New Year's at Blue Willow
Spend New Year’s at Georgia’s Blue Willow Inn or make their famous collard greens at home.
by Judy Garrison
The power of turnip greens. With a simple nod, famed Atlanta Constitution columnist the late Lewis Grizzard pointed a neon sign straight toward the all-you-can-eat buffet bar at the Blue Willow Inn in Social Circle, Georgia. With his highest review possible – five bowls of turnip greens – he turned the sleepy town and a couple’s dream into one of the most traveled-to destinations in the South.
That was 21 years ago. Today, there isn’t a day when the parking lot isn’t filled to capacity with folks flocking to the 1917 neoclassical Greek Revival mansion that rests beneath the willow trees and serves the best fried chicken and fried green tomatoes east of the Mississippi.
Before Grizzard’s review, radio humorist Ludlow Porch raved about Blue Willow’s collard greens and catfish. Now, it’s the customers who walk out with full bellies and kudos for these traditional eats. Some drive four hours, eat, “piddle around” and then go back home, all in one day. Simply to eat the increasingly hard-to-find dishes like mama used to make.
Carol Burnette seats visitors, and it’s not long before owner Billie Van Dyke makes her way to every table, saying “glad y’all are here.” Van Dyke, along with her late husband, Louis, opened Blue Willow in the 1980s, building on their love of Southern cooking.
Time-honored specialties are a daily guarantee. “You might not have the same food on the bar the second time you go through,” states Van Dyke, “but I always keep cabbage, fried okra, fried green tomatoes and fried chicken. Always. As a rule, we never have an empty pan out there. Never. That’s a no-no.”
As another year rolls around, visitors can count on two things: consistency and goodness. “Once, we tried to do fancy, but they [customers] didn’t care about that,” says Van Dyke. “As long as we keep the food good, that’s all that matters. Everybody likes what we do. So if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
The Blue Willow Inn will be open New Year’s Day with traditional black-eyed peas, ham and collard greens plus the can’t miss chicken-n-dumplings, peanut butter pie and peach cobbler. Other upcoming extravaganzas will include an all-you-can-eat prime rib and crab legs night, plus a lowcountry boil and chitterlings night. “I’ve got serious chitterling eaters,” confesses Van Dyke.
Although reservations are a good idea, they are not required. Be prepared to wait, but don’t worry, there’s plenty of lemonade or sweet tea and a front porch rocker to help bide your time.
Blue Willow Inn is located at 294 N. Cherokee Road, Social Circle, Georgia.For more recipes and travel information, go to www.bluewillowinn.com. Follow on Facebook for coupons and specials, and if you can’t get enough, there’s The Blue Willow Inn Bible of Southern Cooking, available on the website.
Blue Willow Inn Collard Greens
1 bunch fresh collard greens
2 Tbsp bacon grease
1 Tbsp granulated sugar
6 oz. fatback or ham hock
1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp black pepper
3/4 tsp baking soda
1 quart water
Pull the leaves of the collards from the stems. Discard the stems (small stems may be cooked with leaves). Coarsely chop or tear the collards. Wash thoroughly in cold water and drain. In a large saucepan, combine the collard greens, bacon grease, sugar, fatback or ham hock, salt, pepper, baking soda and water. Bring to a boil. Cook at a slow boil for 2 hours or until tender.
Judy Garrison is a travel writer based out of Athens, Georgia. Read her fall foliage and wine tour through the Carolinas here.