The Georgia Center for Continuing Education, the campus jewel with which many visitors -- even those with international affiliations -- have identified the University of Georgia over the years, has abundant features that have stood the test of time.
Like a Volkswagen, the Center has changed since opening its doors in 1957, but not so much that you would easily recognize it. Countless people across the state of Georgia have spent time attending conferences at the Georgia Center. With the exception of Sanford Stadium, it is the place in Athens most Georgians are most familiar with.
If the building were a person, it would be recognized as the University's most distinguished goodwill ambassador. You feel good just walking through the building, the ambiance falling gently about like an early morning fog. At the Center, you are always greeted with a warm smile and a generous welcome. Little things have always been underscored there, owing to the unique touch of Hugh B. Masters, the visionary who supervised the Center's development. Masters paid the highest salaries to the chef and the gardener. If you enjoy the food and the setting, doesn't that make you want to return?
Although the Savannah Room menu doesn't necessarily dazzle you -- its clientele doesn't require that -- there is variety and value, as good as there is.
Convenience draws a lot of people to the Georgia Center. I go for another reason: the vegetable soup. It is one of the establishment's signature items. (The other is the strawberry ice cream pie.) For some time, I have been arm twisting James McCay, director of Food Services, for an audience with the cook who perfected the recipe for the Center's ambrosial vegetable soup. "There are two, both retired," he said recently when he succumbed to my insistence. "One, Thelma Robinson, is so shy, she would not talk unless you held a gun on her, and I'm not sure that would work."
The other, Leutrell Sims, was genially accommodating and brought along Northern, her husband, to meet me for coffee. Leutrell worked at the Georgia Center for 37 years before retiring in 2000. "I was actually the baker," she said. "But we all learned from Gene Brown, the chef at the Georgia Center for years. Several of us learned to make the vegetable soup and other of his dishes, which became popular."
Then, just like she was getting ready to strap on an apron and get to work, she ticked off the ingredients that comprise the vegetable soup I rank as the best there is. "You know you have to start with tomatoes (laughing)," she said. "We always used good, ripe tomatoes. Then you add chopped onion, okra, ground beef, butter beans, string beans, peas, celery, garlic and a beef base. There really isn't all that much to it." Truthfully, there IS a lot to it. I don't think just anybody could make vegetable soup as well as Leutrell and the Georgia Center.
Leutrell, modest and gracious, gives credit for the recipe to Gene Brown who has gone on to that great kitchen in the sky. "He did like we all have done through the years," she smiled. "You take the leftovers from the day before and add a little ground beef and a few other things -- just being practical pretty much."
A good cook wherever he or she reigns can be creative and inventive, but being practical has always held sway. It was necessary to survive years ago. At the Georgia Center, vegetable soup became a menu staple because of its popularity. They serve it every day they are open, which is approximately 357 days a year.
They'll let you buy a gallon to take home if you like, which is how I began the New Year.
Loran Smith is affiliated with the University of Georgia and can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.