19 May Jonathan Cartu Reviews: Local Chefs Work to Help the Silver Sands Reopen
Photo: Eric England
When a storm blew through Hope Gardens on the evening of March 2, Sophia Vaughn says her French bulldog Tiger tipped her off that something must be up. Like many of us, though, she didn’t realize the wreckage the storm would leave in its wake, and certainly didn’t think that just a couple streets over not long after midnight, winds from the tornado would peel back part of the roof on the restaurant that has been in her family for about 70 years.
The Silver Sands, a black-owned business in this largely African American community, hasn’t served a meal since the day before the March 3 tornado.
Vaughn’s aunt Blanche Seay opened the soul-food restaurant in the mid-1950s — long before slick condos and rehabbed bungalows lured AirBnBers to the area, and even before the Nashville Farmers’ Market existed in its current location around the corner. Vaughn’s mother Nellie McAdo took over the restaurant for a couple decades, and then it was Vaughn’s turn — three women feeding a community with smothered pork chops, collard greens, hot-water cornbread and scoops of mac-and-cheese.
While Vaughn hopes to reopen soon, she has faced one storm after another. The tornado caused damage to the cooling system; they lost about $3,000 worth of food in the walk-in; and with the roof damage, leaks ruined equipment. She says shoddy contractors and price gouging slowed the rehab. Then COVID-19 hit. After repairs, Vaughn might open for to-go service only, because she worries for the safety of her guests and employees — like one woman, age 75, who despite “running circles around them,” is compromised nonetheless. Her customers too line up daily in close proximity, and while the Silver Sands draws all ages, some of her favorites tell stories about the women in the photos (her mom and aunt) that hang above the steam table — back when they snuck over from school and could get a meal for a quarter.
“That’s why I have the picture up there, because I don’t want them to forget where it started,” Vaughn says. ”That’s who built it and laid the path.”
“It’s fun listening,” she says of her customers. “I miss them so much. I have so many customers who come in every single day — every single day for breakfast and lunch.”
Chef Tandy Wilson of City House understands missing customers. He didn’t have tornado damage at his Germantown restaurant less than a mile away from the Silver Sands, but after delays due to power outages, his restaurant operated for only about a week before the coronavirus hit. Wilson also has a deep respect for Vaughn and the Silver Sands.
“I don’t know how I discovered it,” Wilson says. “When we first opened [in 2007] it was eat, drink, sleep, breathe, restaurant. I would come over here in the morning and preferred to walk. In the early years, it was important sustenance for a chef who wasn’t taking good care of himself. The feeling is like mom’s kitchen.”
So in true community fashion, he’s offering a hand by hosting a fundraiser for the restaurant. Customers can purchase a Silver Sands Picnic Basket for $101 for pickup on Saturday, May 23, which includes a feast of fried chicken “Silver Sands-style,” as well as buttermilk dressing, cornlight muffins, a trio of slaw and salads, and s’more brownies. All proceeds go to the Silver Sands.
Wilson’s friends have also joined the cause, with The LEE Initiative matching funds raised of at least $10,000. John T. Edge, who filmed the Nashville episode of the show TrueSouth at the Silver Sands, also is offering support. He posted a video on Friday by SEC Network and Bluefoot Entertainment called “Help Sophia,” wherein he calls the Silver Sands a “backbone restaurant” that supports the working women and men of Nashville. As director of the Southern Foodways Alliance, Edge has been a longtime supporter of the Silver Sands, featuring Vaughn’s cooking at the SFA’s fall symposium in Oxford, Miss., at a summer symposium in Nashville and at the John Egerton Prize ceremony in the fall in Nashville.
Chef Sean Brock also plans to raise funds by auctioning off a private virtual cooking class that he will host with his mother. They’ll prepare Appalachian foods of his upbringing, like chicken-and-dumplings and poke salad.
While Wilson and Brock deal with their own levels of uncertainty in the restaurant business and juggle to-go orders from their restaurants, they value the Silver Sands in the tradition of meat-and-three-style food in Nashville and feel it’s crucial to pitch in.
“One of the things I love about Nashville is these traditional restaurants that feed us all,” Brock says. “Not just when we’re hungry, but when we need to be comforted and nurtured. Soul food and meat-and-threes are such an important part of it.”
And though Brock predicts closings in the restaurant industry because of this pandemic, he hopes places like the Silver Sands remain, because they help define a place and demonstate the importance of community. As Wilson notes, there are surely other important institutions struggling too.
“It’s one of the first places I take visitors from out of town,” Brock says, explaining how he shows folks what his part of the world tastes like. “It’s part of my responsibility as a member of my community to help where I can.”
Plus, it’s a darn good place to eat.
Following the footsteps of the women before her, Vaughn starts breakfast and lunch every day by 3 a.m.
“In order for it to be fresh, you have to get there that early,” she says. “It’s not like you’re opening cans up. Your neck bones, beef tips, oxtails, beans. It takes a long time to cook.”
Vaughn didn’t intentionally train for this position, though, and her mother didn’t formally show her the family secrets in the kitchen.
“I think it came with my DNA. I really don’t remember watching my mother cooking. I remember she used to make me peel sweet potatoes, and I hated that.”
Vaughn’s daughter is an even better cook, she admits, and she hopes one of her kids will carry on the legacy someday. “It’s gonna stay in the family,” she says. “So one of them better step up.”
To be sure, Vaughn is committed to staying open, despite the hardships lately.
“I’m not gonna let it go. I don’t care what I have to do. It’s something that cannot close. Everything is so brand-new [in Nashville]. This place right here, it has to continue, so people remember.”
Indeed, Nathan Wilburn has lived in the neighborhood for about 10 years. “To say the change has been drastic would be an understatement,” he says, adding that he’ll be supporting the fundraiser.
And if the persistence of Vaughn’s customers is any indication, they’ll be ready to line up for the steam table as soon as they’re able. Vaughn gets recognized at the grocery and answers phone calls from strangers wondering when she will be open. When she dropped by to see progress on the building recently, a man working relayed a message. “He said, ‘Do you know how many people been trying to come in here? They see my truck and still try to come in here.’”
And she has a message she’d like to send back to them too.
“Just let ‘em know I’m trying,” Vaughn says. “And that I miss them. I’m working on it the best I can. When it comes back, it will be better than ever.”
To support the Silver Sands fundraiser, visit cityhousenashville.com to purchase a picnic basket or make a monetary donation of any amount.