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It's not everybody who's lucky enough to make a living at what they love best. Me? I'm one of the lucky ones, and boy, don't I know it! My whole life has been about cooking, eating, and swapping stories.
Now that I have a restaurant where I get to do those things on a daily basis, I try never to forget just how blessed I am. Most every day I put on my baseball cap and visit with the fine folks who are eating in our restaurant. I stop by each table and eyeball what they've ordered. Could be a plateful of my chargrilled oysters or Georgia sweet shrimp with homemade cocktail sauce. Either one will make you want to clean your plate and beg for more.
I always say, "Hey, y'all, I'm Uncle Bubba. Where y'all from?" People appreciate the personal attention and lots of times say they never realized that there really is an Uncle Bubba. I say, "Yep, that's me, and I'm proud to be a good ole Southern boy."
My family and I have never been what you would call fancy diners. Growing up in southwest Georgia, we never had white tablecloths or silver candlesticks. We just wanted to eat good, laugh a lot, and have a good time. When I opened the doors at Uncle Bubba's Oyster House I tried to carry on what I describe as down-home Southern style. I want people to come just as they are and enjoy what I think is the greatest seafood ever, like my oyster stew, for instance. It's just like the stews I ate when I was a boy growing up, made by my Mama, Corrie Paul Hiers, and my Granny Paul. (That's what I preferred to call her; Paula called her Grandmomma Paul.) To make oyster stew, we start with sautéed onion, pour in real milk, add some real butter and a few other special ingredients, and then add the best oysters you've ever put in your mouth.
Like I said before, I'm proud of the name Bubba. Yep, people kid me about it all the time but I just laugh because it's a nickname that fits my personality. I was named for my daddy, Earl Wayne Hiers Sr. He was a great guy who never met a stranger. He and Mama didn't want me to be called Little Earl or Junior so they called me Bubba, which in the South is slang for brother. Most of you know that I am Paula Deen's one and only baby brother.
But believe it or not, Bubba isn't my only nickname. My Granny Hiers called me Sonny Boy. Come to think of it, that's what she called everybody. One story about her gets me laughing out loud every time I tell it. When I got out of high school I was dying to have a motorcycle bigger than the Honda 50 I scooted around on in Albany, Georgia. My Aunt Peggy Ort, my Mama's sister, just about had a fit when Mama bought me that first motorcycle. She reminds me of that motorcycle all the time and how she couldn't believe that her sister would buy a motorcycle for a fifteen-year-old boy. Anyway, after high school I bought a Honda 750 and decided to ride it to Florida because I had met a girl who lived around Winter Haven, which was close to where Daddy's relatives lived.
I grew up around good cooks. I can still taste the chicken, with the secret barbecue sauce, that Daddy used to put on the grill. It was truly finger-lickin' good. Food like that was my downfall when it came to my weight. When I went to college I started working out because I wanted to get to know some of the good-lookin' girls on campus. I went to the gym and, before long, I had dropped about thirty pounds. So, lookin' all handsome, I took one of my old belts, strapped it around my suitcase, hooked it to the back of the motorcycle and took off down Interstate 75. My first stop was Winter Haven because I wanted to visit Daddy's baby brother, Uncle Bob, who, by the way, used to be a model in New York. (I guess that's where me and Paula get some of our good looks from.)
Around the corner from Uncle Bob was where Daddy's Mama lived. I pulled into Granny Hiers's driveway and saw her pushing open the screen door. She waved at me and said, "Hey Sonny Boy, come on in."
We sat in her living room laughing and talking for a while and all of the sudden, she leaned up and looked at me through her thick glasses and said with a little giggle, "Tell me your name again, Sonny Boy." It tickled me so much that I almost wet my pants. Then it dawned on me that she hadn't seen me since I'd lost weight. She just died laughing and hurried over to hug and kiss me all over again. She told me she thought I was her next door neighbor's boyfriend because he had a motorcycle, too. Then, of course, she had to offer me something to eat because that's what we do in our family. She could make the best country fried steak, smothered in gravy and onions. It was so tender you could cut it with a fork.
