Unfolding the Map
William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) drives into Georgia and chows down at a place called the Swamp Guinea Fish Lodge. We munch on the fried food with him, and wash it down with some sweet tea. At least I hope that reading this blog makes you feel as satisfied as eating fried food and drinking sweet tea. To see where we are ingesting this fine fare, click on the map thumbnail to the right. Leave a comment about any favorite back woods eateries you've managed to find.
"I was watching everyone else and didn't see the waitress standing quietly by. Her voice was deep and soft like water moving in a cavern. I ordered the $4.50 special. In a few minutes she wheeled up a cart and began off-loading dinner: ham and eggs, fried catfish, fried perch fingerlings, fried shrimp, chunks of barbecued beef, fried chicken, French fries, hush puppies, a broad bowl of cole slaw, another of lemon, a quart of ice tea, a quart of ice, and an entire loaf of factory-wrapped white bread. The table was covered."
Blue Highways: Part 2, Chapter 16
Swamp Guinea Fish Lodge Site?, Georgia
I've put a question mark in the title of this post, and on the heading here, because I'm just taking a stab in the dark as to where the Swamp Guinea Fish Lodge was located. In the advertisement above, which was circa 1967 or so, the directions are completely wrong. The text says that it was located 10 miles west of Athens, Georgia but a little research shows that it was actually located east of Athens, near a little town called Colbert. With a search around that area on Google Maps, I found Swamp Guinea Road. Given the name, and the location, I am making an assumption that the Swamp Guinea Fish Lodge, which does not exist any more, was located there. If I'm wrong, and someone knows for sure, please let me know.
I love LHM's description of his meal at the Swamp Guinea. Just massive amounts of fried food loaded up on the plate. The real Southern custom of adding a loaf of white bread to the meal, the sweet tea. The closest I've come to a meal like that is in New Mexico, where I live, when I went to a Texas style eatery called Rudy's for a barbecue meal. I also like his description of the waitress and her voice. I tend to have a soft spot for waitresses, and listening to one reel of the day's specials with a soft Southern voice would be like listening to music in a dream.
I'm no stranger to eating a lot. Way back in the day, when I lived in Milwaukee, I made a trip to Illinois on a business trip and was taken to a supper club. When I ordered the "Pork o'Plenty" plate, the waitress tried to talk me out of it. She looked at my size, which was tall and skinny and about 150 pounds when wet back then, and didn't think I was up to the task. When I ordered soup and salad with it, she thought I was out of my mind. She predicted failure. I not only ate the soup and salad, but the Pork o'Plenty plate AND a dessert. As we left, I heard her exclaim to another waitress "we have big beefy farmboys come in here but I've never seen anyone eat like that guy."
In Texas in the 90s, when my friend Tom came to visit me and I still weighed the same, we went to the County Line Barbecue near Austin and ordered the all-you-can-eat meat deal. Our goal was to eat enough to make them lose money. We ate at least three portions apiece. In New Orleans, great meals were made of all-you-can-eat crawfish, boiled in crab or crawfish boil with potatoes and corncobs and dumped out on a table covered with butcher paper. You could find that in restaurants, but the best were in the backyard parties. We would "pinch dem tails and suck dem heads" all night, wash it down with Abita Amber and go home stuffed.
A good fried Southern meal, so bad for you health-wise, is still just wonderful for the soul. Cracker Barrel has tried to mainstream these types of meals with down home folksy Southern style, but you're really going to find the true atmosphere and food at places like LHM's Swamp Guinea - back country eateries that put less emphasis on the ambience and more emphasis on the food, and by doing so, create the ambience anyway.
What does the name Swamp Guinea mean? Is it some Southern legend, like a swamp hoodoo or some other spectral spirit? Actually, it was made up by the owner who told LHM that he needed a good name for future franchising. Unfortunately, we cannot visit the Swamp Guinea Fish Lodge because it has gone out of business. There is a restaurant in the nearby town of Hartwell called the Swamp Guinea Restaurant, but I can't tell if it is owned by the same person or is any way related to the defunct original. It's a nice story, though - a mysterious name for a good local eatery out somewhere in the swamp. I bet there's more such hidden oases of good food out there.
By the way, in my previous post I lamented my lack of knowledge of American colonial and Revolutionary War history. The location of the present Swamp Guinea Restaurant, Hartwell, has an interesting such history of its own. The town is named after Nancy Hart, a Revolutionary War heroine who singlehandedly captured five Tories and killed a sixth after they entered her home demanding that she cook them a meal. She started cooking an old turkey, but secretly told her daughter to head to a distant spring and blow a conch shell for help. She then started secretly taking the Tories' rifles and slipping them through a crack in the wall to hide them. She was detected as she was slipping the third through, so she pulled it back and shot one of the Tories. By then, several neighbors arrived to help, and wanted to shoot the remaining Tories, but she was merciful...she had them hanged. It is rumored that she served as a spy for the American forces, often disguised as a man, and the local Native Americans respected her so much they called her "War Woman." The county in which Hartwell is located, Hart County, is the only county in the state named for a woman. Just another interesting tidbit of American history.
If you want to know more about Swamp Guinea Fish Lodge, etc.
Next up: Athens, Georgia