Chef and Valdosta native Keira Moritz left southern Georgia and worked in corporate America for a number of years but always had the dream of having her own restaurant and having it back home—a dream she accomplished in 2012 when she opened Steel Magnolias on Patterson Street. Many people have such dreams, yet few—especially in the case of restaurants—make them come true, and even then, many find the adventure to be not only a struggle but a losing battle.
The restaurant business is a difficult and competitive one, something of which a savvy businesswoman like Moritz was well aware, but the need for unique, locally-owned restaurants of quality is great, especially in small to moderate-sized cities in the South. In a 2014 article on Moritz in Valdosta CEO, reporter Shawndra Russell notes that Moritz desired to be back in Valdosta and close to her family but also that she saw the chance to work with local farmers to source fresh, seasonal produce and meats for the restaurant. This combination of local roots—both on the part of Moritz and the extended supply chain for Steel Magnolias—is probably a good part of the reason the restaurant has been a success.
And what a success it has become. Aside from staying in business and remaining popular with the local population—both tough enough challenges for a restaurant—Steel Magnolias has done far more. For one, its physical space is an older commercial building, lovingly renovated to showcase period architecture and the charm unique to early twentieth-century buildings in American downtowns. While many restaurants might have been content with a single floor of such a building, Steel Magnolias utilizes the whole hog, so to speak, with a rooftop bar plus a bar on the second floor landing and ample dining space on the first and second floors, as well as an open kitchen when you first walk in on the first level.
All this makes the impression of a building coming to life and showcasing what is great about its space and heritage instead of a new restaurant simply inhabiting an old space. For far too long, Valdosta like most cities with Interstate highway access, has seen new restaurants spring up near the mall and the Interstate interchanges. To the south, in Lake City, Florida, this situation all but killed off downtown dining until recently when a few old hangers-on and a brave new restaurant brought some life back to downtown.
Valdosta, larger in size, never was at quite this level of decay downtown, but Steel Magnolias, Grass Roots Coffee, Bleu Café, and other innovative eateries downtown have gone into historic buildings and shops, hair salons, and other businesses have done the same. This is essential because as much as we all love malls and what they offer, for our cities to have their own identities they require a strong business presence in their historic downtowns.
Then there is the food, which is where the real magic begins, not to mention the primary importance of what Steel Magnolias is really doing. New Southern cuisine originated from the work of chefs and food writers such as Nathalie Dupree in the 1980’s, tracing the heritage of Southern cooking back to its many and varied influences and from those roots crafting a novel yet authentic, fresh yet tradition-based culinary approach. The work of pioneers like Dupree is essential and cannot be overstressed in its importance, but not everyone reads cookbooks or attempts to cook at home much, and for any cuisine to make a powerful impression it is necessary to have restaurants purveying that cuisine to the public as well.
In the 1980’s and 1990’s, restaurants in the New Southern convention sprung up in major cities such as Atlanta, Charlotte, Nashville, and then in tourist destinations on the rise like Savannah and Charleston. It can be argued that Charleston indeed now is as a food city on par with New Orleans or San Francisco in what it offers in the finest of regional cuisine, and its continued contributions to New Southern as well as traditional Low Country cuisines have been quite impressive. Yet for a cuisine to be truly represented and to touch on both the authenticity and variety a large region offers, it must have reliable outposts all across that region.
This is why restaurants in smaller cities such as Steel Magnolias in Valdosta and Liam’s in Thomasville, Georgia, are so important. One shouldn’t have to drive to Atlanta for good, innovative food driven by the very culture around where one lives. To me, that is the real sea-change we see with restaurants like Steel Magnolias: a settling down in a smaller place, drawing from that location’s own depth of traditions. The influences at Steel Magnolias start with the local produce and meats the restaurant strives to obtain.
Valdosta has a longstanding and proud agricultural history, and the whole of southern Georgia is still a very essential and viable farming region. Towns like Pelham, Cairo, Moultrie, and Quitman are surrounded by lush farming fields and pastures. Some dishes such as the fried chicken or the shrimp and grits come directly from traditions deeply entrenched in Georgia foodways, while others such as the lamb meatballs or the duck breast with duck sausage have turned tradition around and said in essence: “Look, what can we best make out of what local farms are producing?”
Such is a typical and necessary brand of innovation with New Southern cooking: the staple animals and forces of food production found in the Old South differ from those of the New, yet it is possible and even often very desired to find ways of taking the same concepts in food of yesteryear and applying them to healthier or more local, more reasonable, produce. When we think of the cooking of the Old South, the true origins, a century old or older, stem from a time when it was not possible to cool food easily or retain it without preserving it in some fashion.
So food was smoked, meat was made into sausage, hams, bacon or otherwise prepared so it could keep through the winter; vegetables and fruits were put up as preserves. Root vegetables such as potatoes, turnips, and parsnips were highly-prized for their hardiness and the fact they could be kept over. The high heat of the summer months provided additional challenges in places as far southward as Valdosta, challenges found even in today’s food but we also have the means to go beyond the limitations of yesteryear. Often it’s a balance between going back to those roots but knowing when to modernize or when to go with something of a pragmatic combination of approaches.
Much of what we think of as “Southern” cooking, especially when someone thinks of a typical country-style buffet or the like, is the work of shortcuts and changes in thinking about food that happened after the Second World War, in the 1950’s. A small homestead in Georgia would not have had enough beef cattle to spare, if any at all, to have beef steaks very often; they would have been far more likely to see pork and chicken on their table and those meats even might be for a special event such as Sunday dinner after church. The chicken fried steaks and other variants of beef we associate with the South came about once beef became less expensive, and that wasn’t until the post-war years. Thus when something like lamb meatballs appears on a restaurant menu, it’s more of a salute to the creative dynamics of using smaller animals and being creative with what a homestead or local farms can offer than simply innovation for innovation’s own sake. It’s certainly an extension of traditions and not new directions alone.
This again goes back to where Nathalie Dupree and innovative chefs like New Orleans’ Susan Spicer sought to find a renaissance in Southern cuisine. It wasn’t just being able to cook like grandma did, but like her great-grandmother would have, and then to take those concepts and notions and apply them to everything modern cooking can offer in terms of foodstuffs and technology. It was also a matter of matching foods with memories and with events: finding food that would be perfect for a football game was as essential as figuring out a menu for having the preacher over after church on a Sunday.
Attention to detail is also a hallmark of Steel Magnolias and it comes across just as much in something like their grilled romaine salad as it does in a main dish such as their braised beef short ribs or pan-seared sea scallops. Nothing is over-done in terms of lavishing attention on food for the simple sake of trying to make it more impressive, yet no detail is overlooked, either. And that trait more than any other may be the real unending thread weaving through all Southern cuisine: a dedication to getting it right, a surety of tradition yet ample courage in experimentation.
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