Cooking With Myra: South Carolina town a true culinary adventure
By Myra Starkey
Dec. 3, 2013 at 6:03 a.m.
Two weeks ago, I went to Charleston with five special people who have been part of my life for more than 30 years. Taylor's mom, L'nell, took her four daughters on a trip to South Carolina, and I was invited to go along.
I am the only daughter-in-law of the Starkey family. Taylor has four sisters: two older - Marsella and Loree - and two younger - Melanie and Mignon.
Only Loree lives in Victoria, and over the years, I have grown to love and respect all these Starkey women. They are wise, funny, industrious, self-assured and beautiful. This is part genetic and part upbringing. They all graduated from Victoria High and afterward earned their degrees from Baylor University.
Taylor followed the same path, and the two of us met at Baylor and later married in 1982. And that is when I became part of the Starkey clan. His mom and sisters have greatly enriched my life over these many years.
These Starkey mother-daughter trips have been going on for a number of years. Even though I am not a blood relative, I guess I have been around for so long that they have now forgotten that I am not related, so they invited me. Or maybe it is that I am a refugee from Louisiana, and they just felt sorry for me.
Whatever the reason, I love good food and was excited to go to Charleston for this culinary adventure. I have been there on a trip once before with Taylor and our friends, Doug and Laura. We ate our way through the town, so I was quite familiar with the fun we would have.
Charleston was founded in 1670 and was one of the largest cities in the south through the mid-1800s. It was a busy seaport and saw much export of agricultural products from the southern plantations, as well as imports from Europe and the rest of the Americas. It would be difficult to count the number of mansions that line its shaded streets.
These were built by both the businessmen and the owners of the inland plantations who would come to this city for culture and the cool, coastal breezes. So I would say that shopping, entertainment and eating out have been a part of the Charleston scene for about 300 years. It does not seem to be slowing down.
I did absolutely nothing to prepare for the trip other than pack. Marsella found a rental-by-owner. It was an old, two-story house that appeared to have been built about 1900. Its owner had lovingly restored it, preserving the original charm while adding all the modern conveniences. There was a sitting area outside with a fountain, but we were much too busy to be sitting around, so I only glanced at this area.
The house was a short walk from the bay front across from Fort Sumter. This fort was where the first shots of the Civil War were fired in 1861. I think in Charleston they still refer to it as the War of Northern Aggression. On most mornings, we went for a walk. OK, the athletic sisters walked, and some of us slept in.
Since this is a food column, I think it only fair to tell you that I mainly ate at restaurants and did some walking in the process. And that was mostly just to work up an appetite and empty my stomach so I would be ready for the next big meal.
On Wednesday afternoon, we visited a grocery store and stocked up on wine and cheese. I bought the traditional Charleston cookies named benne seed wafers. These are amazingly light and addictive. Since it was later in the day, the girls had a glass of wine, and we then headed to our first stop, The Ordinary.
This restaurant is owned by Mike Lata, who also owns another popular eatery in town named Fig. The Ordinary made it to the Bon Appetit Magazine's 2013 best restaurants list, a feat worthy of celebration. The Ordinary is on King Street, which is a shopping mecca, and although we arrived late in the evening after the shops had closed, we made a mental note of several to visit the following morning.
We were seated in a front corner so we could watch the other diners and their dinner selections. "Oohs and aahs" were heard at a table that had just received the Tower, which is a signature dish, so we ordered this multilevel delight. It is three tiers of fresh clams, raw oysters and boiled shrimp prepared with multiple dressings, including a grapefruit fusion elixir for the clams.
I am not much of a raw fish eater since my ceviche fiasco in Peru about 10 years ago, which made me deathly ill. I recovered but not unlike one who has been struck by lightning and so fears to venture outdoors during thunderstorms. I opted for the boiled shrimp and a Caesar salad.
The restaurant is in an old bank building and has amazing decor to go along with the food. Dishes clattering, laughter at every table and waitstaff who anticipated my need for more sweet tea all night made this memorable for me.
Perhaps the best part of the meal came at the end when, although already stuffed, we chose a panna cotta with tangerines and a dark fudge mousse. This dessert won our hearts as we gobbled it up, licking our spoons to relish the tangy tangerine essence of the cream.
The following morning, we sat around planning our strategy for the day. Mignon had prepared a schedule so that we could see all the main attractions. After a light breakfast, we headed to the Charleston market, where vendors sell their wares.
There were women demonstrating the weaving of Gullah sweetgrass baskets, a tradition that has been passed down from multiple generations, and men selling whole fried peanuts.
Another vendor had a booth selling plaques emblazoned with funny sayings. Melanie and I had a great time reading these. We tried on multiple comfortable shoes at The Charleston Shoe Company.
Our next stop was the Gibbes Museum of Art, which was hosting a show of original photographs of the Civil War. Several of us went through the exhibit, and I found myself in a room full of horrid photographs of men mutilated by war. Thankfully, they were in black and white, but the brutality of war and the scars left were evident in every face.
There was a woman next to me who turned and made a comment, "If women were in charge, there would be no war since they know how long it takes to make a soldier."
I asked her if she had just come up with this statement. She said she had read it somewhere and asked if I thought it was true. Looking at those pictures made me realize that women don't have the heart for war or losing sons, so I did agree, thinking that many wars were probably not worth the cost of so many young lives. She shook her head in sadness, dabbed her eyes and moved on.
Our next stop was Husk, my all-time favorite restaurant. Chef Sean Brock has created an incredible space with the attitude, "If it doesn't come from the South, it is not coming through our door."
Upon entering, you see a chalkboard list of all the artisanal products provisioning the kitchen. Everything is delicious here. We had dinner on our last trip, and this time we had brunch.
We started with grilled ciabatta bread with Tennessee cheddar pimento cheese, pickled ramps, crisp bacon and scallops. I ordered South Carolina shrimp and grits with tomatoes, braised peppers, sweet peas and bacon. This is the absolute best shrimp and grits I have ever had, and I have had a lot in my lifetime. I think the addition of cream made the difference.
I am unsure of what everyone else had, but I protected my plate like a starving man on a desert island and ate every thing in the bowl.
On the way out, I sat on the joggling board on the front porch, which is a bench which rocks from side to side rather than front to back. This is another local tradition and really loosens up one's back.
We spent the afternoon shopping on King Street, which has everything from candy to caviar. There are hundreds of shops carrying anything you can think of. I got separated from my travel companions, and so I wandered in and out of the stores and then enjoyed a coffee before heading back to our meeting place.
We ended the day in the local marina, eating at a seafood restaurant called The Variety. It was too dark to see the boats bobbing on the water, and we barely missed the sunset. The atmosphere was friendly and relaxed. I was still full from lunch and my afternoon latte, but that did not stop me from having the fried green tomatoes stuffed with crab.
Marsella, who seldom eats fried food, had a seafood platter with onion rings, so I helped her out by nibbling off her plate. This place was quite popular with the locals who, like the locals of most places, seem to like plain-old fried food.
Husk still remains my favorite restaurant in Charleston. I'll continue with the story of this wonderful town next week.
Myra Starkey lives in Victoria. Write her in care of the Advocate, P.O. Box 1518, Victoria, TX 77901, or email firstname.lastname@example.org.