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Hungry Man's Gide is content about food and cooking, dining, travel, drink and lifestyles for readers who hunger for adventure, fun and a great life.

Savannah, Let's Eat

From hardtack to shrimp and grits: History formed Savannah's culinary reputation

Tim Rutherford

The 13th Colony Emerges: The Foundation of a New World City

   Savannah has long been recognized as the “Hostess City of the South.” The title was earned, forged on the hospitality shown by generations of Savannahians to every visitor, to every newcomer. Even Union Gen. William T. Sherman, fresh from the torching of Atlanta, was welcomed and, in turn, spared its destruction. It is a city draped not just in Spanish moss but mystery, intrigue and a convivial spirit. It is said that newcomers are met with only two questions: “Where are you from?” and “What will you have to drink?”

   Modern Savannah is known for its colorful history, its warmth and its beauty. Savannah has a reputation for classic Southern cuisine like shrimp and grits, fried chicken and its own take on the one-pot feast, Lowcountry Boil. But how did these contemporary dishes evolve? The Georgia colony founded as Savannah was humble at best; it was, after all, a pioneer outpost. Savannah rose from a hardscrabble existence that was generation away from the mostly civilized lifestyle enjoyed by established settlers in Charles Town, South Carolina. Savannah’s first citizens did not land to markets or verdant farms.

   Those first Savannahians did have substantial support from Colonial authorities in England, who exported food and supplies from England to the high bluffs on the Savannah River. Armed with ambitious plans and dreams, the colony quickly organized into orderly streets, bustling docks and a regional trading post. As tales of the new city reached Europe, other groups soon set sail for the colony. 42 Jews arrived in July 1733, mere months after the city’s founding.[i] The landing of this Jewish contingent had not been encouraged, though not outright banned – as were Catholics, lawyers, rum and slavery. James Oglethorpe, leader of the colonists, made the decision to allow the Jews to stay – motivated by the skills of one of the passengers, a doctor.[ii]

   The next year, German religious pilgrims established a nearby community with farms and lumber mills. Chinese arrived as laborers, Italians were recruited to help establish the silk industry and Scotsmen and Irishmen came ashore as military support. Growth of the colony relied upon more labor and the initial ban on slavery was lifted 1751, paving the way for human trafficking from the West Indies and Africa.

   An ethnic group’s food culture is as important as its material and religious culture. Even in 21st Century Savannah, there are immigrant families with more than two decades in the city whose diets consist exclusively of their native dishes adapted for local ingredients. Certainly, those first immigrants would not have abandoned their traditional dishes, but adapted recipes to utilize ingredients available in the Georgia colony. Traces of these original ethnic recipes can still be found in some of the 21st-century dishes being served in Savannah, while some have fallen by the wayside. But to understand how Savannah’s food culture evolved there has to be a foundation of understanding who these original settlers were and how their actions shaped the culture and cuisine of coastal Georgia.

The Founding

   When Oglethorpe and his band of settlers came ashore at what was to become the city of Savannah, they stepped into a much more welcoming pioneer experience than their forbearers.

   Charles Town, S.C., founded 63 years earlier, was already a significant port city that competed with New York, Boston and Philadelphia for the economic power that comes with commerce. On Jan. 13, 1733, Charles Town was first landfall for Oglethorpe, a minister and a doctor, and 114 settlers from England. A few days later, Oglethorpe and a small band sailed on south to extend England’s claim on this new world – and to establish a crucial defensive buffer against the Spanish colony in Florida.

   February 12, the official landing at Savanah, was a day probably not so different from the climate the settlers had left behind: Damp, a cold wind, a bright winter sun. In the months to come the area’s sub-tropical weather would become one of the settlers’ most challenging hurdles to establishing this new city. Oglethorpe and his band wasted no time establishing relationships with local traders John and Mary Musgrove. Mary was the daughter of the English trader Edward Griffin and a Creek Indian mother. She grew up in both worlds and became an important cultural liaison to Oglethorpe. Mary’s understanding of both cultures was instrumental to the agreement reached by European settlers and the local Yamacraw tribe, led by Chief Tomochichi. Her influence laid the foundation for a lifelong bond between the British general and the American Indian chief.[iii]

   The peaceful relationship between the colonists and the Yamacraw was crucial. Prior settlements had faced hostilities from Native Americans, which taxed military resources that were already defending against other challengers to Britain’s claim on the New World. To the north and west, the French launched skirmishes and from the south, Spanish troops rallied north. Savannah and the Georgia colony – the last of the original 13 colonies – was far more than a new outpost for adventure seeking Brits, it was a defensive barrier.

