West Jones Street is a boulevard of antique brick houses with curving steps and graceful cast iron bannisters. At 10:30 each morning a line begins to form at #107. Although there is no commercial sign outside, the serious student of Roadfood can tell you what is going on. At 11 o’clock, the doors of 107 open and the lunch crowd finds seats at one of the large tables-for-ten shared by strangers. And so begins the daily feast, boarding-house-style.
Tabletops are crowded with platters of fried chicken and cornbread dressing, sweet potato souffles, black-eyed peas, okra gumbo, corn muffins and biscuits. Mrs. Wilkes stopped taking in boarders in 1965, but her tables demand the vigorous exercise of a boarding house reach. (In fact, it is now possible to stay at “Wilkes Pied-a-Terre,” above the dining room.)
As at any southern feast worth its cracklin’ cornbread, there are constellations of vegetable casseroles: great, gooey, buttery bowls full of squash au gratin and scalloped eggplant, cheese grits, corn pudding, pineapple-flavored yams topped with melted marshmallows, creamed corn enriched with bacon drippings, green rice (mixed with broccoli and celery); brown rice (with mushrooms and soy sauce); and the low-country legend, Savannah red rice.
When Mrs. Wilkes first started serving meals in this dining room in 1943, there were many similar places in cities throughout the region, where boarders as well as frugal local citizens gathered to enjoy the special pleasure of a meal shared with neighbors and strangers. Now, the take-some-and-pass-the-bowl style of the old boarding house is a rarity. Mrs. Wilkes passed away in 2003, but her establishment remains a prized opportunity to indulge in the delicious food – and the cordial foodways – of a culinary tradition that values sociability as much as good macaroni salad.