As we say down south, I’m right put out with Paula Dean. Her family, too, especially Uncle Bubba. Diabetes is a terrible thing, I know, and having several family members with the disease, and having the propensity for the affliction myself, I have compassion for the woman on that account. But, diabetes is no call for the wrongs committed against me, my wife, and several friends this past weekend. In fact, given the notoriety and reputation of Ms. Dean, her sons, and her brother, and in the name of all that is Southern, no satisfactory explanation exists for their transgressions.
Last weekend, I attended the International Conference on Information Literacy in Savannah, Georgia. Sounds high-brow, doesn’t it? Well, get this, I, along with two colleagues, gave a presentation at said high-brow, academic conference. Given my red clay roots, after a day of heady, academic discourse and discovery in such a town, low-brow libations and culinary delights were in order. So, we loaded up the crew and headed out for the evening meal. And libations, can’t forget the libations.
Savannah is known for many things, southern, low-country cuisine being at the top of that list. My favorite dinner spot is the Boars Head Restaurant and Tavern on the Riverfront, but we’d eaten there the first night of the conference. Between all of us, we’d eaten at most of the spots in the historic district and the Riverfront, and, as I mentioned, I needed something more down-to-earth to offset the day’s activities. I’d spotted what I thought was a fish camp on a ride down Hwy 80 to Tybee Island, so I suggested we try that, and all agreed.
Now, most of y’all know, I occasionally lag just a tad behind on current events—a phenomenon complicated by the fact that Terri and I don’t have cable or satellite TV. I learn about Snooki, or Honey Boo Boo, or Diners, Dives, and Drive-ins vicariously and then track them down on-line. So, when I saw a sign on the rustic, moss-draped building perched on the banks of a salt water marsh, that read “Uncle Bubba’s,” I thought I’d found southern culinary nirvana. I had no idea whose uncle Bubba was, and didn’t care. All the “Bubbas” I know are the kind of people you can trust, the kind of people who’ll be straight with you, the kind who’ll humbly wipe the rim of the mason jar as they offer you a sip of their moonshine. What could go wrong?
First, I failed to interpret properly the situation in the parking lot. A majority of vehicles sporting rental tags, New York and Jersey plates. Saw a lady in five-inch velveteen heels, a sequined gown, and more paint on her aging face than Kesey slung on the Pranksters’ bus. Not indicative of a down-home, grease-laden fish camp we Southerners know and love. Maybe the line out the door fooled me. Any decent fish camp’ll have that on a Saturday night, and the forty-five minute wait for the table was no shock. Put us on the list, we told them.
During the wait to be seated, I looked over the menu, which had a page or two explaining exactly who Uncle Bubba was, and the family connections and namesakes of several of the “specialty” dishes, all festooned with the Paula Dean cult propaganda. That produced my first twinge of concern… We had somehow landed at Uncle Bubba’s Oyster House, which I now realized carried some level of fame (depending, of course, on one’s definition of fame). Not to worry, I thought, it’s Paula Dean, there’ll be plenty of the usual fish camp fried choices: flounder, salt and pepper catfish, perch, and hush puppies, lots of deep-fried hush puppies. At the standard fish camp, they bring out a bowl as soon as you’re seated, and keep ‘em coming until the food arrives. Surely, the Cholesterol Queen and her brother understood this basic tenet.
But sadly, no.
We placed our orders and waited. And waited. A couple arrived at the table next to ours, but no hush puppies. Their food looked great. They skipped dessert and instead went outside to listen to the band. The hostess led a group of ten Japanese tourists to a large table across from us. They snapped pictures of the menu, the waiter, the driftwood art on the walls, the food when it came, the huge pile of discarded crab leg carcasses, their desserts, and yes, the band playing on the patio. But no hush puppies. And still we waited. And waited.
Finally, the food arrived, accompanied by a mumbled apology that would’ve been much better received with at least a comped dessert or two, and heaping bowls of hush puppies. But no…
Yes, I could turn this into one of those foodie blogs where I review the restaurant and my dining experience, but I won’t. I will say this, what I had, what we had, was not southern cuisine, it was not low-country cuisine, and it certainly was not fish camp cuisine. I ordered my fish fried, of course, but the menu didn’t specify what kind of fish. I asked the waiter, but didn’t recognize the name as any respectable, southern fried fish. I soon realized the only hush puppies you could find in the place belonged to the guy in the polyester pants and Ban-lon bowling shirt. They were on his feet. And the cole slaw? I’ve had relish in Chicago that tasted more southern than what Uncle Bubba threw in my bowl. I even sampled the shrimp and grits Terri ordered—a low-country staple that even the local service stations can prepare to perfection. I’ve fixed better grits at home… from a package… in the microwave.
It was bad on all accounts. And Terri and I dropped fifty bucks on the meal. With no doggie bag, drinks, or dessert, either. Worse yet, I ate as much of what Uncle Bubba (remember, he’s Paula “Roll-me-in-lard-and-Fry-me-in-butter” Dean’s brother) called southern fried fish fare as possible, and there was not one smudge of grease on my plate, my fingers, my napkin, or my lap. The audacity, the sheer, unmitigated gall they had to call this place and its cuisine southern. Blasphemy…blasphemy, I tell you. Maybe it had something to do with Paula’s recent diabetes diagnosis, but that’s no reason to punish the rest of us. Somebody’s gotta say it: Uncle Bubba’s a poseur.
Listen, if you’re headed to Savannah, especially if you’re driving, and you want real southern cuisine, take the Walterboro exit from I-95, just before you reach Savannah. Turn left, go about a mile. On the left, you’ll find Duke’s Barbecue. The parking lot features pickup trucks and late-model beaters with local plates. You’ll see overalls and shift dresses, not a gown in sight. Inside, it’s the instant service of a buffet, and a good thirty or forty feet long, at that. The sweet tea comes from a fifteen-gallon yellow cooler at the end of the line. It’s ten bucks, as many trips as you want. Plenty of fried options, even fatback. You want southern cuisine, this is your spot, not some fancy-smancy poseur place. This place will harden your arteries they way Rhett and Scarlett intended.
And their hush puppies? Southern fried crack, redneck heroin, Xanax for the soul—one taste and you are hopelessly, shamelessly, wiping-greasy-fingers-on-your-Sunday-pants addicted.