Midday in the Garden of Good & Evil
The Deep South. Sumptuous and decadent. Cities like Charleston and Savannah are so lovely to look at they look like candied pecans set in a cream box with a lavender bow. And the food... Maybe you’ve heard the expression from your crazy Peloton instructor that “food is fuel, not therapy.” They’ve never heard that here. Food is a celebration in the South and it should be dripping with grease or gravy and served in very large portions along with a cocktail.
We toured both Charleston and Savannah and attempted to draw comparisons, though really none are needed. Both cities are charming beyond belief and feature architectural jewels that make me think of my favorite cities in Europe. Charleston may have the edge in terms of pomposity. When you tour the neighborhoods known as South of Broad (populated by “SOBs” according to those just to the North) you are in more of a museum than a set of streets and homes. It’s extraordinary. The cars on the street are all Porsches, Range Rovers and BMWs. I assume they keep the Bentley’s and McLarens in the garages for safety.
Savannah, while nearly as beautiful, especially with their famed 22 squares, is clearly a bit more proletarian in comparison. In Savannah we heard this adage: “In Atlanta, they ask you what you do. In Macon, they ask you what church you belong to. In Charleston, they ask you your mother’s maiden name. And in Savannah, they ask you what you’re drinking.”
It should come as no surprise which one I felt most at home in. In fact, after a day of exploring the city, including with some “walktails” (there is no open container law in Savannah, and why would there be?) we found ourselves in a classic dive called Pinkie Masters where my bartender Luke was refilling my Manhattans from a pitcher as the afternoon distilled into evening. At last, a civilized country.
Speaking of bourbon, we camped south of Savannah out on Skidaway Island. During prohibition, Skidaway was a favorite spot for bootleggers and their illegal stills. You can still see the remnants of one such operation, including whisky barrels with axe blade holes in them from a police raid. They kept operating illegal stills on the island until the early 1960s when they put a bridge out to the island.
The deep south is as soaked with civil war history as it is with bourbon. Everything here was shaped by slavery and the war. It was in Charleston’s harbor that the lightly defended Fort Sumter went from being an American fort to a Union fort to a Confederate fort in the space of a few hours and the war was on. During my runs on Skidaway island, I passed the earthen works (mounded bunkers) constructed to protect Savannah’s harbor from Union attack by Robert E. Lee, before he went on to lead the Army of Northern Virginia. The fact that Savannah’s architectural treasures are still standing is a small miracle given that it was the end point of Sherman’s “hard war” March to the Sea in 1864. Atlanta’s marvels were reduced to charred rubble along with much else in an 80-mile-wide and 300-mile-long swath as he looked to crush the South’s ability and will to fight on. Why was Savannah spared? Speculation runs from the coldly strategic (his army had to winter there and it seemed silly to burn their own homes down) to the hotly libidinous (Sherman’s mistress was a local beauty). Whatever the reason, the wealthy cotton merchant mansions forged on the anvil of the slave economy were preserved. An hour or so north, Beaufort SC, another absolute gem of antebellum scenery, was spared for a different reason. It was the only place on the coastline the Union managed to retake and hold during the war after a daring amphibious raid. Virtually every mansion and church was turned into a Union hospital to treat the wounded in what the world would later come to understand was the first modern war. The toll on soldiers’ bodies caused by advanced weaponry like the Gatling Gun when paired with archaic battle tactics, better suited to swords or misfiring muskets, “form a line and march forward lads” was beyond devastating. This was something European Generals had still failed to grasp some 50 years later when World War I began, which wiped out an entire generation of young men on that continent as it had here.
Hollywood loves the Deep South and these cities. Many notable movies have filmed here including The Big Chill, The Great Santini, The Prince of Tides, Glory, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, Cold Mountain and one of our all-time favorites Forrest Gump. If you haven’t yet, I recommend you see Beaufort, Charleston, and Savannah. Learn the history. Take the tours. Eat the food.
And that’s all I have to say about that.