In December 2014, chef Mashama Bailey debuted the hit Savannah, Georgia restaurant The Grey. Set in a 1938 Greyhound bus station (which once had a separate waiting and rest room for African Americans) and elegantly renovated in art deco style with metal, wood and tile by New York native John O. Morisano, it was named the most beautiful restaurant of 2015.
The Grey soon made it onto Bill Addison’s 21 Best New Restaurants list, was named one of Food & Wine’s top five new restaurants, and both the restaurant and Bailey were semifinalists for a James Beard award. Though Bailey grew up mostly in New York — where she was sous chef at Gabrielle Hamilton’s Prune — she has roots in Savannah, where her mother was born, and where she spent time from age 5 to 11.
At The Grey, 41-year-old Bailey continually reinvents classic southern dishes, deliciously upsetting gastronomic preconceptions about the South and African-American cooking in particular. Her cuisine has been described as both audacious and accessible. Bailey spoke with Paste Food about her take on these classic Southern dishes.
A variation on chicken and dumplings, using briny, tender clams from pristine waters off nearby Sapelo Island. Says Bailey: “I wanted to do a clam dish, but I didn’t want to do the traditional clams and linguine. I’m not Italian. I wanted something brothy that made you feel like you were eating clams and bread, and I was trying to tap into my own Southern childhood as well. I use a drop dumpling. The batter is made of flour, baking powder, butter, salt, water, sometimes milk or buttermilk, dropped into the boiling liquid.
“I purge the clams by soaking them in a bit of salt and water, agitating them to filter it through. We cook to order, about 10 clams at a time, covered halfway up with water and white wine. We drop the dumpling biscuits into the clam broth. I add a homemade salsa verde, of chopped parsley and arugula ground in a mortar and pestle, with a bit of olive oil, garlic and chili flakes. Then we put the clams in, put dry white wine in, and let it all steam up. That gets the dumplings seasoned with the clam juice and the wine. I cook them on each side for about two minutes, five dumplings per 10 clams.”
“I went to the Southern Foodways Alliance in October and was invited to do the Friday lunch—like the pre-credits rolling into the main event. It was a boxed lunch and for dessert I made watermelon rind brittle over custard. We candied the watermelon rind using a local Georgia watermelon that is to die for—and has a nice, soft rind. We took the rinds, added sugar and brought the sugar up to a boil. At a certain point the sugar turns from a liquid into a hard candy. It was delicious.”
Middlins, or broken rice, are a tradition of low-country cooking. In colonial Carolina and Georgia, African slave women were tasked to hand pound rice and screen it for ‘brokens’ (called middlins). The fine white rice was reserved for the tables of the elite, while the slaves developed low country dishes centered around the middlins, which were tender and easily absorbed flavor. Rice middlins, or rice ‘grits’ are now staging a comeback. “I do a mushroom, butternut squash and sunchoke dish with middlins,” says Bailey. It’s true comfort food.
Right above nearby Darien, Georgia, which is famous for its shrimp, wild oysters grow in abundance alongside the salt marshes. They grow in riotous clusters that form enormous mounds. “I never knew Georgia had such delicious, salty, wild, clean-tasting oysters,” says Bailey. “I found a recipe in an old Savannah cookbook from 1937 for pickled oysters. I only pickle oysters that are in season here — from October to May. I pickle them and add a fatback lard, Serrano pepper, and serve them on saltine crackers.”
A reference to Savannah’s 77-acre city Daffin Park, and the nearby neighborhood of her childhood, where locals would freeze sugar and juice in paper cups and serve like popsicles in the summer as treats for the kids. Here, the juice is taken from local muscadine grapes, and the frozen pop is served in a paper Dixie cup with a small wooden spoon, as a cleanser to the palate after a meal. Pure fun. Experiment with your own local fruits and berries.