Food stories like that seem to follow me everywhere but they don't always have whatcha call happy endings. When I was a senior in high school or a freshman in college (I forget which), I was living with my sister Paula because we had lost our parents by the time I was sixteen. Paula's seven years older than I am, and she was married and raising two boys, Jamie and Bobby, who have always been like little brothers to me even though I'm their uncle.
One night Paula and I decided to grill steaks. Money was always pretty tight, so this dinner was an extra special treat for us. We laid out the steaks on the counter and went outside to light the charcoal grill. Paula and I walked back in the kitchen and we couldn't believe what we were looking at.
We had a boxer named Deacon (Daddy named him), and we were all ready to put those pretty steaks on the grill before Deacon changed our plans. That dog was staring at us with one of those juicy steaks hanging out of both sides of his jaw. Somehow Paula and I scraped up enough money to replace the steak. Paula sent me back to the grocery store and sent Deacon to his doghouse to think about what he had done.
I guess it's only fittin' that I should be in the restaurant business because that's where I got my start in life. When I was born, we lived about ten miles from Albany, Georgia, at a place called River Bend on the Flint River. My granddaddy and granny on my Mama's side, John L. Paul and Irene Paul, operated a motel, restaurant, swimming pool, lounge, and skating rink at River Bend. My parents had the service station and a little store across the street where they sold souvenirs, Coca-Colas, ice cream, Moon Pies, pecans, and Georgia peaches to the Northern tourists who were driving through Georgia on their way to the Florida panhandle.
From the get-go I was forever in the kitchen getting under Granny Paul's feet or in the way of Sam, her head cook. They always worried about me because I would be right there when they were frying huge pans of chicken or pulling trays of homemade biscuits out of the oven. I always managed to sneak a piece of Granny Paul's cake or pecan pie, but she didn't mind. She knew that there was one thing I didn't want and that was my stomach hurtin' because it was empty.
Back then I thought the Coca-Cola man who drove the big red truck was somethin' special because Coca-Colas were my absolute favorite. That Coca-Cola driver would pull up to the restaurant, slide open the truck's back door, and show me what seemed like millions of green glass Coke bottles. I learned from watchin' Mama and Granny Paul that you can use Coke to make sauces for good ole fried chicken and country hams. Me? I just liked to drink 'em.
I never tired of listening to stories that Aunt Peggy or Granny Paul would tell me about River Bend. One even had to do with that Coca-Cola truck. One day when I was about three years old, I went missing -- or at least everybody thought so.
I had only climbed on the back of the Coke truck and nobody knew where I was. Mama was panicking, sure enough. She was clutching her apron, and yellin', "Where's Bubba?" over and over again. Finally somebody found me on the back of the truck. Boy, did I get my you-know-what tore up. Never did chase that truck again, though.
There's one more River Bend story that Paula, Aunt Peggy, and Granny Paul used to love to tell everybody. It seems a couple from up North pulled up to the gas pump, and Les, who worked at the station, walked out to fill up their car with gas, check the oil, and clean the windshield, while they snacked on cheese and peanut butter crackers and a Coke. Les had a big old four-door Plymouth that I liked to play in. So while Les was seeing about the car, the man and woman watched me bouncing up and down on the front seat of that old Plymouth.
They went on their way, switched on the radio, and heard that a little boy from up North had been kidnapped. I fit the description of that boy and they got to thinking about it and put two and two together. They stopped at a pay phone, called the sheriff, and told him that they thought they had found the missing boy. The next thing Mama knew the sheriff's car came to a screeching halt in front of the store. The sheriff demanded to know who that little boy was. That got Mama so flustered that she could hardly find my birth certificate to prove that I belonged to her.
After we moved into town, Daddy had a used-car lot and would come home every day at noon for a hot meal. Whether it was breakfast, lunch, or supper, Mama always put good food on the table for us. For lunch she might fry chicken and fix macaroni and cheese and okra. If it was summertime she'd slice some homegrown tomatoes and, no matter what, she was always baking biscuits. After finishin' a breakfast of scrambled eggs, crisp bacon, buttery grits, and biscuits covered with grape jelly, I'd hardly let that screen door slam behind me before I'd be daydreaming about Mama's hot and gooey chocolate chip cookies that she'd have waiting for me when I got out of school.
