October 17, 2018

Little Details: Southern diversion

By Katherine Bielawa Stamper

High Tea it was for my 50th birthday. We reserved a table at The Gryphon where a Savannah College of Art (SCAD) student sated us with pots of Earl Grey and English Breakfast. We sampled tasty tea sandwiches with cukes and creamed cheese. We treated ourselves to the prettiest little petit fours—eye candy first, food second.

I’d had a week to ponder the setting for my birthday meal. Savannah, renowned for its Southern cooking, offered many choices. My vegetarian palate narrowed the field considerably. I’d forgo crab cakes, fried corn dogs and the Queen of Southern Cuisine—Paula Deen—whose Lady and Sons restaurant resided nearby.

The Gryphon Tea Room drew me in with its architecture. The imposing, triangular structure’s exterior boasts Roman columns, arched windows and ornate trim in blue and gold filigree.

The café, run by SCAD, occupies the first floor of a former pharmacy. High ceilings embellished with stained-glass depictions of mortars and pestles encircled the dining room. An enormous chandelier, suspended from the ceiling, radiated warm light through amber glass. A corner booth, cheerful service and beautifully displayed edibles made for a memorable meal.

We learned that the pharmacy was once owned by the Solomons family, members of Savannah’s longstanding Jewish community, which reaches back to the 18th century. We came upon the family’s burial plot at Laurel Grove Cemetery just days before. So moved was I by an inscription on one of the graves, I noted it on a piece of paper: “Our brother Washington Emmanuel (Solomons) died August 29th 1864 in the 20th year of his age from wounds received in battle in front of Atlanta…” I imagined this young man, a Jew whose ancestors came to the American South seeking freedom, who died a son of the Confederacy. I learned on this trip not to judge harshly Confederate soldiers, many of whom felt their cause was just.

Months earlier, my husband and daughter asked me to compile a list of possible places to spend my dead-of-winter, 50th birthday. I’ve explored Tokyo on foot, studied in Krakow, wandered beaches in Rio and lived in Wellington. I realized—as my first half-century loomed—there are places in America I should visit and experience. As a child of immigrants, my travel compass so often directs me to the Old World. It was time to explore my country—the New World—more deeply.

This is the list I came up with: Birmingham, Alabama; Portland, Oregon; Santa Fe, New Mexico; Seattle, Washington; St. Augustine, Florida; New Orleans, Louisiana; and Savannah, Georgia. I threw Chicago on the list since a visit years ago was far too brief. History, natural beauty, vibrant culture and walkability were qualifying factors for places making my wish list.

I presented the list to my family and left them with their task: plan a week-long trip and let me know how to pack prior to departure. Cities were researched. Airfares were compared. Websites were scoured for just the right rental. Savannah won.

We rented a sweet apartment in an 18th century brick building in Old Savannah, within walking distance of the museums, restaurants, parks and shopping. We loaded up on groceries at Kroger’s for relaxed breakfasts and dinners in the apartment. We ate lunch out where serving sizes were smaller and costs were lower.

Savannah, a planned city, is a grid with highly walkable streets and gorgeous pocket parks that appear every few blocks. White oak, cypress, magnolia, dogwood and green-leaved oak trees festooned with Spanish moss provided a festive canopy in late December. Holly bloomed, dotted with winter red berries.

We toured art museums and historic homes, marveling at the diverse architectural styles. From Colonial, to Federal, to Georgian, to Gothic, to Greek Revival, to Italianate to Second Empire and oodles in between, it’s all there. SCAD’s historic preservation program is credited with saving many a crumbling edifice from the wrecking ball.

Savannah played significant roles in the American Revolution, the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement with historic sites galore. It’s also considered a highly haunted town with kid-friendly and adult-oriented ghost tours offered in the evenings.

The coffeehouse scene was vibrant, with ample cafés to catch a caffeinated cup while lingering with the newspaper. Our favorite spot, The Sentient Bean, hosted locals and tourists alike. It was a great place to eavesdrop on Southern etiquette as regulars chatted—sometimes loudly and casually—across tables.

My daughter quickly associated commencing a new decade with a trip. She promptly asked: “When I turn 20, can we do a trip?”

The apple doesn’t fall far.

Whatever your age, may you take time to ponder what it is YOU wish to see and experience. May you then find a way to do it, even if it requires some sacrifice. What we see, live and experience cannot be taken away. That’s worth a ponder on a cold Vermont day.

Katherine Bielawa Stamper, a Williston resident, is a former finalist for the Coolidge Prize for Journalism for writings on civility. Reader comments are welcome at Editor@willistonobserver.com or LittleDetailsCol@yahoo.com

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