Cover Story: Southern Yarn

Tracing Atlanta’s march to culinary freedom

When I was a kid growing up in Sandy Springs, my father subjected us to a nearly weekly ritual. Every Friday night for years, we were loaded into the car to drive what seemed an interminable distance through then-wooded land to Aunt Fanny’s Cabin in Smyrna.?

Native Atlantans will remember Aunt Fanny’s as the city’s most famous restaurant throughout the ’50s and ’60s. You might call it our first theme restaurant. It was opened in 1941 by Isoline Campbell MacKenna Howell, who in turn sold it to Harvey Hester and Marjorie Bowman in 1948. Hester claimed that the restaurant was on the site of a plantation and that its front rooms were a restored slave cabin where “Aunt Fanny,” after being given her freedom, was allowed by her generous white master to live out the final years of her 100-year-old life. The former slave, beloved by hungry people of all colors, was renowned for her good cooking, the portly and phlegmatic Mr. Hester told guests.?

I well remember the front room of the restaurant. Its walls were covered with black-and-white pictures of big-name celebrities who had eaten there — everyone from Vivien Leigh to Christine Jorgensen, the blond bombshell transsexual of the ’50s. But the most memorable part of a visit to Aunt Fanny’s was the waitstaff. As soon as you sat down, a young black boy under 12 came to your table and poked his head through a blackboard menu. He recited the menu sing-song style: “Aunt Fanny says, howdy, folks, wot’ll it be? Our famous fried chicken ... .”?

Halfway through your meal — the fried chicken and vegetables really were delicious — the black waitresses gathered around the piano in their slavery gowns and sang old-timey gospel music for the white folks. They shook mason jars with coins in them, gathering tips for their church, the story went. These were the later days of the Civil Rights Movement, and a shocking rumor circulated at one point that the ladies demanded better pay and refused to sing “Dixie.” But in every other way, the restaurant, which finally closed in 1992, was an appalling example of the way white Southerners can romanticize the glory days of slavery.?

And of course, the romanticizing of an inhumane institution required lots of lying. As everyone suspected, the whole business about Aunt Fanny turned out to be marketing fiction. There was no Aunt Fanny and no plantation on the site. Even the cabin, which the City of Smyrna bought and moved to become its welcome center on Atlanta Road in 1999, turned out to have been built at the turn of the 20th century, well after the Civil War.?

Aunt Fanny’s story is a good example of the way sociology inflects the restaurant business as much as any other institution of American life. Many restaurants — particularly theme restaurants — allow us to reframe reality into a comfortable fiction, even as they give us the sense of coming into contact with the “otherness” of a marginalized culture. In an ever more multicultural society, this can produce comic effects. Recently, I visited the “historic” Dillard house in northeast Georgia. The restaurant, famous for the huge spread of country cooking it serves each table, represents itself as the apotheosis of Southern hospitality. Which is fine ... even if the almost entirely Mexican staff reframes the post-Confederacy aura. Funny how the notion of Southern hospitality often seems to depend on the footwork of ethnic minorities — servile African-Americans in the past, Mexicans in the present.?

I’ve been writing Grazing 17 years. In that time, it’s become apparent to me that nowhere in the culture is the deleterious effect of our celebrated melting pot more evident than in the effort to assimilate ethnic cuisines into Americanized facsimiles. Seventeen years ago, you could not really find any authentic Mexican food in town — only bad Tex-Mex that marketed south-of-the-border culinary and cultural stereotypes. Here and there you could find authentic Chinese food, but mainly it was chop suey. Even Italian was dished up by finger-kissing cousins of Chef Boyardee.?

I think Atlantans’ interest in ethnic dining was in great part boosted by the more sophisticated assimilation phenomenon of fusion cooking. Particularly memorable in that respect was the appearance in the late ’80s of Tom Catherall’s Azalea and Alena Pyles’ arrival at Nickiemoto’s. Pyles, sister to renowned Southwestern fusion chef Stephan Pyles, combined Asian and Southwestern cooking, while Catherall favored a stronger Pacific Rim approach.?

Both chefs introduced the city’s foodies to new flavors, preserving the integrity of the cuisines from which they borrowed. They, in turn, inspired many of us to begin our trips out to Buford Highway. I well remember Scott Walsey, publisher of Creative Loafing, rhapsodizing about the prawn heads he had rolled around in his mouth at long-gone Honto, where many of us — thousands of us — ate our first dim sum and began our explorations of then esoteric Chinese cooking. Most important, we began rubbing elbows with ethnic minorities as fellow diners.?

Although there was a recent movement to compel Buford Highway businesses to put up English signs, most of us now understand how important it is that immigrant and minority communities be allowed to maintain their integrity — that assimilation does not require the loss of ethnic identity. Recently, I stopped at a market on Buford Highway to buy kimchi. It was staffed by Koreans and Mexicans, and I chatted about the varieties of the fiery pickled stuff with an elderly Chinese man and a woman from Colombia married to a Korean.?

After growing up in a segregated world that romanticized its own inhumanity by convincing itself that slaves were happy folks, sitting at a table in an ethnic restaurant on Buford Highway is absolute joy for me. I am keenly aware that prejudice not only stereotypes the immigrant. It also deprives the oppressor of knowledge, social mobility, kindness, generosity of spirit — all those things we call the taste of freedom. And, honestly, that’s no fiction.