   It is difficult to imagine the myriad of challenges confronted by those first colonists. Day-to-day chores of wood cutting, building, hunting, fishing and preparing food is paramount for new settlers. But beyond, food, clothing and shelter, the colony was also confronted with its own defense, fulfilling the orderly plans for growth set out by colonial authorities and making decisions to insure the colony would thrive into the future. One part of that plan, Trustees’ Garden, was meticulously planned even before the Anne set sail form Britain. English authorities knew that for a new colony to thrive, it would have to stand alone, without continual support from the British patrons. Trustee’s Garden as a crucial part of that plan. Grapes were planted to eliminate dependence on Spain for wine. Silkworms were introduced to meet the English need for silk. In Trustee’s Garden, cotton was planted for the first time in North America and was the foundation for that became the great economic engine of the South.[iv]

   The 10-acre tract was a virtual international botanical garden. Peach and apple trees stood in sight of orange and olive trees. Fig trees were introduced and remain one of the area’s tastiest annual treats. Hundreds of mulberry trees were propagated and given to colonists to perpetuate silkworms. Not all crops were successful, but many flourished in the humid, sub-tropical Savannah climate. Those successes were a part of a regional agrarian endeavor that sustained the early colonist and set the scene for cuisine of coastal Georgia. Trustee’s Garden was eventually overtaken by maritime activity on the nearby Savannah River and fell into disrepair.

Immigrant Contributions

   The agrarian needs of the new colony received a boost in 1734 when Protestant refuges from Salzburg, a small country then but today a province of Austria,[v] founded the town of Ebenezer, in what is modern day Effingham County. The colony was led by two ministers, Johann Martin Boltzius and catechist Israel Christian Gronau.[vi] The ministers were charged with enforcing the vision of their religious patrons in Europe, the needs of the new community and the political and economic expectations of colonial authorities in Savannah and England.

   The devout and stalwart Salzburgers did not find much success farming the land around Ebenezer: Lowlands were frequently inundated with floodwater and highlands had poor soil. According to the diary of Boltzius, the Salzburgers were ready to abandon Ebenezer in favor of the more fertile Trustee’s Garden, but Oglethorpe continued to encourage experimentation while emphasizing the continued strategic defense provided by the Ebenezer colony. Oglethorpe felt Ebenezer provided a valuable a defensive front to Savannah’s north. The Ebenezer colonists were in conflict between their idea of a community based in religious autonomy and Oglethorpe’s expectations.[vii]

   The Salzburgers struggled in the first two years at Ebenezer. Sickness claimed the lives of many colonists and the community’s original site, eight miles from the Savannah River, proved a deterrent to trade. In early 1736 Oglethorpe granted the Salzburgers a new site on the bluffs above the Savannah River, which was named New Ebenezer. The new site proved the turning point. Several farmsteads were quickly established and with the financial support of the Trustees, the Salzburgers built the Georgia colony’s first water-powered gristmill in 1740; and a second was constructed in 1751. Ebenezer was fulfilling its potential to contribute to the Georgia colony’s food stream. Stamping mills for rice and barley stood beside a pair of sawmills. The output of flour and meal, finished grains and lumber bolstered New Ebenezer’s stock with the Georgia colony authorities and allowed the Protestants to finally pursue their own humanitarian interests with the establishment of the colony’s first orphanage at Bethesda, south of Savannah, in 1737. It too helped support the growing community: Widows and orphans at Bethesda operated the first silk filature in Georgia.[viii]

   Boltzius’ death in 1765 marked the beginning of the end for New Ebenezer. The community lost it leader and it cohesion. The American Revolution was the nail in the coffin. British troops headquartered at Ebenezer, plundered many houses and targeted them for cannon practice. The church became a hospital, its pews firewood. American troops retook Ebenezer in 1782, naming it the capital of Georgia for two weeks. Their dreams and their industry crushed, most Salzburgers deserted the area.

