Ocilla, the Slaw of the South

Crystal Slaw

More adventures were in store on my super steamy food travels through Savannah, Georgia this July.    This time they centered on a regional cole slaw.    Now I am a bit of a cole slaw snob.   I like the creamy version, but only if it has a spicy kick and only if it includes caraway seed.     It should also have a sweet-spicy balance and not be overpowered either way. My paternal grandmother used to make a creamy version from scratch in front of me to go with a lunchmeat sandwich after mowing her lawn in the summer. She’d grate the slaw, onion and a carrot, and always put a few teaspoons of sugar and caraway in with the mayo.   It was always fresh and amazing.

I do also like the vinegar slaw versions, but they also have to have a balance between tangy, sweet and spicy. Crunch is also more important in the vinegary version.   My sister-in-law makes a version that has crunchy ramen noodles in it that’s fantastic for summer picnics.

In Cincinnati we have our German bacon slaw version, which packs a huge sweet-and-sour shebang to the taste buds, and it includes bacon bits.     Maybe it’s this hot German slaw that has spoiled me to expect a full flavored cole slaw, whatever the variety.

The south has its cole slaws too, but coastal Georgia was too hot for the traditional mayonnaise based versions, so they tended toward the tangy vinegary versions.     The humid Low Country heat would spoil any mayonnaise based cole slaw in minutes at a cookout.

On my trolley tour of Savannah, I got off at the Market to explore and ask locals about some of the native dishes.   When I met an artist from Cincinnati at his gallery, and got to talking about food, we discussed Cincinnati chili and he told me about some of the local dishes.   He suggested for an authentic southern meal that I try the Crystal Beer Parlor or Sisters of the New South.   He said Lady & Sons, and Elizabeth’s, the ones all the tourist books gushed about were overpriced and not authentic.

He mentioned a local vinegar based slaw called Ocilla slaw, that I could find in town to get a taste of a true country Georgian food.   Ocilla is a small town about 100 miles to the southwest of Savannah.   They’re known for their annual Sweet Potato Festival, which has been going on since 1961, sponsored by none other than the Georgia Sweet Potato Improvement Association.  There’s a Jefferson Davis memorial in the center of town and the town website touts it offers “the charm of the old south.”

Apparently the local Baptist church published a southern cookbook with the recipe many years ago.   Steve, the artist from Cincinnati’s mother-in-law wrote the recipe for Ocilla slaw in that book that people have used all over.

So when I saw Ocilla slaw on the menu at Crystal Beer Parlor, I had to have it with my fried flounder and she-crab soup.   It’s a mix of crunchy white cabbage, green and sweet red and yellow peppers, apple cider vinegar, celery seed, sweet onion and dried mustard.   Their version was crunchy, but not sweet and tangy as promised. We ate late after an hour wait and I somehow think I got the last scrapings of the slaw made that day.   I would have used more vinegar, and added some sugar or even my favorite caraway to give it some oomph.    So I am determined I can make a better version which I plan to do the next time I make fish.

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