded Kansas City Barbecue Society.

Acknowledging that barbecue is an addiction as well as a craft, Wiley touts the importance of “teaching that craft to a younger generation so that it lives on after you.” He not only gives out his recipes for his Basic BBQ Sauce and salty-sweet Pork Injection, he gives detailed technical advice on what kind of newspaper to put in a fire chimney (never use the comics page) and the nuanced flavors imparted by various wood chips.

Naturally, meat dominates this spiral-bound manual, the first chapters labeled by animal type. (Wiley calls pig “the Kobe beef of the American South.”) But there’s plenty of pages dedicated to fruits of the sea, like Black Iron Skillet Cod and Oysters Rockefeller. Also included are the unexpectedly vegetarian Black-Eyed Pea Hummus and Smoked Stuffed Portobello Mushrooms, along with a slew of tasty sides. (He admits that Janet married him for his Home Fries.)

Local writer Amy Paige Condon artfully distills Wiley’s humorous and grizzled tone, and no glistening pork chop or salt crystal escapes the eye of food photographer Chia Chong. This is a textbook for the barbecue beginner or the seasoned amateur looking to up his or her grill game.

Saving the wicked for last

Oh, you’d rather skip dinner and get straight down to dessert? Sweet & Vicious: Baking with Attitude is your partner in crime.

Penned with wicked wit and esculent expertise by Savannah-based food stylist Libbie Summers, this tome of over-the-top cakes, cookies and pies is not for the faint of heart (or blood glucose.) Every one of these 100 or so recipes comes with a surprise: Carrot cake with a whiff of habañero peppers. Crusts crimped with a strand of pearls. Cornbread with a cayenne kick.

Libbie calls it “fearless baking” and spares no amount of sugar, spice and “where-did-nice-ever-get-you-anyway?” advice. (“Like babies and Southern belles, not all pies are made to be entirely sweet,” she admonishes.)

A former food producer for Paula Deen and the principal creative brain behind the award-winning culinary blog Salted & Styled, Libbie won international acclaim for her first foray into food publishing, The Whole Hog Cookbook. This southern magnolia has also traveled the world cooking on yachts, and Sweet & Vicious brims with memories of peeping through her grandma’s screen door and saucy times with a passel of Greek sailors.

Though desserts dominate (the chocolatey Movie Night Cookies speckled with buttered popcorn-flavored jellybeans will surely turn any couch date into an all-nighter,) Libbie ain’t skeered to mix up the sweet and savory. Fig & Pig Pies combine fruity jam and prosciutto for a snack that could seduce even the most staid tastebuds, and Libbie claims she predicted the bacon-with-everything rage ages ago, still in full effect with her Hog Heaven Chocolate Cake.

Some recipes serve as stand-alone meals, like Pretzel Brats and Meatball Muffins, and even dogs get their due with Baked Chicken Liver Slivers and Pumpkin Spice Canine Coins. Seasoned bakers will want to stock their kitchen arsenals with the index of homemade flavor extracts and infused sugars.

Even if you never raise a wooden spoon, Sweet & Vicious is worth having around for its sheer gorgeousness. (Someone once wrote that in the world of food porn, Libbie is the expert equivalent of a fluffer.) Salted & Styled co-conspirator Chia Chong captures their playful aesthetic in her masterly photographs—it sure seems like you might end up with your nose dusted with flour if you get too close to the page.


About The Author

Jessica Leigh Lebos

Community Editor Jessica Leigh Lebos has been writing about interesting people, vexing issues and anything involving free food for more than 20 years. She introduces herself at cocktail parties as southern by marriage.

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