A couple of weeks ago my partner and I were relaxing on a mini-break to Amelia Island, Florida and decided to drive up to Savannah, Georgia for the day. Savannah is one of those aspirational places that everyone seems to want to visit, including us. I called ahead and planned a couple of activities to maximize our time, including a lunch at what is arguably the city’s most famous restaurant, The Lady and Sons owned by Paula Deen.
I had been on a news blackout for a few days and the story of the racist comments made by Paula Deen was just starting to build up steam. I didn’t have a clear idea of what she had said or done when I walked into her restaurant that hot Saturday afternoon, but since then the story has exploded.
For those who may not know, in a deposition involving a lawsuit by a former employee, Paula Deen admitted to having used a racial slur in the past. The lawsuit accuses Deen and her brother of racial harassment, among other things. After that admission, Paula Deen’s world seems to have exploded. Just about every sponsor fired her and she even lost her longtime book publisher. None of that had transpired though as I waited my turn for the promise of Southern fried goodness in her restaurant.
The Lady and Sons is a machine, there is no better way to put it. Three floors packed with diners aren’t even enough to satiate the demand for a meal at the TV chef’s table. Luckily I made reservations and we were ushered through the maze of tables and waiters without delay. It was busy, but it was organized, almost like an army preparing for battle. With that many people to serve on a constant basis, hyper organization is the only way a restaurant like that can keep up.
We decided to try the lunch buffet, to save time more than for any other reason. I was expecting a lavish display, but instead the buffet was modest, very similar to what I’ve seen in great soul food restaurants throughout the South. And that’s the spirit I think the restaurant is trying to preserve through the rampant commercialism and hoards of people, that at the root of it all is classic Southern cooking.
The food was fine, Southern fried chicken and okra, mashed potatoes and mac ‘n’ cheese were all featured as they should have been. Partway through the meal I realized though that the food was fine, but nothing extraordinary. Part of me was expecting the best versions of my favorite Southern dishes I’ve ever tried, but I realized that’s not why the restaurant exists, at least not anymore. The restaurant is merely an opportunity for Paula Deen’s fans to get closer to their beloved cooking personality and perhaps for out of towners, it’s a low impact way of trying their first soul food lunch.
I’ve thought about that day a lot in the past few weeks as the Paula Deen controversy has rolled out of control. Should she have used a racial slur in her past? No, obviously not. Did she deserve to have her entire livelihood stripped from her as a result? I’m still pondering that and I wonder what you think. I also wonder what the next step for The Lady and Sons will be. With no TV show to promote or books to sell, it’s no longer an extension of the cult of Paula. Instead I imagine, they will have to return to basics and start creating meals that taste good and are innovative, and not just the sanitized versions of Southern food that Northerners expect to see.
What do you think, would you still eat at The Lady & Sons if you had the chance?