   To the south, Scottish Highlanders had settled New Inverness in 1736. Known today as Darien, the small town on the Altamaha River joined with Fort Frederica on St. Simons Island as the stage for much of that area’s colorful history and Scottish heritage. Like the Salzburgers, the Highlanders found little success with the marshy ground and hot, dry weather.

The American Revolution Comes to Savannah

   Finding additional colonists who were sympathetic to the English protection of its newest colony was paramount to turning a pioneer colony into a significant city. Frequent reports back to Europe were persuasive. Savannah was quickly becoming port city with an international population. Just as the community started to grow, the American Revolution added tumult to the fledgling society. Savannah and its surrounding settlements were sites of several battles. American troops and militia in the area reflected the city’s ethnic makeup and were constituted of an international force.

   Savannah was seized by the British in 1778.[ix] In September and October of 1779, French and American forces led by Count Charles-Henri d’Estaing, bolstered by a unit of 500 Haitian volunteers and a contingent of cavalry under the command of Count Casimir Pulaski, tried to retake the city. The Siege of Savannah, one of the bloodiest battles of the Revolutionary War, failed and left Pulaski mortally wounded.[x] It would be three more disruptive years before the British occupation ended and Savannah could again continue its path of growth.

   The subsequent decades saw the explosive growth of the cotton trade centered on the bustling Savannah waterfront. In the surrounding low country, plantations rose from the marshland and gave birth to rice plantations. By 1820, Savannah was the eighteenth largest city in America and exported nearly $14 million in cotton. The crop remained 80 percent of the city’s exports until the onset of the Civil War.[xi] The prosperity afforded Savannah’s citizens the best material culture of the time. Furniture, building materials, fabrics, fine china, silver, and wine and spirits flowed through the port from not just East Coast cities of New York, Boston and Philadelphia, but from England, Spain and France. With wealth came contentment. The city has somewhat of a tongue-in-cheek name de plume – Slow-vannah. Progress here marches at its own beat but is powered by the resilience and single-mindedness of its population. Nearly 80 years after its founding, the city’s population was recorded at 5,315,[xii] indicative perhaps, of the misfortune suffered during the Revolution and a fire in 1796 that destroyed half of the city.

   That was not the end of the challenges. Another blaze in 1820 again leveled half of the city – and it was the same year a Yellow Fever epidemic claimed the lives of one-tenth of the city’s residents. Yellow Fever struck again in 1854. Along the Savannah timeline, the city stood strong against hurricanes, epidemics, fires, and military occupation.

The Civil War Years

   Union forces occupied the city beginning in December 1864. Gen. Sherman and his troops found a city that was comfortable and inviting. The growth of the cotton trade had brought great wealth that fueled construction of fine homes, riverside warehouses and fostered the city’s social scene. One such home, the Green Meldrim House on Madison Square, was taken for use as headquarters by Sherman.

   What Sherman found in Savannah was perhaps a blueprint, in part, for the South as imagined by the Union. According to the census of 1860, Savannah was Georgia’s largest city with 14,580 free inhabitants, including 705 free blacks, in addition to 7,712 slaves.[xiii]  By the time of the Civil War, Savannah's free black population was among the most entrepreneurial in the South, with interests in small businesses, agriculture, land ownership and, in some cases, even slave ownership. Savannah had emerged as one of the most beautiful and tranquil cities in America, particularly after Forsyth Park was established in 1851.

   The growth demanded more laborers, who introduced adaptive recipes using less prime cuts of pork and typically tough, weedy plants – like collard greens – to the Southern table. These meals plus easily accessible and sustainable ingredients like fish and shrimp grow in favor during the difficult years of Reconstruction. Thousands of freed slaves swelled the city’s population. The majority of Savannah’s new black citizens lived in poor conditions and was economically victimized by resentful whites. Struggling to put food on the table, these new citizens shared recipes and cooking styles among one another. Ultimately, the dishes spread from the rudimentary kitchens of poor blacks and into the dining rooms of their white employers and local eateries.

