This year, SCAD and Paula Wallace inducted five new women into the Savannah Women of Vision, a program that celebrates key female figures whose ideas, leadership and service have shaped the community of Savannah. This weekly column will attempt to share a little more of the stories behind each of the fifteen women whose gold portraits hang on either side of the Arnold Hall Theater.
Hannah Hayes, an alumna of arts administration, honored Sema Wilkes at the 2018 Savannah Women of Vision ceremony by describing her as “the embodiment of Southern grace and affability” and “a testament to how one can make something extraordinary out of humble ingredients” who “who set the table for women throughout the culinary world.”
Sema was born in Vidalia, Georgia in 1907. At the age of seven, she started to cook for her family and their workers. She lived the fairly ordinary early life of a young woman growing up on a Georgia farm at the time. She received schooling, married another farmer, Lois, and started a family. However, throughout it all, she captivated the attention of anyone who tasted her cooking.
The Wilkes were forced to leave their farm because of eminent domain in 1942. Lois moved to Savannah to find a new job and ended up working for Southern Railroad. While he looked for employment, he stayed at Miss Dennis Dixon’s Boardinghouse on 107 West Jones. Sema and their kids would visit him on the weekends and began to befriend Miss Dixon, whose old age limited the amount of work she was able to do. In 1943, Sema helped in the kitchen and dining room. Later that year, Sema bought the entire boardinghouse off of Miss Dixon and renamed it “Mrs. Wilkes’ Boardinghouse.”
The railroad workers who boarded at the house quickly spread the word that some of the best meals in Savannah were at “Mrs. Wilkes’.”Quickly, Sema was making close to one hundred meals a day, many more than the 12 or so that she had gotten used to during her first few months at the boardinghouse. Nonetheless, she rolled up her sleeves and got to work with a “more the merrier” attitude.
In the 1960s, the railroads shut down and boardinghouses gave way to the growing popularity of hotels and motels. Sema temporarily shut down “Mrs. Wilkes’” and converted it to a full dining room. The restaurant featured large family-style communal tables that could seat up to 12 people. Pretty soon after its reopening, long lines stretched around the block with regulars and newcomers alike anxiously awaiting one of Sema’s hearty meals. The dining room quickly became a flourishing fixture downtown.
Sema wrote and published her first cookbook, “Famous Recipes, from Mrs. Wilkes’ Boarding House in Historic Savannah” in 1990. After its publication, Sema found herself spending most of her time signing copies at the front of the restaurant, breaking away occasionally to give the blessing before her patron began to eat.
Sema saw the publication of her second book, “Mrs. Wilkes’ Boardinghouse Cookbook: Recipes and Recollections from Her Savannah Table” in 2001, a year before she passed away at the age of 95. Her family continued to run the restaurant after her passing.
Because of Sema’s reputation, Mrs. Wilkes’ Dining Room has served a vast array of notable figures, including former President Barack Obama, Robert Duvall, Kate Smith, Gregory Peck and renowned food critic Craig Claiborne, who claimed her biscuits were “one of the greatest things to ever happen in my life.” In 1988, a prestigious Tokyo hotel sent its head chef to learn in Sema’s kitchen for two weeks and restyled three of its restaurants into establishments similar to Mrs. Wilkes’.
Sema won multiple awards, including the Al Burrues Lifetime Achievement Award from the Georgia Tourism Council and wide acclaim in virtually every Southern culinary media outlet.
As Hayes remarked, what Sema accomplished in her time would have been astounding, even today. The dining business notoriously excluded women and yet Sema managed to create a name for herself that embodies the entire Southern tradition of generosity and fellowship. And she created some dang good biscuits while she was at it.
By Elena Burnett.