Comfort Food

For a New York food writer with Savannah roots, Spanky’s chili tastes like nostalgia

From childhood through my teens, Savannah mostly meant a day spent at Oglethorpe Mall. I grew up 60 miles due west of the coast in Baxley, where there was no Walmart, let alone a Limited Too, American Eagle, or (now-defunct) Parisian. My mom, sister and I would shop for hours and then eat a quick, kid-friendly lunch on the strip, often at Spanky’s.

I have lived in New York City for a decade now, working as an editor and food journalist, and this past August, I flew back to Savannah en route to Darien to report on the edible jellyfish industry. My sister and her husband picked me up from the airport around lunchtime, and we stopped at the Spanky’s in Pooler (there’s also the Southside location on Mall Way, another on River Street and Spanky’s Beachside on Tybee Island). As a nostalgic out-of-towner, I ordered a four-piece chicken tender lunch with a house salad and ranch dressing — just what my 12-year-old mall-rat self would have eaten, minus the salad. Even though it was 92 degrees outside, and just to see if it tasted like home, I also ordered a cup of chili.

My parents, Cindy and Tom Hatchett, lived on Wilmington Island for a few years early in their marriage before moving to Baxley and submitting to car seats and kids. During that time, my mom picked up the Junior League’s classic 1980 Savannah Style cookbook, and dishes like Mississippi mud cake, bruncheon eggs and Spanky’s chili made it into her repertoire.

Mom made the chili — hearty, easy, and inexpensive — four or five times a year, often with ground venison. And just as my grandmother might have done, Mom stretched the chili a little further by serving it on top of white rice, always with a cheddar cheese garnish. Every pot of her chili tasted exactly the same — the stuff of potent memories.

I made Spanky’s chili as soon as I had my own kitchen while in college at the University of Georgia. A double recipe could feed an apartment-full of friends for $20. When I moved to New York, then Miami (where it was mostly too hot to eat chili), and back to New York again, I carried around a scrap of paper with the ingredients list. But, really, I could make a batch from memory, tasting along the way.

Unlike my mother, who measures every drop of Tabasco and every half-teaspoon of salt, I’m an intuitive cook. I worked in a professional kitchen and attended culinary school in Paris, all before writing about chefs and restaurants for a living. I view recipes, even those dearest to me, like instructions from a Sunday homily or my dental hygienist. They offer helpful guidelines with plenty of room for riffing.

My first tweaks to Spanky’s chili were subtle. I added a load of chopped garlic and seasoned the pot with pure, potent New Mexico chile powder in place of a McCormick blend. Then, as I fell into the rhythms of cooking in the Northeast, I found that in early fall, there’s a confluence of chili ingredients at the farmers market. I now use late-season heirloom tomatoes, whatever freshly shelled beans farmers are selling (usually pinto, cranberry or kidney), and a mix of colorful sweet peppers. Sometimes, I use ground turkey instead of beef, and if I had room to store a dehydrator in my small apartment, I would probably make my own chile powder, too. Nothing is measured or recorded. It’s my rule-free, locally sourced, time-consuming and usually expensive chili. It’s quite good, but it’s not the chili I grew up with. For that, I either have to resist the urge to tinker, or give in and go home.

Developed by one of Spanky’s founders, Dusty Yarbrough, and his wife Faye, the restaurant’s chili recipe has not changed since it debuted on Spanky’s original 1976 menu. My gut says their kitchen staff measures spices just as precisely as my Mom, because a cup of it tasted like a Wednesday night in January on Pitty Pat Lane (yes, that’s the name of the street I grew up on).

Spanky’s original recipe is perfect for a comfy winter meal, but you have my permission to veer off course and make it your own. You can also still find the recipe on p. 50 of Savannah Style, available at
mkt.com/shopjls. I hope your copy will one day wear as many tomato splatters as my mother’s.

Spanky’s Chili

Serves 4 to 6

1 pound ground beef

2 small onions, diced

1 green pepper, diced

2 tablespoons chili powder

1 teaspoon cumin

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon black pepper

16 ounces whole tomatoes

8 ounces tomato sauce

16 ounces kidney beans

Brown ground beef;
pour off fat. Add remaining ingredients and cook
over low heat for an hour, stirring often.

Stir Things Up

Junior League of Savannah president Jennifer Grafton barely has time to cook during the week — a relatable problem for many families. To help get dinner on the table, Grafton meal preps on weekends and turns to no-fuss dinners like the Spanky’s chili recipe above. For fancier occasions, she serves it
alongside an oyster roast.

How she’d doctor Spanky’s chili: Cut the chili powder
in half and add quartered
pepperoni slices. “I have a cousin who makes chili
with pepperoni, and I really like to throw them in.”

Junior League-approved
garnishes: The classics!
Fritos scoops and cheddar cheese.

Favorite Savannah Style recipe: She Crab Soup.
“I have notes written all over the recipe.”

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