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More people are cooking Southern fare with a much lighter feel
Bille and Louis Van Dyke

Adding modern twists to Southern staples has been the theme in recent years at popular Southern eateries.

At many restaurants, there is the modernization of shrimp and grits, tangy new sauces for fried green tomatoes and fancy remoulades for fried oysters along with nuevo vegetable side dishes.

But Louis Van Dyke, owner of the Blue Willow Inn, which was made famous by Georgia author Lewis Grizzard, said the old standards are what seem to remain the same in Social Circle.

"For the Blue Willow, it’s basically what we’ve been doing for years," he said. "Traditional, the way grandmamas used to cook. We have stayed with the traditional, but we have added dishes to give us something a little lighter, not a whole lot.
"Baked fish will frequently be an item, a lot of times on a bed of rice pilaf. And then we do a chicken dish that we actually call Chicken Dominique, our chef and general manager. It’s a boneless chicken breast that is baked with sliced tomatoes and some special seasoning, which is quite good and it’s light."

Van Dyke says his customers come to the Inn for one reason.

"People come here for the fried chicken and the creamed potatoes, macaroni, the collard greens and the peach cobbler, all those sort of things that people don’t cook anymore because it’s so time consuming to prepare the old-time Southern dishes."

Southern cuisine isn’t the typical fare at Glen Ella Springs Inn & Meeting Place in Clarkesville but the special events menus are a different story. Southern-inspired menus for wedding and other events are very popular, owner Lucy Kivett said.

"It might be a sign of the economy that people want comfort foods," said Kivett, whose establishment was recently awarded the Fodors Choice Award for Georgia and the Carolinas. "We do homemade macaroni and cheese, we do a homemade barbecue, any kind of trimmings like collard greens, baked beans."

Comfort food is what Van Dyke said keeps his customers coming back to the Blue Willow Inn for special occasions. Especially for one of the most popular dishes — Fried Green Tomatoes with Tomato Chutney.

"Most times people request the fried green tomato recipe," he said. "If you have a Fry Daddy, that works really well because it manages to maintain its temperature."

The Fried Green Tomato is a basic batter recipe but the tomatoes take a couple dips in the egg then flour mixtures for crispness.

Tomato Chutney is served on the side for the fried green tomatoes for an extra tomato kick. It’s a blend of diced tomatoes, white and brown sugar, onions, hot sauce and ketchup, among other ingredients, for a bit of a sweet and spicy condiment for the green tomatoes.

From time to time Van Dyke does add new dishes to the standard menu at the Blue Willow.

"Baked sweet onions, Vidalia when we can get them," he said. "We’ve started doing baked tomatoes which are good, baked apples during the apple season, so we try to find those things that are traditional but a little lighter."

Lana Stuart, the author of food blog Never Enough Thyme, said right now taking a lighter look at comfort food is popular.

"I’m seeing a real resurgence in classic comfort food," said the Buford resident. "Although, I do see a trend toward lightening those recipes. For instance, using less animal fats and more healthy oils and leaner cuts of meat instead of the fatter ones."

Stuart agrees with Kivett that the love for comfort food is a sign of the times.

"Not only does it make people ‘feel good’ it’s typically less expensive to prepare," she said. "Also, Southern cuisine is a really hot trend all over the country. That, I believe, is thanks to wider exposure from Southern chefs such as Scott Peacock, food personalities like Paula Deen and the proliferation of food bloggers. They’re all bringing nationwide awareness to traditional and updated Southern food."