Cooking With Myra: Lots to see and taste in Charleston
By Myra Starkey
April 10, 2012 at midnight
Updated April 9, 2012 at 11:10 p.m.
Our old friends from Shiner called us to tell us about a trip they were planning to South Carolina. Doug and Laura have many things in common with us. Some of these are the love of classic architecture, antiques, history and good food. Charleston has all this, so Taylor and I agreed to join them for a long weekend.
They had planned the trip during the time of the annual Home and Garden Tour and a large antique show. There was also a window box garden walking tour.
Actually, Charleston has so much to see that it would be great to visit even if there was nothing happening. Laura took care of all the tour tickets, and I made restaurant reservations. Surprisingly, there are a large number of great chefs who make their home there.
Charleston was founded in the 1600s and named after King Charles of England (Charles Town) and was a very important southern port. Since a large part of the commerce of the south funneled through this city up until the 1860s, there were great fortunes made there and so innumerable incredible houses were constructed.
Many plantation owners would also build mansions in the city so they could come to town and enjoy some of the finer things of life. There were so many fabulous churches built that Charleston is called "the holy city."
We went into one church, and they pointed out where George Washington sat in 1791 when he attended. Since land has always been at a premium, most of these large homes and buildings were built on fairly small lots, and so they are close to the street which affords excellent viewing.
Charleston is also famous for the fact that the Civil War started there. In April 1861, the Rebel forces attacked the Union's Fort Sumter and captured it after a two-day battle.
Charleston remained one of the most important cities in the Confederacy. The war wreaked economic havoc. The struggle officially ended in 1865, but the local citizens we met still did not seem to be overly fond of Yankees or the federal government in Washington.
We spent two days going to home tours and that was what I enjoyed most. Many of these homes had some type of historical significance and the tour guides did an excellent job of telling us about the old families and pointing out original furniture.
Many of the homes dated to the 1700s and some had remained in the same families. I suppose this is possible when the wealth was abundant and the heirs were able to maintain the properties.
The gardens were filled with blooming azaleas, ferns and fragrant vines nestled in hidden courtyards. I am always grateful to those home owners for letting complete strangers peek into their lives and see all their neat stuff.
The four of us trekked for miles around the city. We must have walked at least five miles per day looking at everything and shopping. Since Charleston is one of the top tourist destinations in the U.S., there are a lot of shops. All the exercise allowed me to feast nightly and not feel one bit guilty about the calories.
On our first night, we dined at Husk, a restaurant receiving rave reviews from many Southern magazines. I ordered the fried cornbread salad with grilled pork hearts, butter peas and fennel. Shaved manchego cheese topped this delicious salad. The pork hearts were delicious once I got over the horror of eating a heart.
Then I had cornmeal dusted catfish with smoky escarole, bacon and green tomato chow-chow. Doug probably had the most interesting appetizer, since he selected southern fried chicken skins with hot sauce and honey. It was crunchy and good and really just skins.
Since each of us selected something different, we passed around plates like kids at a prom, tasting each new item and commenting on the taste.I think a trip to Husk is a must if you visit Charleston, but another favorite aspect of the restaurant is the 16-foot joggling board (bench) outside on the porch. This device is a thick board suspended on each end by a rocking support, which allows it to rock or joggle from side-to-side. I discovered the bench had a dual purpose.
The first was as a courting bench, but the second was to loosen one's back. The benches date back to the 1800s. I can't wait for Taylor to make me one.
The next night we went to "The Sound of Charleston" musical experience. The evening consisted of musical pieces that defined the history of Charleston from gospel to jazz to Gershwin. Gershwin wrote "Porgy and Bess" while in Charleston. We heard Civil War camp songs and haunting slave spirituals. "Amazing Grace" concluded the show. John Newton composed that song a few years after he had been a regular member in this same church where we were attending the concert.
After the program, we dined at Cypress, a beautiful restaurant located by the harbor. The chef, Craig Deihl, has a cookbook by the same name. We sat on the upper floor, which looked down at the huge kitchen so, needless to say, I spent a lot of time gawking at the food being prepared.
Taylor ordered the crisp wasabi tuna with garlic chili glaze. The tuna is rolled in phyllo pastry and sauteed like an egg roll then sliced thinly and served over edamame beans and shiitake mushrooms. Wow, it was delicious.
Normally, Taylor and I order two different items and share, but on this occasion he allowed me only one measly fork full and then ate the rest. As we say, "he won the prize" for ordering the most delicious item. Doug ordered chicken and dumplings, which rated a close second prize.
On our last evening, we dined at FIG. The restaurant was small, and I felt relieved I had made the reservations a month before, because otherwise, we would not have had a table. I started with the ricotta gnocchi served with lamb Bolognese (gnocchi-dumplings made from ricotta cheese).
These were delicious, and I practically licked the plate clean. Since I shared my appetizer, I felt entitled to have the soft shell crabs with ramps and globe artichokes. The crabs were not fried, as I am accustomed to, but gently sauteed, making them almost creamy in texture.
Southern foods in a southern town would not be complete without grits, and so we ended our trip at the Hominy Grill, where I had shrimp and grits for breakfast. This is their signature dish and I was not disappointed.
Charleston is a lovely town rich in history and beauty. One doesn't have to dine at famous establishments to enjoy good food. Small restaurants on King Street near the college offer southern fare at a bargain price.
I hope to return one day and stroll once again on the harbor by moonlight hand-in-hand with Taylor. The South is fortunate that Charleston was saved during "the war," as it truly is the gem of the South.
I tasted a benne seed wafer while I was in Charleston. This delicate cookie is sweet and nutty. The benne seed (sesame seed) wafer are native to the "low country" of South Carolina. The sesame plant was probably brought to this country by slaves in the 17th century. Legend had it that eating sesame seeds brought good luck.
Myra Starkey lives in Victoria. Write her in care of the Advocate, P.O. Box 1518, Victoria, TX 77901, or email email@example.com.