Nunez, a small community of 137 in the southeast corner of Emanuel County, is most often identified as the home of Rayonier Lumber Products and Hooks Grocery.
Rayonier is best described as a sawmill, and I am sure I would find the processing of wood products interesting. But if you want to experience a real piece of rural Americana, stop by Hooks Grocery and eatery for down-home cooking and lively conversation.
"After you get off the Swainsboro bypass you will find us a few miles down on your left on (Georgia Highway) 297," Ricky Hooks, the proprietor, said on the phone. A little guesswork took place since there is no sign identifying Ricky's place. High winds from foul weather this past winter eliminated the sign, but this absence causes little concern for locals. People from miles around come here every day to eat -- they don't need directions or marquees. "You can smell the food a mile away," joked Brad Hooks, Ricky's nephew and warden at the state prison in Reidsville.
We drove past Ricky's place but spied the cookers outside and correctly surmised that a U-turn was in order. Greeting us was Vicki Hooks, Ricky's sister-in-law, who happens to be the mayor of Nunez. Hooks is a gathering place. If nepotism were against the law, then Hooks would have to close down. Ricky's older brother Charles (married to Vicki) is something of a laid-back, one-man welcoming committee and conversation starter. Michael, the middle brother, moves about with such alacrity that you surmise that he is someone who can never sit still. Nell Hooks, the youngest on the premises, married into the family (her husband is Blake). She says very little, but you can tell she knows what's going on.
Larry Bennett, retired from Rayonier, helps out with the cooking and small talk. "They make the best hamburger in this state," said Chad Kennison, a lumber grader at Rayonier and a preacher on the weekend. Kenny Copeland nodded in agreement. Kenny is a local boy who made good. His dad was a sharecropper. Kenny graduated from Georgia and works for IBM but can't wait to return to the land of his roots. He is a financial officer/planner who is responsible for training customers to use IBM products around the world. Although he is based in Atlanta, Kenny can connect up with people in places like India and China from a couple of cornfields down the road -- when he is not anchored in Atlanta.
Hooks Grocery is a place where you can purchase everything from fertilizer to fish food to Coca-Cola -- fire ant killer, camouflage clothing, corn meal, wine, beer, Vienna sausages, and mustard pork skins, which are so popular Ricky can't keep 'em in stock.
An old Coke cooker is filled with trophies from Ricky's days as a rattlesnake hunter. He has won so many trophies at the nearby Claxton Rattlesnake Roundup that he has no place to put them. Michael then escorted a visitor into a back room where he pulled up the top of a wooden box. There lay two diamondbacks staring menacingly in our direction. I had no inclination for a closer look.
Baked chicken, beans, and potato salad were on the menu the day I dropped by. The menu changes daily for lunch, but breakfast is usually about the same -- ham, eggs, grits, bacon. The favorite for most of Ricky's customers is his breakfast sandwich, which is bacon, egg and cheese on Captain John Durst's brown bread.
When Muddy Waters, who lettered for Georgia in 1983-85, stopped in for lunch, the conversation heated up about the Bulldogs. If you have an affinity for the Bulldogs, you're always welcome at Hooks Grocery.
When it was time to go, the mayor presented a cache of tomato pickle, pickled okra, and pear relish, the latter made by Charles. "Our city doesn't have gift baskets," Vicki smiled, "so we are sharing from our pantry."
As we left, I awaited the perfunctory Southern send off, "Y'all, come back." You bet I will.
Loran Smith is affiliated with the University of Georgia and can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.