One summer day when Daddy came home at noontime for lunch he brought a Shetland pony that he took on at the car lot. He gave that pony to me and I named him Tony. I'm telling you, I felt like the biggest bigshot around because I would grab a handful of Mama's cookies and lead Tony around the neighborhood like a dog. Nobody else had a pony, especially one like Tony. I couldn't ride him because he was mean as hell, so I would just walk him around and show him off. One day Tony must've had a hankerin' for cookies because he hauled off and bit me on the shoulder. I ran home crying and the next day Tony was gone. To this day, I wonder if Daddy traded him for a Buick or a Chevy.
Sometimes I'd get in the kitchen and try to do some cooking myself but Mama, in her sweet way, would say, "Bubba, honey, I'll take over. You go outside and play." Thank goodness I never caught the house on fire. I do remember grilling out with friends most every weekend. If I close my eyes I can still see Mama and the other ladies sitting in their lawn chairs and the men standing around the grill bragging about who was the best cook or who caught the biggest fish. They'd cook hamburgers or chicken, or fry some fish that they caught on their latest fishing trip.
I loved baseball more than anything in the world. When I wasn't eating, I played baseball every minute that I could. I dreamed of being another Mickey Mantle or Roger Maris. One time my buddies and I broke into the concession stand at the ball park. We "borrowed" baseballs and a case of potato chips that we carried to school. Boy, I sure was popular that day. It's a wonder I didn't get put in jail.
I managed to survive my youth and even went to college for a while. But college wasn't for me so I tried my hand at different jobs in Albany. While I was selling cars and living in an apartment complex, I met a registered nurse named Jill. She was a single mom with a six-year-old named Jay, who was the cutest little ole boy I'd ever seen. Jill and I were married and I adopted Jay. Later we had a daughter who we named Corrie, after my mother. Meanwhile, I started a little business in Albany that I named Yard Busters, which grew into a successful landscaping and groundskeeping company. Unfortunately, when Corrie was in high school, Jill and I divorced. My sister, Paula, had moved to Savannah but we couldn't stand being that far apart. She begged me to come to Savannah to be with her and Bobby and Jamie. I finally took the plunge, found a buyer for my house and business, and headed for Savannah. I don't regret a minute of it.
By then The Lady & Sons was rocking and rolling at 311 West Congress Street in the heart of Savannah's Historic District. Paula was doing so well that she wanted to open another restaurant that I would run. One day she came to me and said, "Bubba, we live in this beautiful Southern coastal city. Why don't we open a place where we can do some of the delicious Southern seafood recipes that we grew up eatin'?"
I said, "Let's do it."
We went around and around about the name. We thought about The Lady and Her Brother and The Lady's Brother but then one day I walked in the office and she said, "Bubba, we've come up with a name. Uncle Bubba's Oyster House." We found a fantastic location on a pretty deepwater creek on the way to Tybee Island, which is Savannah's beach.
Now it seems like I've come full circle. I ain't on the Flint River no more, but being on the creek reminds me of the good old days with Mama, Daddy, Paula, and our grandparents. I was truly blessed to meet a wonderful woman named Dawn a few years after I moved to Savannah, and we were married at Paula's house while I was writing this book. She has two fine sons named Trevor and Ian. Now I'm happily the father of four, which is perfect because there's always room for more folks at my table. I guess good food and good times are the threads that have bound me and my family and friends together. So that's why I decided to write this cookbook. I want to share these recipes and family stories with all the folks who've asked for them, and even the less fortunate souls who haven't been lucky enough -- yet -- to visit Savannah and Uncle Bubba's for a taste of real Southern hospitality.
Don't forget to keep these tips in mind before you start fixing my delicious recipes! They're pretty much common sense, but I wanted to remind you anyway.
All vegetables and fruits should be thoroughly rinsed. Onions and garlic are peeled before use, and if no type of onion is specified, use your favorite. Sugar is granulated white sugar unless otherwise specified. Pans may be greased with more of the same fat used in a recipe, or sprayed with a cooking spray.
And last but not least, recipes followed by an asterisk are from Uncle Bubba's Oyster House. Enjoy!
Copyright © 2007 by Earl W. Hiers, Jr.