Monday, February 25, 2008
Charleston, The Mecca of Southern Cuisine
In recent years the Greenville restaurant scene has witnessed an increasing influx of cuisine rooted in Lowcountry tradition. Shrimp and grits, crabcakes, and fried green tomatoes have all become staples in many of our local establishments. The source of much of this gob-stuffing grub is the city of Charleston, home to numerous restaurants and cooking schools that are on the cutting edge of the chef’s knife. I decided that as a respected correspondent for a restaurant paper of some international note, that it was my responsibility to get to the bottom of just exactly what is going on in that ancient city that is driving people’s taste buds into fits of revelry unknown outside of an ecstasy-fueled rave. Also, I was invited to a wedding and would be there anyway (see this blog's original post for my thoughts on marriage). As a result, I took a trip down to Charles Town, as it was once known back in the day, and spent a weekend sampling the vittles and libations that are as bountiful there as 6’5 transvestites at a gay bar.
I arrived in the Holy City, as Charleston is known as due to its church-dominated skyline and love for Krispy Kreme (I will now lie back and soak in the boos), around nine in the evening on a dark and stormy Friday night. I met up with my friends and we chose a rendezvous point in the Market, the area where vendors hock hot sauce, sweetgrass baskets, and T-shirts etched with such witticisms as “I Eat Dirt.” Our destination proved to be Wild Wing, which as many of you who have not been on an extended acid trip know, has expanded to our fair city. Okay, so Wild Wing is not an example of Charleston cuisine, being that Buffalo wings are from some evil place in the frozen Yankee-ridden North near the fourteenth colony. The restaurant chain was, however, formed in the Lowcountry and this particular location always has live music, which is what the crowd wanted at the time. In addition, they serve buckets of beer six at a time, rather than the usual five, so things quickly spiraled out of control. We greatly enjoyed the atmosphere, which featured a soon to be betrothed chap toting a bowling ball chained to his leg. He seemed to be unable to hold onto his ball, continually dropping it on the floor and causing a loud thud and no doubt a smidgen of damage to the wooden floor. This act might have been funny once. Once. Sadly, the festivities came to a close around the midnight hour and I resolved to spend my Saturday immersed in the flavors of Charleston.
I emerged from a fitful sleep to see a warm, sunny day. I knew that meant only one thing. We must make a pilgrimage to Vickery’s. I gathered my friends and we headed off to Shem Creek, which is located alongside the water in Mt. Pleasant, just a short trip over the Cooper River from Charleston, a journey that has lost its excitement since the demolition of the rusty pile of steel that composed the previous bridge. Driving over that stucture taught you to appreciate life, since it was the closest you would probably come to death on any given day you crossed it. Once we arrived at the restaurant, our original intent was to sit in the deck area, but when hurricane force winds blew one of my friends out into the harbor we were forced to move inside. We were unable to recover the body, but we did have an impromptu burial ritual involving a coffee can and grandma's ashes. I figured they were just sitting there rotting on the mantle anyhow. After the funeral, those of us still amongst the living returned to Vickery’s and sat down for seafood as fresh as any you can find excepting the bowels of a sperm whale. At any number of restaurants located on Shem Creek, you can watch out the window as shrimp boats arrive with their daily stack of murdered crustaceans. Yes, murder most foul. And delicious! For our meal, we tried some Charleston staples like boiled shrimp, fried green tomatoes, crab cakes, and a Cuban sandwich (which I am told is from Cuba, but I believe that is a Communist lie planted by Fidel Castro in order to facilitate the overthrow of the American government). Everyone was satisfied by the meal and we quickly forgot about our dead friend Donnie, who loved bowling. Fuck it dude. We paid the bill and returned to our domicile to prepare for the wedding festivities.
The wedding ceremony was held at four inside the MUSC chapel in downtown Charleston. After a nice fifteen minute nap in my pew, it was off to the reception, which was held back in Mt. Pleasant at Boone Hall Plantation, where locals tell me the Union surrendered to the Confederacy, bringing an end to the Civil War. After the owners hid their slaves in the basement, we were allowed onto the property and got the party started right, some would say we got the party started quickly. The whores de overs (if you can’t spell if, sillify it) were exceptional. The tuxedo-clad servants brought us she crab soup and fried sweet potato balls, topped with a delightful mustard-based barbecue pork. After the main course of beer and wine, we moved on to the desert dishes (or as some call it, supper), the most impressive of which was a take on the local piece de resistance, shrimp and grits. Shrimp and grits is usually served in a dish with cheese of some sort, but in this instance the shrimp was served in something of a gumbo, with the grits in a separate dish, to be added and mixed at your leisure, sweet Larry. The result was a taste explosion that caused my tongue to become as happy as a pedophile at a 4H convention. I ate until my stomach could take no more, developed a case of bulimia, and quickly went back for more like a drunk to a bottomless trough of booze (dare to dream). Suddenly, the slaves broke into open rebellion and we were asked to leave. The night ended all too soon and so did my excursion into the realm of Charleston cuisine. I had learned and eaten a lot, but knowing Upstate chefs are catching up to the talented Lowcountry mavericks (word copyrighted by John McCain) of Southern cooking gives me a reason to return - and to gorge myself like a disgusting pig wherever I may go in our vibrant community.