Posted by: adventuressetravels | July 11, 2010

The Quest for Gumbo

Travel is one of my great passions.  Right up there is food, sharing, preparing, innovating; a culture speaks through its food. 

Every culture has their own cuisine and own takes on recipes.  Ice cream, for instance, has many faces.  The harder “ice cream” of the United States is nothing like its creamier, delectable cousin helado in Argentina, and neither compares to the intense flavorful gelato of Italy.  Pizzas, soups, pastas, chocolates; the list goes on and on.  But bottom line; food is the thread of cultural fabric. I believe sampling local food is one of the most interesting parts of a trip.

This can be slightly more challenging for me as I am a pescatarian, in other words I don’t eat any meats aside from seafood.  This has rarely been too terribly problematic for me. Even the most meat-reliant culture generally has its share of vegetarian, or at least pescatarian dishes.  From pasts in Argentina to halusky and fried cheese in Slovakia, there’s always something.  It may not be the healthiest or most diverse fare, but if all else fails there are always one or two little vegetarian bistros. 

The South however, proved an exception to the rule, or at least Savanna’s vegetarian underground and vegetarian alternatives to Southern cooking were well hidden. 

I was in the south – I had to try southern cuisine.  From the moment I met M I was asking about Southern cooking.  I wanted to try it all while I was there; gumbo, crayfish, Cajun spices…

Well you could probably find all of that in Savannah, but all those foods were more from Louisiana, I was informed.

So what was native to Georgia?  Peaches?  M couldn’t answer, shrimp and grits was his

Blackened Shrimp and Grits

 best guess.  I was somewhat horrified.  I had eaten grits and pairing the two had never crossed my mind.  No, I was set on gumbo, shrimp gumbo.  After all, I wasn’t making it down to Louisiana this trip so I had to get the whole southern experience right here in Savannah.

We left the hotel at 1, and headed into downtown Savannah.  M had gotten a job in a hotel outside of Savannah the week before I had gotten there.  Unfortunately the little bed and breakfast he was working at was having problems and he needed to get a “real” job.  We could still stay there a night or two but other that the hotel was our base.   M had apologized for the situation change, and hoped that he could still host me.  I shrugged, it wasn’t an ideal situation but he’d gone out of his way to pick me up in Brunswick.  I could roll with the punches.  Still, I was really looking forward to seeing Downtown Savannah.

 “Let’s just go to a greasy spoon hole-in-the-wall restaurant nobody knows about but locals.”  In my experience those were always the best places to find local cuisine.

I was out of luck if I wanted cheap local cuisine in downtown Savannah, according to M.  High rents and boutiques had pushed cheap little hole-in-the-walls out years ago.  Unlicensed street vendors were gone too… downtown was a place for tourists, not locals.  We could see if we could find anything though.

We walked and walked, from one end of downtown to the other, one place by the river had gumbo… with sausage.  The next place boasted shrimp gumbo, again with sausage.  I was getting hungrier by the moment.  As picturesque as the city was, I was too famished to enjoy it.  By 4 I was famished.  By 5 my arm was looking tasty.

Putting one foot in front of the other almost swimming through the muggy 100 plus weather I asked if we could just drive somewhere.  Anywhere.  M agreed, the car was just “a little ways up here.” 

As it turns out in the South “right up here,” or “a little ways up” means somewhere in the next mile or so.  The straps of my leather sandals wearing holes in my feet, I limped the last few blocks back to the car. 

M knew where we were going though.  Tybee Island, a little barrier island near Savannah.  Surely they would have shrimp gumbo there! 

To our surprise and dismay one restaurant after another disappointed; one restaurant didn’t serve gumbo, another served shrimp gumbo with sausage, a third with sausage and chicken; it just went on.  Evidently shrimp gumbo simply didn’t exist in Savannah, Georgia.  We went down winding road after tiny street and at last pulled up to one last place, AJ’s.   If they didn’t have gumbo I still needed to eat something

Key Lime Pie

before my stomach imploded.

We sat down at the last two seats open at the bar.  The place was packed with Savannah locals; this was exactly the kind of place I was talking about.  I opened the menu.  No surprise; their gumbo had sausage, shrimp, and chicken.  Crestfallen I perused the rest of the menu.  Blackened shrimp and grits caught my eye.  Okay, might as well at least try something traditional. 

To my surprise and delight the dish they brought me rivaled some of the best dishes I have had the pleasure of being served.  Rather than the runny cream-of-wheat grits I had tried in Tennessee, these grits were of a firm, polenta-like consistency. 

And the sauce, that marvelous marriage between butter, cream, with just enough Creole spice to make the tongue tingle.  The sauce was perfection.  I coated the shrimp in it, wiped the plate with my little bites of polenta-grits, and was truly a hare’s breath away from actually licking the plate.

As famished as I had been delicious though the appetizer may have been I was still hungry.  I glanced over the dessert menu and opted for key lime pie.  Might as well round out the southern meal with a traditional dessert.

The smooth custard-like pie had a unique tang to it.  Unfortunately, though the waitress swore up and down that it was made from scratch, it had a store-bought quality I couldn’t quite ignore.  With canned whipped cream, a graham crust and an unexceptional filling, I longed for another bite of the delectable shrimp and grits.

Though I was still somewhat discouraged that we hadn’t been able to find gumbo, M’s friend laughed when we relayed our story. 

“You spent the whole day lookin for gumbo?  Aw, gumbo’s jus cheap soup!” She waved her hand dismissively.  Like a puff of smoke, my obsession with finding the ellusive shrimp gumbo vanished. 

Unfortunately, this was not the last time I encountered problems locating pescatarian cuisine in Savannah…


  1. As a fellow pescatarian I love this entry! I always want to try local foods when I travel but meat ends up in many cuisines. The shrimp and grits sound yum! Keep on traveling and writing!

  2. Did you try fried green tomatoes in GA? They’re very good.

    • I didn’t get a chance to, didn’t even hear about them! Wish I had, I was looking everywhere for local food.

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