Elizabeth Terry

Jim Poris / March 1999

Food Arts presents the March 1999 Silver Spoon Award for sterling performance to Elizabeth Terry for helping direct the path of American cuisine toward a flag-waving regionalism that can proudly stand with any in the world. For Terry, this has meant practicing a personal interpretation of the landed gentry's traditions of Southern cooking—what she calls "company Southern"—at Elizabeth on 37th, the restaurant she opened with her husband, Michael, in Savannah, Georgia, in 1981.

Terry's restaurant arrived just as the South was rejoining the American mainstream after 200 years of dislocating shocks from slavery, the Civil War, Reconstruction, segregation, civil rights, and economic destitution. A Georgian, Jimmy Carter, had just finished a term as President. The Allman Brothers, also Georgians, were raising blue-infused Southern rock into a national anthem. Atlanta, led by African-American mayors, was opening the South to global commerce. Terry's cooking, derived from the plantation cooking of the Old South, became another symbol of the resurgent, confident New South. "I'm afraid I'm always credited with uplifting Southern cuisine," the bespectacled Terry says demurely. "All I did was tell people about it."

As a cook, Terry, now in her mid-50s, likens herself to a "slow waltzer, not a 30-year-old chef who's tap dancing." There's no hocus-pocus on her plates, just a simple presentation of recognizable foods drawn from the Southern repertoire. Madeira, which no fine 19th-century Southern home could do without, flavors the red-eye gravy she serves with shrimp, country ham, and cheese grits. And Georgia pecans and dried apricots form the stuffing for a honey-roasted pork tenderloin.

As is the case with so many of the "founding" generation of chefs who breathed life and identity into American cooking and fine dining in the 1970s and early '80s, Terry never had an inkling that she'd wind up as a revered chef/restaurateur. No matter where in the United States, few professional precedents existed then for her and the others; like most, Terry traveled the paths of self-discovery and keen interest toward food-world glory.

"I grew up in a large family in Salem, Ohio, and food really didn't do much for me," says Terry, recalling the endless tomato sandwiches of her youth. "When I was a new bride, it never occurred to me that I'd have to cook. I had no idea who was going to cook. Michael gave me some cookbooks, and I found that I really loved to cook. I'd call MIke and tell him to bring someone home because I'd just made something. I love the positive reinforcement you get from making people happy."

Elizabeth and Michael, a liberal-minded Harvard-educated lawyer, moved to Atlanta in 1969 to hug the cusp of social and political activism. Michael soared—arguing cases in the United States Supreme Court, directing the Atlanta Legal Aid Society, and running for political office. Elizabeth was a stay-at-home mom, tending to her first daughter, Alexis, and, as she remembers in the cookbook Savannah Seasons she wrote with Alexis in 1996 (Doubleday, NY), "I was becoming quite bored and consequently quite boring." She crossed the breach into the workaday world in 1978, when a friend allowed her to rent space in his wine and cheese shop for her own soup and sandwich business. Elizabeth called it Thyme For You.

There, with young, Alexis by her side every day, she flourished. She loved running her own business. She loved being able to care for her daughter at the same time. She also found out she was going to have a second daughter. The Terrys took stock and came up with a momentous quality-of-life decision: they'd move to Savannah, where Michael would set out a law shingle and Elizabeth would run a small tea room or lunch place. A two-story, 12-room, 6,000-square-foot, turn-of-the-century Greek Revival mansion they found in a transitional neighborhood changed their minds. The first floor would be Elizabeth's restaurant, Michael would help out for a few years, and the family would live upstairs—everyone close at hand, working and living together.

"I never worked so hard in my life as I did in the first two years we were open," Terry recalls. "We were not really good at being bosses, and at first we didn't have any rules or any written recipes. Twice, coffee grounds—not the brewed espresso I had wanted—wound up in the chocolate cake. And waiters would come to work with one side of their heads shaved. Eventually, we instituted employee policies, telling our staff, for instance, that as far as appearance is concerned, the customer's enjoyment comes first, not theirs."

Michael has never returned to law. He runs the front of the house and the wine program. But it's Elizabeth's restaurant. "People say, 'Oh, you cook and your husband runs the business.' No, it's my business. I never learned to type, you know, because I never wanted to be anyone's secretary."