In Nabila’s garden
BY JANE F. GARVEY
After hearing so much about Nabila’s Garden in Fitzgerald, it was such a disappointment to find it closed on Saturday. But for owner Nabila Covington, Saturday is the day for her staff people, most of whom are single moms, to be with their families. Although the restaurant is not open for the public business on Saturday, you just might find her there anyway doing a special party or catering job.
Sunday dinner at noon is a different story. Out of the kitchen comes this huge smile and unique voice. Her agile use of the Southern lexicon is embellished with a decided Middle Eastern accent, prompting the uninitiated listener to pause in amazement. “Honey” and “honeybunch” liberally sprinkle her conversation. No doubt there’s a story here. How on earth does someone with her beginnings wind up cooking Southern food in Fitzgerald?
Well, it is a story. And a good one.
Born in 1951 between Alexandria and Cairo, Egypt, Nabila was drafted into the Egyptian army at age 16, serving as a journalist. “Women are expected to do military service,” she says of the Egyptian military.
Despite that “thoroughly modern Millie” start to her adult life, she was obligated to an arranged marriage while still in the army. “He was abusive,” she recalls of her first much-older husband, but the couple produced a daughter, Amal, who now lives with her three children in Valdosta.
Escaping the domestic situation, Nabila fled in 1969 with her daughter to Monrovia, Liberia, and soon had her own businesses there.
“Me, I’ve got a mind of my own,” she says laughing. She opened two restaurants in the Liberian capital, having learned to cook from watching her father. Abdual El-Amid owned his own company, she says, but loved to cook for the family. He died at age 49 in 1965, but his lessons took her to cooking both Egyptian and “international” food. She also owned an antiques shop in Monrovia.
And it’s in Monrovia where Fitzgerald and Egypt intersect. In 1971, she met Luther Covington, Captain of a U.S. Navy ship. “I learned international cooking from different chefs and Southern from Luther’s chef on board the ship he captained. We had the Navy ships in every three months, and they would just come to our place to eat.”
Two years later, Nabila and Covington were married at the U.S. Embassy in Monrovia; Luther adopted her daughter; and she relocated with her new husband and daughter to Fitzgerald. “I was so nervous that first week. All I could do was speak Arabic,” she recalls. She spoke English, but struggled at first with local variations, as it was so different from what she had learned. In Africa, “it’s more British,” she recalls, and remembers how the slang expressions in Southern English nearly were her undoing. Her new husband taught her needed expressions. She practiced saying “Piggly Wiggly,” a linguistic exercise that still elicits amazement from her as she remembers. She wondered about the term “cotton pickin’.” “Where do they pick cotton?” she remembers having mused. Her stepchildren straightened that out for her. And she’s still amused by the expressions “Golly.”
Her new in-laws taught her more about cooking Southern, and life seemed good. The couple had a son, Luther, who served in the Navy like his father. But the boy was only a few years old when his father died. Widowed, she opened a sandwich shop called the “Khaki Sack,” a 25-seat operation that did a brisk business in brown-bagged sandwiches. It burned in 1983, then she began a catering business and did that for three years. Still catering, she leased the country club restaurant and ran that for 15 years. Then in 2001, she opened Nabila’s Garden in downtown Fitzgerald, and still does catering.
To say that Fitzgerald has taken to its Egyptian transplant, long a U.S. citizen would be an understatement. As she talks, Nabila keeps a practiced eye on her customers as they filter in. It’s a Sunday, and the after-church crowd is coming in droves. “I put you on your regular table,” she calls out to one customer, and doesn’t have to check an index card to know which table that is. Staffers know what regulars will want to drink with their meals even before they open the door.
Introducing another customer who comes all the way from Ashburn, she says: “He loves me; he loves my children. The whole family comes here.” He loves her black-eyed peas, he says, adding: “They taste like my mother’s.” The patrons obviously think she’s gotten it right.
The food runs the gamut, including the requisite fried chicken, and occasional Mediterranean touches. There’s a Mediterranean meatloaf, she points out, with no ketchup in it. “It’s more Italian,” she says. But the chicken ‘n’ dumplings are total Southern home-style, and so are the stuffed peppers. The crispy fried side meat, a bacon-like slice of streaked fat-and-lean pork with its rind fried to a delectable salty-sweet crisp state, is a Sunday regular. The very tender ham is succulent, and sausage and cabbage are warming on a cold day. She cooks carrots with pineapple. Very little canned food is used, she says, mostly fresh or frozen.
While she has known the well-connected and highly placed, it’s the home folk who love her the best and are solicitous of her health. Patrons ask how her arm is doing, because she’s had a rotator cuff problem that’s still a bit tender, as she discovers when she tries to help a customer in a wheelchair. Bill Cobb, her fiancé, whom she met 11 years after becoming a widow, comes in to help. An Army veteran, Cobb handles the cash register. He’s been ill lately, but still pitches in as much as he can.
Nabila’s six siblings are all deceased, so, as she says, “This is my home.” Her fellow citizens would agree. When daughter Amal was married, and the preacher asked, “Who gives this woman to this man in marriage?” the entire congregation, says Nabila, responded in unison: “We do.”
At Nabila’s Garden, her restaurant in Fitzgerald, Nabila Covington serves up delicious examples of Southern cuisine. The following recipes are from the extensive repertoire she offers her customers.
Vegetable shortening, for preparing baking dish
2 eggs, beaten
Broccoli and Tots Casserole
Vegetable shortening, for preparing baking dish
Baked Vegetable and Beef Stew
2 pounds stew beef meat, cut into approximately 1-inch cubes
Glazed Carrots With Pineapple
Jane Garvey writes about food and wine, among other subjects, from her home base in Decatur.
Reprinted with permission by Georgia Magazine, www.georgiamagazine.org
Correction: Luther Covington, after serving years in the Navy, was a Dredge Captain.
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Nabila's Garden Restaurant
201 South Main Street • Fitzgerald, Georgia 31750
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