Capturing the heart of Southern culture

Fare comes from inn said to have inspired Mitchell's Tara

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October 23, 2002|By Larry Bingham | Larry Bingham,SUN STAFF

The recipes in The Blue Willow Inn Cookbook (Rutledge Hill Press, $19.99) are standard Deep South fare -- fried green tomatoes, corn bread, chicken and dumplings, coconut cake, pralines -- prepared in traditional ways. They're arranged here just as you'd find them on any buffet: side dishes, main courses, desserts, etc. But the 200 pages of recipes are not what make this cookbook. Not really.

You could find many of these offered by the restaurant's owners, Louis and Billie Van Dyke, in practically any Junior League or small-town church cookbook below the Mason-Dixon line, any place where casseroles are made with cans of soup and topped with crumbled Ritz crackers, any place where some of the most popular desserts begin with a box of yellow cake mix.

What you won't find just anywhere, though -- what authors Jane and Michael Stern capture so well -- is the heart of this vanishing Southern culture.

The Blue Willow Inn, in the town of Social Circle, Ga., is a place where groaning buffets are set up in a 1917 Georgian Revival mansion, the columned-mansion that allegedly inspired Margaret Mitchell, then an Atlanta Journal-Constitution reporter, to come up with Tara.

At the Blue Willow, local teens stroll the veranda in hoop skirts and period gowns, offering waiting guests a glass of sweet tea, "the champagne of the South." No one here eats off plastic. Patrons use -- you guessed it -- blue willow china. No one here pretends this kind of food is anything more than it is, either. What it is is the sort of food found in the sort of place that gets run out of business when Wal-Mart and McDonald's come to a small town.

The Blue Willow Inn belongs on a must-see list if you're traveling to Atlanta -- it's an hour east. It's so popular, there are long waits on holidays, and there's even a gift shop. And that is where this cookbook belongs. It's a postcard of sorts, a souvenir from the sort of place you may never pass through again.

Macaroni and Cheese

"At the Blue Willow, this is one of the few items served every day, every meal."

8 to 10 servings

one 8-ounce package macaroni

1 teaspoon vegetable shortening

3/4 cup plus 1/4 cup grated cheddar cheese

1/2 cup Cheese Whiz

3/4 cup milk

2 eggs, beaten

1 tablespoon mayonnaise

1/2 teaspoon prepared mustard

salt and pepper to taste

Cook the macaroni according to the package, adding the shortening to the water, and then drain. Do not overcook. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Combine the macaroni with 3/4 cup cheese, Cheese Whiz, milk, eggs, mayonnaise, mustard, and salt and pepper to taste.

Bake uncovered in a 9-inch by 12-inch casserole (do not grease casserole) for 25 to 30 minutes. Remove from the oven, and top with the remaining 1/4 cup cheese. Return to the oven only long enough for the cheese to melt.

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