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Joni Woolf: Sweet Georgia Baking Co. — sweet indeed

One day last week my friend Abbie Dillard and I met at Sweet Georgia Baking Company in Americus for lunch, and to catch up on all that was going on in our lives—which is always a lot. Abbie ordered what I have seen her order several times before. And I almost did: I almost ordered that Pot Roast Sandwich with Blue Horsey Sauce. It is so good, I just keep ordering. But this day I decided to move from my comfort spot. So I ordered the Rosemary Chicken Salad with Pecans and Grapes, the plate version that comes with mixed lettuces, buttermilk dressing and the famous focaccia bread made by owner Lee Harris (as is everything else). Well, now that I have broken out of my rut, I’m going back to try everything else on the menu.
Before I did that, though, I decided to chat with Lee about the restaurant that has become such a popular eating spot in downtown Americus. I wanted to learn more about how he prepares his food, and more precisely, what makes that chicken salad so good. It’s always fun to talk with someone who enjoys what they do, and who takes pride in the results. Lee obviously likes what he does and works long hours to prepare the good foods we often take for granted. The day of the interview I had several questions about the chicken salad, and Lee was generous with information. “I don’t like mayonnaise,” he said with a smile, “so I use as little as possible,” mixing it with small amounts of soy sauce, brown mustard, olive oil, some of the liquid from the roasted chicken, and rosemary.
An important feature of the chicken salad is the chicken (of course). Lee orders his from Springer Mountain Farms in Mount Airy, Georgia — high up in the Blue Ridge Mountains. The supplier is known for producing chickens that have no antibiotics, no steroids, no growth stimulants or hormones and are never fed animal by-products; their diet is strictly vegetarian. So at the beginning of the process, Lee is getting the best chicken available, and he buys only chicken breasts. After the chicken is roasted with rosemary, Lee combines the cut-up chicken with grapes and pecans (he uses only Koinonia pecans grown in Sumter County), adds the mayonnaise mixture and a little salt and pepper. For the record, Lee’s chicken salad has been named by Georgia Tourism and Travel as one of “100 Plates Locals Love,” the chicken salad plate being the best in its field. I am a believer! And many in Americus know they can buy it in bulk to take home for parties and events, or just to have for themselves — and do.
I asked Lee about the Couscous Salad, my friend Abbie’s favorite. I had thought that couscous was a grain, like quinoa, but he informed me it was not; it was masa (like semolina, made of wheat). That too is a popular dish, and in the spring and summer months it features marinated vegetables with the couscous on a bed of mixed lettuces. But fall is here, and he is about to switch to roasted seasonal vegetables like carrots, onions, potatoes, and various greens.
I think I make very good pimento cheese, so I rarely order it out. I asked about his, and was pleased to hear that he uses roasted red peppers (so do I) instead of pimento. They make a sturdier, tastier spread. He adds sour cream with the mayonnaise, a little brown mustard, a little soy, and salt and pepper. I may try that next time. He serves this on your choice of bread, but if you don’t get the focaccia, you’ve missed a real treat. Lee’s bread alone is enough reason to go into the shop and make a purchase. You can buy the loaves to take home to make your next meal better.
A special he has been running sounded mouth-watering to this woman of the South: smoked ham with a chow chow that he makes — something called Bacon Jam, kind of like chutney, with sweet and sour notes. Like nearly all his sandwiches/salads, this comes on his delectable focaccia bread.
After this extended conversation, I asked “What’s your best seller?” And it wasn’t any of these I’ve mentioned. It’s the Hot Turkey Sandwich with Curry Mayo, with roasted onions and Swiss cheese. After I thought about it, I realized that turkey is always a safe choice, and adding roasted onions just upped the enjoyment quotient considerably. And turkey, prepared right, is always delicious.
Lee is still involved but to a lesser degree with his brother Bill Harris at Café Campesino, at their new coffee shop/gathering place on Lamar Street. His focaccia bread is used on some of their sandwiches and occasionally he provides other foods. But he is very busy where he is. In addition to the foods spotlighted here, Sweet Georgia Baking offers soups, salads and sweets, and some very good iced tea — any way you want it.
I asked if he’s outgrown the charming space on Cotton Avenue and he paused. In most businesses there is a point where you really need more room, but consideration must be given to return on investment. How much more room? At what cost? And do you lose atmosphere and community? These are questions he will be facing in the months ahead, as those of us who dine there occasionally spill out onto the sidewalk (where he has convenient tables and chairs). Success has its problems. But it certainly has its rewards. For those of us who enjoy lunch there, the rewards are good food, fairly fast, delivered by a staff that is always courteous, pleasant, and helpful. Sweet Georgia Baking is just one more reason to stay, shop and eat in downtown Americus — our hometown. And take home a loaf of bread.

Joni Woolf, a writer and editor, now lives in Schley County, having moved from her home in Macon several years ago. Contact her at indigojoni@windstream.net