Kids Corner


Lunch With Mrs Wilkes






Monday, November 5, 2012



It’s way past lunch hour.

I’ve been walking around the streets of Savannah, Georgia (USA).

Everything is slow motion here, though time moves on at a quick pace when you’re sort of panicking: so much to see and so little time to do it all. I suddenly feel famished.

But the town is too sumptuous to waste a lunch-hour over an ordinary meal. I want to savour more of this place. I stand under a huge oak tree dripping with Spanish moss, until an elderly woman strolls by. Everybody in this town strolls. I have concluded that it must be against the law in this community to walk fast.

I stop her and ask if she can recommend a restaurant. Something typically southern or “Cracker”. She thinks for a while, shifting from one foot to the other. Then, she decides to sit down and ambles towards a wrought-iron bench a few feet away, and then continues sifting through her mental files. Gradually, her face lights up and she breaks into a drawl -- the southern lazy, friendly, sing-song, even richer than usual in her case, loaded with Black idiom.

She knows of a place that’ll be just right, she says. Mrs. Wilkes’, she calls it. She stands up and gives me an animated series of instructions of how to get there. I catch her enthusiasm and, after thanking her for her help and her remark that she likes my hat, I make a bee-line for Jones Street at Whitaker.

I turn on Jones and, through a process of elimination, figure out which building is No. 107.

It is a tree-lined street, canopied by the branches. The structure in question is three or floor floors high. Nineteenth-century-ish, like the rest of the neighbourhood. But not much indication that there is a business establishment in the area.

I walk around, looking for clues. The far end of the building is punctuated by a laneway. A few people are bunched together, exchanging pleasantries.

There is a door around the corner: I am told this is a line-up for Mrs. Wilkes’. “We’ll be summoned when they are ready.”

So I wait too.

A few minutes later, the door swings open. A crowd spills out, merry and talkative, and dissipates into the street shade. A voice finally beckons us. We enter and try and adjust our eyes to the dim light inside.

We’re in a huge dining room -- just like yours and mine, only somewhat bigger. There are four huge dining tables, with a dozen chairs around each. In the far end, a door and window suggest a kitchen beyond. There is considerable commotion in there, albeit an organized one. Figures in white are moving in unison.

A hand touches my arm. “Let’s go,” she says. I follow her into another room. Same size. Also, four tables, with 12 chairs each. She takes me to the furthest bunch, and directs me to a vacant chair.

I sit down. Introductions are exchanged. A family from Detroit sits across from me. A couple from Atlanta is to my left. A group from neighbouring South Carolina to my right.

It is my turn. I explain I’m from near Toronto.

“Wha-ir’s  tha-a-at?” sings a chorus. The auto-worker from Detroit enlightens them.

“Ca-na-da,” repeats the woman next to me. “Hm-m-mm,” she squints and nods her head. “Isn’t that where they speak French?”

“Yes,” I say, “and where they wear turbans.”

There is a general nodding of heads all around me. The fellow from Detroit laughs. His wife sizes me up, obviously puzzled: she’s not sure whether I’m joking or what. No doubt she’s heard of the nefarious goings-on north of the 49th parallel, though never ventured across to see for herself.

A flotilla of waitresses appear. And in two minutes flat they cover the expanse of our table-top with dishes galore. I count 17 different ones. The only ones I can recall now are: Fried Chicken. Cabbage. Snap beans. Candied yams. White rice. Beef stew. Sausage. Pickled beets. Black-eyed peas. Okra. Baked ham. Tomatoes. Mashed potatoes. Red rice. Gravy. Squash. Rutabaga. Peppers.

And, of course, jugs of ice tea.

Each dish is handed around the table, fuelled by reports of the day’s adventures. If a dish is set down on the table for more than 10 seconds, it is scooped up instantly by a hand from behind us, and replaced with a full one.

We quickly realize that it is not worth wasting time on talk. There are just too many dishes begging for attention. And so little space to put it all away. So little time.

But we do full justice, I must confess. The hostesses hang around a safe distance away, watching school-matron-like, to ensure, as if, that no one skips any of the 14 vegetables. It isn’t necessary.

The three-year-old from Detroit -- his mother calls him “Han’some,” and it is the only name he answers to -- is on his fifth drumstick, when the dessert trays are brought in.

Banana pudding. And chocolate cake.

I start with the first but linger too long. I never make it to the second one. And then, the inevitable happens: no more courses. And no more room.

Reluctantly, and with considerable resistance from gravity, we get up and say our good-byes. I half expect somebody to say, “See y’all next Christmas!”

On our way out, we are greeted by Mrs. Wilkes at the desk. She has run this place for 50 years. She may look frail, but she’s still in control. The bill for lunch? $10 flat. It feels odd paying it. First, it sounds absurdly insufficient. And then, it feels like paying your mother after dinner.

As we’re leaving, a woman runs out of the kitchen and stops little Han’some in his tracks. She holds out a small package, rolled up in paper, and helps him wrap his tiny fingers around it firmly. “A drumstick. For the road.”

Han’some, until now serious and obviously intimidated by strangers, bursts into a smile ear to ear.

I discover only later that Conde Naste, the renowned travel magazine, has rated Mrs Wilkes’ one of the top restaurants in the United States.      

Conversation about this article

1: Sangat Singh (Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia), November 05, 2012, 12:25 PM.

What a gastronomical riot. Sher, how do you get into these troublesome situations all the time? What a riot of those dishes! This has made me tongue tied. As they say, when I have nothing left to say, I become 'speechless'. Of another such connoisseur in a different department who said, "I am in a harem. I know what to do but do not know where to start." Keep on ... Sher.

2: Gurbux Singh (Chatsworth, California, USA), November 05, 2012, 6:17 PM.

Having lived in the Midwest, Illinois to be specific, I can relate to the feasting. Reminds me of a feast my wife and I had when we were invited to Thanksgiving dinner in Springfield, Illinois in 1974 by a family we knew. We were new there and thought they wanted to impress us. Dressed in their finest and food covering the entire table, including the obligatory turkey and my favorite, ham. Mid-westerners are usually conservative and they fitted the mold perfectly. We were the foreigners and they kept up the small talk and we did the same to be polite and I could sense that they were unsure of how we would feel. The food was passed around and plates were heaped with gastronomical delights and I dug into the ham and trimmings with relish. Turkey to me is insipid food and the hosts noticed that I did not take any. My wife Ranjit sitting next to me kept kicking my foot and said that I should get the turkey, and made sure the hosts heard her. I reached for the platter and took a slice and with aplomb I am still proud of, told the hosts that what would be a Thanksgiving dinner if there was no turkey consumed. They smiled with relief and then I dropped the other shoe by announcing that they could now let their friends know that they shared Thanksgiving dinner with the Indians. We qualified as Indians even though I am from Burma and Ranjit is from Singapore/Malaysia. This broke the ice and everyone burst out laughing. They were pleasantly surprised that we knew a lot about American culture, including the holidays, and would join in the festivities and be at ease. They had been tongue-tied and speechless till then.

3: Aryeh Leib (Israel), November 06, 2012, 3:37 AM.

"Ca-na-da," repeats the woman next to me. "Hm-m-mm," she squints and nods her head. "Isn't that where they speak French?" Sher, keep travelling West until you reach Louisiana (or, "Loo-zu-'annuh", as the locals say it), and tuck into some real Cajun cuisine - worth the trip itself. Their staple, Red beans and rice is a second cousin to Rajma. They will certainly understand the French connection with Canada, as that's where the Cajuns (Acadians) originally hail from. As to turbans ... they'll think you're right in style for Mardi Gras festivities!

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