Exploring Savannah on a Culinary and Cultural Walking Tour

June 19, 2015 by

Foodie Tours, North America, Places to Go, Walking Tours

Gathering for a culinary and cultural walking tour in Savannah

Gathering for a culinary and cultural walking tour in Savannah

When the city of Savannah was first established in 1733, the entire area was free of lawyers, liquor, slaves and Catholics. I pondered this bit of historical trivia while strolling the cobbled streets, sipping on a Chatham Artillery Punch made with seven types of booze. Savannah’s original liquor law, it turns out, only lasted for nine short years. Today, the entire Savannah historical district is completely open-container — meaning anyone with a single, plastic cup can legally carry up to 16 ounces of liquor out on the street.

While the potent punch was originally poured in the confines of Tondee’s Tavern, I find myself swilling the drink en route to Scottish-themed Molly Macpherson’s. The pubs, respectively, are stops two and three on a culinary, cultural walking tour of Savannah’s historic district — which, aside from stopping at seven eateries from bakeries to beehives and bars, also offers tasty morsels of Savannah’s early history.

Take, for example, the fact that the city’s cobbled streets are other parts of the world. Yes, you read that right. The rocks that make up Savannah’s cobblestones are literally rocks and pieces of earth from all different corners of the globe. According to Megan, our guide with a degree in historical preservation from the Savannah College of Art and Design, British ships en route to Savannah would use rocks from all around the empire as ballast weight in ships. Upon reaching Savannah’s protected port, the rocks would be swapped for barrels of cotton grown on Georgia’s plantations, and when thousands of rocks began piling up on the banks of the Savannah River, townsfolk decided to use the rocks to pave the city streets.

Downtown Savannah

Downtown Savannah

It makes a little more sense, then, that the first stop on the culinary tour is called Rocks on the River. Here, beneath a large, spherical chandelier made entirely from coastal driftwood, our small group is presented with bowls of creamy “she crab soup.” The dish, it turns out, is a Lowcountry classic that originally used roe — or female crab eggs — to provide its trademark flavor. That was in the 1700s, however, and today female crab eggs are protected from being used in soup. Instead, a touch of sherry is now added to complete the bisque-like dish, which is a staple appetizer of coastal menus in Savannah and South Carolina.

En route to the aforementioned Tondee’s Tavern from Rocks on the River, our group strolls right past the “Washington Guns” on display on the side of Bay Street. These guns were crafted in England and France, and used against American colonists in the Revolutionary War. George Washington, upon seizing the cannons in the American victory at Yorktown, presented the guns to the city of Savannah in 1791. During the U.S. Civil War, “Washington Guns” were so richly treasured they were actually buried so Union troops wouldn’t find them and make them their own.

American military history aside, it’s at Tondee’s Tavern where culture and cuisine both make a lasting impression. The name Tondee dates as far back as the city of Savannah itself, and it’s said the original Tondee’s Tavern was the first spot where the Declaration of Independence was read aloud in Georgia. Though no longer in the same location as the 18th-century tavern, today’s restaurant is known for its punch, as well as its shrimp and grits.

Molly Macpherson’s, on the other hand, has only been here 10 years, yet despite its relative city youth is the last remaining Scottish joint you’ll find in Savannah’s downtown. When James Oglethorpe founded Savannah as a buffer to Spanish Florida, the second shipload of settlers were those who hailed from the rural Scottish Highlands. While the city’s Scottish history has faded, it can still, at least, be tasted here in Molly Macpherson’s meat pies.

Alligator slider

Alligator slider

With the meat pies digesting on top of shrimp on top of she crab soup, the culinary carnival moves to B&D Burgers for tasty alligator sliders. Alligator here in the coastal south is considered a staple meat — although it’s technically classified as a form of seafood since alligators feed on fish. Regardless of how it’s classified, however, most people tend to agree that alligator tastes like chicken. The tail meat, we’re told, has the best consistency and overall taste and flavor, and is the choice cut of the alligator you hope ends up in your slider.

Delicious cupcakes by Mabel

Famous Mabel cupcakes

For the second half of the culinary tour, the setting switches from restaurants and pubs to tasting rooms and stores. At the famous Mabel’s Cupcake Emporium, take a heaping, frosted bite of a “Famous Mabel” cupcake — only Mabel knows the recipe and definitely isn’t telling.

Down the street, at the aptly named Salt Table, guests are treated to salt tasting in the way you’d taste cheese or wine. Salt flavors range from Pink Himalaya to Smoked Bacon Sea Salt, although it’s a single grain of the Ghost Pepper that impresses me most. With a spicy kick that’s three times stronger than a habanero pepper, a sample the size of a grain of sand is enough to make you quaff some wine from the tasting bar upstairs.

Savannah Bee Company honeycomb

Savannah Bee Company honeycomb

Finally, as your stomach digests the alligator and crab, and history consumes your mind, the tour comes to an end at the popular Savannah Bee Company. The owner, it’s said, originally kept the bees in his shower to hide the buzzing hives, but all the tinkering and work paid off with honeys, lotions and body butter, all sourced from thousands of bees. As I take the small, cardboard spoon and raise it up to my mouth, the syrupy tang of tupelo honey colonizes my lips. It’s a sweet end to an afternoon so full of history and food, and the store itself seems to buzz like a hive in Savannah’s summer heat.

From here, the rest of Savannah’s charms are only a short walk away, and whether it’s strolling past splashing fountains in the park, or admiring the stained glass windows inside the gold-plated Savannah City Hall dome, there’s an inescapably romantic allure to the historic, colonial surroundings.

Or, if a three-hour walking tour is enough history for one day, you could always find the nearest pub and order a beer to go.

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Contributed by Kyle Ellison

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