Originally created 12/14/01

Southerners show hospitality



SAVANNAH - Food comforts.

That's why five Savannah-area women washed thousands of potatoes in New York on Thursday.

Today, they'll serve more than 3 tons of Lowcountry boil to crews working at the World Trade Center site.

"Food and kitchen are central," said Van Robbins, a Savannah psychotherapist who is one of the organizers. "Look at every holiday. It's about getting together and eating."

Ms. Robbins got the idea to mobilize her pals after watching Good Morning America.

A segment of the TV program showed chef Emeril Lagasse taking 100 pies to Nino's Restaurant to help feed rescue workers.

Shortly afterward, American Airlines Flight 587 crashed in Queens.

That sealed the deal for Ms. Robbins. She and her friends would travel to New York and cook.

The friends, who call themselves Southern Smiles, started their charity efforts about four years ago.

They're professional women - a vice president at St. Joseph's/Candler, a restaurateur, a psychotherapist, a police lieutenant, an event planner from Atlanta, and one friend who was laid off from Gulfstream in November.

They aim to put a personal touch on giving back to their community, so they do things such as help single moms buy presents for their children at Christmas.

This year they wanted to help New York. Again, they wanted it to be personal.

They contacted Nino's Restaurant, about eight blocks from the World Trade Center on Canal Street.

Since Sept. 13, the restaurant has been feeding rescue workers - as many as 5,000 a day - for free. Initially, the restaurant's owner, Antonio Nino Vendome, provided the food and service, but then corporations and individuals started to help.

"Everybody's volunteering," said Alan Segan, a spokesman for Nino's.

Groups have shown up from all over the country, and celebrities have made quiet appearances.

Dan Quayle served potatoes. Actor William Baldwin served lunch on a recent Monday. Miss Universe also has pitched in.

Southern Smiles usually funds its own efforts, but with the cost at about $35,000, the women sought corporate contributions for the food and lodging. Friends and family, about 28 people in all, will go to New York to cook and serve the Lowcountry boil, corn muffins, iced tea and pecan pie.

The food will be stored in a warehouse until they arrive. They'll cook it in a tent in front of the restaurant.

One of the Southern Smiles volunteers is Ann Holmes, who is originally from England. She worked as a temp in the World Trade Center when she first came to the United States. Now she's looking for work after losing her job at Gulfstream.

It's not just the food they're supplying that's important, she said.

"It's not a normal day's work," Ms. Holmes said of the rescue effort. "They're literally digging out their co-workers. Those workers need support. Even if it's just a smiley face or a joke or a shrimp."

The shrimp is Louis, the group's new mascot. At 25 pounds and 4 feet long, the pink fabric crustacean is unlikely to fit into an overhead bin. He is taking FedEx to New York, Ms. Holmes said.

The home-cooked food, the trip to New York to serve it, and even Louis all make a point, said Lynda Long, a co-organizer who is a vice president at St. Joseph's/Candler.

"We want to let them know people in Savannah are thinking of them," she said.