The Table is Set

   All of these founding fathers and mothers did not land in Savannah hungry for shrimp and grits. The ethnic populations would have clung to their cultural dishes, recipes handed down through generations that provided important sustenance – but also comforting flavors that are important ties to the past. In 1744, Francis Moore published his account of the wildlife surrounding the settlement at Fort Frederica[xiv] and described a teeming population of buffalo on the mainland, waterfowl, deer, and small game. Game birds like turkey and dove were plentiful. Neighboring waters held pristine populations of fish, shellfish, and shrimp. Much like Squanto helped the Pilgrims of Plymouth Colony adapt to their strange new surroundings, Tomochichi guided Oglethorpe in the ways of hunting, finding and preparing food in Savannah’s sub-tropical environment. The comfort foods of the region’s international population could have easily been adapted to the indigenous ingredients.

   Historic documents verify a number of taverns in Savannah, there is no talk of what was served. In fact, among pages of journals, diaries and reports back to English authorities, little is ever said about the specific gastronomy of the region. What has emerged as “Savannah cuisine” is in fact a sideboard laden with dishes inspired by recipes from around the world. French Rice pilaf becomes shrimp perlau; slow cooked, bitter greens from West Africa becomes collard greens. Polenta is our familiar grits.

   Imagine being on a food truck that traverses the ages. Its first stops would feature foods prepared over open fires or beds of coals. There is no refrigeration and most foods are eaten fresh from the hunt, the fishing trip, the harvest. As the truck bumps along through the ages, other ingredients are added to the menu from outside the immediate area. Traders introduce rice from the Carolinas, cornmeal and flour are milled in the Carolinas, too – and at sites inland from the Georgia coast. Strange, black-hooved hogs abandoned by the Spaniards on Ossabaw Island adapt perfectly to salt-curing. The melting pot is complete and the Southern table is about to be set with the foods that today epitomize “Southern” cuisine – a savory mélange of dishes marrying world cultures with sustainability; practicality with nourishment.

   Hop on board, grab a fistful of napkins and prepare to celebrate the culinary legacy of Savannah.

Resources

[i] “Timeline: Georgia as an English Colony 1732-1775,” http://georgiainfo.galileo.usg.edu

[ii] Preston Russell and Barbara Hines, Savannah: A History of Her People Since 1733, Frederic C. Beil, (2002)

[iii] Andrew K. Frank, "Mary Musgrove (ca. 1700-ca. 1763)," New Georgia Encyclopedia, (Sept. 16, 2014)

[iv] Frank P. Rossiter and Marvin H. Cox, The History of Trustees’ Garden Village, Savannah, Georgia, 1733-1952, n.p., (1953)

[v] German Salzburger Society website, http://www.georgiasalzburgers.com/

[vi] Renate Wilson, Pious Traders in Medicine: A German Pharmaceutical Network in Eighteenth-Century North America, (Pennsylvania State University Press, 2000)

[vii] Renate Wilson, Continental Protestant Refugees and their Protectors in Germany and London: Commercial and Charitable Networks,” Pietismus und Neuzeit 20 (1994)

[viii] James Barlament, “Salzburgers,” New Georgia Encyclopedia. (September17, 2014)

[ix] Gordon Burns Smith, “Siege of Savannah,” New Georgia Encyclopedia, (Sept. 27, 2013), http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Siege_of_Savannah

[x] Preston Russell and Barbara Hines, Savannah: A History of Her People Since 1733, Frederic C. Beil, (2002)

[xi] Buddy Sullivan, “Savannah,” New Georgia Encyclopedia. (Sept. 17, 2014)

[xii] William Darby and Theodore Dwight Jr., New Gazetteer of the United States of America (2nd ed.), Hartford: E. Hopkins, p. 482 (1834)

[xiii] Buddy Sullivan, “Savannah,” New Georgia Encyclopedia. (Sept. 17, 2014)

[xiv] Trevor R. Reese (introduction), Our First Visit in America: Early Reports from the Colony of Georgia, 1732-1740, (Savannah: Beehive Press, 1974), pp. 120-123