The incomparable BrianWHall.com gave me a call one day and asked about Darien. Well, I told him, its old, tiny, and used to be where everyone around these parts would go outlet shopping. However, the mall is dead and there's not enough there to fill a full day beyond Fort King George. In fact, the last time I was there was years ago while working on a video for the fort's museum. I asked him why he was interested in such a place. Oh, he said, I'm spending a week here for a photojournalism workshop and I need to find a story. Alright, I said, give me an hour.
Darien is the second oldest town in Georgia and they don't want you to forget that fact. Nor will it escape you that the town was burned to the ground by Matthew Broderick from Glory for no justifiable reason. Also one of the most significant banks in the entire country operated in Darien in the early 19th century. You learn all of these tidbits, and many more, from the plethora of historical markers that are in front of nearly every building, park, and garbage can.
The obvious stories in Darien are historical or related to the seafood industry. Thus, when I met Brian at Skipper's Fish Camp we started with seafood by doing some hands-on (mouth-on?) research. Skippers is right on Darien Creek and is not actually a fish camp but just a restaurant. This is the sad story of about every place called a "fish camp" in the Coastal Empire. Some might remember that The Crab Shack used to be the Chimney Creek Fish Camp. I asked our server where they got their shrimp, as the whole creek is lined with trawlers, and he didn't know except that they were from a local family...just not the boat that was literally docked right outside.
To test their authenticity I just got a half pound of peel and eat shrimp, regularly seasoned with Old Bay. I encouraged Brian to try some Brunswick Stew since he was unfamiliar with the regional delicacy. He got shrimp as well, but blackened and on a salad. The shrimp were indeed the real deal and I was very impressed by the generous "half pound" they gave me as there were a few roe shrimp mixed in. It was a very tasty snack and a good start to the day. Brian's Brunswick stew was the real deal too, with butter beans and all. There was a smoker behind the bar so I assumed that's where they pork came from, but I failed to ask.
After Skippers Brian went to meet with his mentor and I took an hour to wander around Darien to take pictures and breath in the marsh-stink air. I saw plenty of people down by the boat ramp putting in Kayaks, fishing boats, etc. but there was no one else visible in the rest of the town. The very nicely renovated water front was empty and the trawlers bobbed silently on the quick moving tide. I stopped in a gas station to grab a Powerade and a Chocotaco because it was really, really hot despite the nice breeze.
There were more than a handful of tabby ruins to be inspected. The most prominent are simply the remains of old warehouses that once held cotton in Darien's glory days. The town was picturesque and so small and empty that I started to wonder who if anyone lived there anymore. There really seemed to be more historical markers than citizens.
By the time I finished my Chocotaco, Brian returned from the Methodist church were his workshop was taking place. He and his mentors had narrowed his ideas down to one simple concept: document the local remote control plane club at their airfield on the edge of town.
Brian had spotted the field and become intrigued while scouting the town prior to my arrival. Old hobbyists flying tiny planes did seem like a peculiar enough subject to yield interesting photographs. Unfortunately, they didn't fly until the next morning so that left us little to do after we poked around the "airfield" a bit. Thus I suggested to Brian that we move up Highway 17 back to Savannah and maybe see what rarities might catch our eye.
There are ghosts and ghost towns aplenty to be found in the marshy byways that take up most of the map of Georgia's coast. We but scratched the surface and still had a fine afternoon. Our first stop, after we passed a bison farm, was a little building simply called the Shrimp Shack. The sign advertised fresh caught shrimp which caught my eye (pun intended), but what made me stop the car was the billboard on the side of the shack advertising 4$ a pound for head-on large. I love shrimp heads almost as much as I love shrimp bodies, and thankfully I had cash and a cooler to make sure we could take some home and give Brian a real taste of the Coastal Empire.
The old codger inside said he didn't catch the shrimp, but merely got them from his friends who owned boats and then sold them at the shack. "I drove a truck my whole life," he added. I got two pounds and he weighed them out on the scale and then bagged them up with the last of his ice. A friendly black lady behind me was disappointed to learn he had no mediums. I asked if it really made a difference and she about hollered to Jesus that I must be a fool for asking. "They are so sweet, those mediums. So sweet. The big ones is mixed." She meant mixed with smaller shrimp.
After the shrimp shack we moved up 17 towards Harris Neck where we had good intel that a unique restaurant was hiding way off the beaten path. The place was called the Old School Diner and it was quite literally in the middle of nowhere near the Harris Neck Wildlife Preserve. We knew the place was special when we drove up and saw that the entire parking lot was covered in swaths of old carpet that you were meant to park on. The building looked like something out of the first season of True Detective, and I half-expected to be murdered and served for dinner. We stood out in the parking lot taking pictures and everyone coming out of the restaurant kept saying, "wait till you get inside!"
I didn't get a lot of pics inside because I was totally flabbergasted. We entered into a kind of foyer that was closed off from the rest of the building because it was air-conditioned. Our table was through a door, down a hall, and into a massive dinning room that had a live band playing on a stage. Every square inch of wall in the whole place was covered in photographs of previous diners. One such diner was none other than Ben Affleck, movie actor. The server made sure to mention this as often as possible, e.g.,"this is Ben's room. This is where he eats when he comes." The menu even had written on it, next to something called the "Wheelchair platter" that "Ben Affleck says 'Don't ask. Trust the chef!" I am not making any of this up.
The credit card machine was "broken" and the whole place smelled pretty rank (musty, poorly ventaliated, greasy), so Brian and I actually passed on eating anything that day. From what I gathered from the menu it was your usual assortment of Lowcountry staples, i.e. fried seafood.
By the time we left the "Diner", a big storm was rolling in. I decided to cut any further exploring short and get us back up to Savannah so as not to get caught on I-95 in a deluge. Back home in Thunderbolt, I cooked up the shrimp and then decided to give Brian a real treat. I already had peanut oil ready in the dutch oven, so I took the shrimp heads and gave them a nice toss in cornstarch before dropping them in the oil to fry up nice and crispy. Brian was skeptical, but to his credit he did eat one. My wife even ventured a bite. They agreed that it wasn't as bad as it looked, but for my part they were exquisite.
After the shrimp we took Brian out on the town, stopping by Hitch for dinner and then checking out the new Proof and Provision that has opened up in the now Hilton-less DeSoto. We got a lot of scoops on the new restaurant going in there headed by former Florence head Kyle Jacovino, as well as what the Wyld owners were going to do to the building the Florence once occupied. All of those tales will come in a later post.
Brian headed back to the thriving metropolis of Darien that night in order to catch the hobby plane people early that next morning. He ended up putting together a great little feature on those folks, which I only have in a pdf. Hopefully I can get those pics up for your enjoyment in the future.