The irony of watching “12 Years a Slave” the night before embarking on a little tour of Charleston, S.C., was not lost on me. Nor was the fact that William Tecumseh Sherman is one of my great, great, great uncles, a fact that I may or may not have proudly shouted from one of the city’s many church steeples had I imbibed enough bourbon. But this was more of a food and architecture tour of that lovely city.
The trip began as my treat for a good friend who has done a bucket load of work for me over the past year. It ended up being a trip with five kids in their 20s and four grownups. The organizing of meals and walking forays was like wrangling a basket of kittens. The weather, sadly, did not cooperate. It was in the 40s and raining sideways for three out of four days. But the food was a delight and a revelation.
One of the best meals we had was our first lunch at Cru Cafe, a tiny place we stumbled upon near our hotel. Fried green tomatoes with pork belly croutons, Thai mussels, barbecue brisket, bread pudding. Oh, and salads, of course. Dinner that night was at the Peninsula Grill, a beautiful restaurant (brown velvet walls, portraits of dockworkers!) in our hotel. It is justifiably famous for its coconut cake, a multi-tiered marvel of whiteness and light. Oysters, veal, scallops, flounder, banana creme brulée. No vegetables!
The foods and architecture of Charleston are similar to New Orleans, and the prices at the restaurants were shockingly reasonable. There were grits on every menu, biscuits, chicken and waffles, fried alligator, cream gravies, boiled peanuts, hush puppies, antelope, and oysters. Desserts are taken seriously, usually served in the form of a mile-high cake or dense and sweet pie.
Charleston survived the American Revolution, the War of 1812, and the Civil War. Even pirates and hurricanes have not been able to destroy its antebellum mansions, gazillion churches, and Spanish-moss-draped trees. It is the seventh largest container port in the United Stages. The first golf game in America was played in Charleston and the first public college, museum, and playhouse are here. George Gershwin composed his opera “Porgy and Bess” while living on Folly Beach and Porgy and Bess are buried in the James Island Presbyterian Church graveyard. The state dance is the shag.
We took a brief tour of a mansion-guest house on Charleston Harbor. As some members of the family were still living in parts of the house, our tour was a bit restricted and dare I say, creepy? The chintz and Victoriana everywhere gave me the vapors, or whatever it is that Southern belles faint from. Thank the Lord there were crystal bowls of Hershey’s kisses every three feet of the tour.
From there we were off to Poogan’s Porch for more fried green tomatoes and she-crab soup. Poogan’s is named for a stray dog that just decided to live on the porch. The house is reportedly haunted by the ghost of a spinster who died within. The local police still receive so many calls about reported sightings of her that they totally ignore them. This place had the best biscuits, along with pimento cheese balls with green tomato jam, blackened catfish, and maple syrup that has been spiked with Texas Pete hot sauce.
In walking around downtown Charleston we observed quite a few signs saying, “No concealed weapons allowed inside.” According to the Huffington Post, a new law passed last month in the state allows people with “concealed-weapon permits to carry firearms in places that serve food or alcohol, as long as they don’t drink while inside.” Establishments can opt to ban them, but must prominently display a sign in their window to that effect.
Quite a few shops would have decanters of bourbon at the ready and zinc tubs full of ice and Pabst Blue Ribbon beer. And perhaps a pitcher of sweet tea or lemonade for the ladies. Garden and Gun magazine is a bible here, a glossy publication extolling the virtues of both.
One of our best meals was at Hominy Grill, a simple but sophisticated little place where our friend Beanie’s daughter is a waitress. We got the royal treatment (free shrimp beignets with a tart, tomato salsa) and feasted on oyster soup, fried chicken livers, triggerfish, squash casserole, creamed mustard greens, Hummingbird cake, and the restaurant’s famous buttermilk pie. The tables are set with plastic bear honey dispensers and boiled peanuts. If you’ve never had boiled peanuts, they are hard to describe and not to everyone’s liking. The peanuts are soft and mushy within the shell, and have been boiled in very salty water. They have the texture of chestnuts but with a mild peanut flavor. Most of our basket of kittens loved them.
There are a few culinary specialties that you can bring home: stone ground grits from Geechie Boy or Anson Mills, and Carolina yellow rice. There are sweetgrass baskets for sale in the outdoor markets and they are beautiful. The baskets were first woven by slaves from West Africa over 300 years ago and were used to store rice, produce, cotton, shellfish, clothing, sewing supplies, breads, and biscuits. Some members of the African-American community of Mount Pleasant still weave the baskets that start out green and smelling of sweet hay and dry to a pale, pretty beige.
The meticulous preservation of Charleston gives one the feeling of having truly stepped back in time. The horse-drawn carriages and people who use words like “tawdry” and “holler” add to the atmosphere, along with ancient palms and houses the color of shrimp bisque. It’s like a cleaner New Orleans without the jazz. Best of all, the chefs and cooks of Charleston are preserving culinary history while bringing low country cuisine into the next century.
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