Despite the best efforts of Old Charleston to maintain a dandified, Romanticist version of the antebellum South, the effort is undone by the fare of the South Carolina’s Lowcountry. The foods of the region reflect the terrior of the deep coastal south–sweet teas for humid days, vast catches of coastal shrimp and the bounty of native maize turned to mushy grits.
Grits are the true measure of one’s acculturation into southern living. When sampling grits in my Old Dominion haunts, there was something in my cold Northerner DNA unable to allow for my comprehension the corn porridge–akin to steel cut oatmeal with none of the charm. Grits in fact are a morning staple, the cereal of the South and as important to the start of a new day as a cuppa joe. And on my first trip to Charleston and into the Deep South, I decided that I needed to come to terms with my northern aggression toward her food and culture.
That aggression of the Civil War era comes out in different ways for the history buff. After all, Charleston was the town that launched the Civil War. Confederate cannon still pridefully point toward Fort Sumter from White Point Park and Gardens. Memorials to fallen Confederates stand in bronze for eternity there.
I was not in Charleston for the history lesson, as I could have enough of that from Manassas to Gettysburg back home. I was here in part to adjudicate a different sort of Civil War–a Civil War of cuisine. After all, the North was raised on the hearty food of its English, German and Dutch heritage. Northerners ate meatloafs and boiled dinners and beans. The war was fought over a lot of things–industrial vs. agrarian, states rights vs. federal control, and slavery vs. abolition. Except for the latter case, the country is still debating over the merits of the others. Based on the northern cuisine, the war might have been waged over who had the better food, but I digress.
Mastering the grits as breakfast food was only the entry level into Lowcountry cuisine. Adding shrimp to the creamy mixture, fried in bacon fat and served not only for breakfast but all day long, was graduate school work. Italians, Europhiles, and most kosher-keeping people would find the combination of milky grits and briny decapod crustaceans a bit difficult to take in one course, if at all. Embracing shrimp and grits then became not only a challenge to my unionist loyalties, but my cultural and possibly religious sentiments as well!
To conquer those biases, I sought out locales in Charleston that could set this son of Billy Yank right. My first attempt took me to Jestine’s Kitchen, near the location of the old Citadel (now an Embassy Suites) in downtown Charleston. Jestine’s has a lot of character–a greasy spoon serving up Lowcountry classics such as fried chicken and okra, and “table wine”–the name of their sweet tea. Jestine’s tribute to Shrimp and Grits is only available on Sundays, and well worth it alongside those aforementioned southern staples. Receiving those dishes required a bit of patience, as I had to settle in for a long two-hour lunch to accommodate the slow preparation and delivery. (Nothing comes quickly in the South. Northerners who are accustomed to speeding through a meal are in for a shock. Plan on taking your time in Charleston with everything you do. The locals know why–the heat is such that speed-walking down Meeting Street will leave them swampy and miserable. Going slowly keeps you cool, and forces politeness.)
In truth, there was nothing to fear in this simple dish. Bacon has a way of augmenting and complementing most foods, and the shrimp were no exception. The grits make for a clean canvas for the shrimp. At first, I thought the dish too dense and hot for the climate (90 degrees in late April) but the airiness of the grits and snowy shrimp seemed to settle easily. Doused with home-brewed sweet tea, I felt the biases of the Union upbringing wearing off a bit.
My trip just starting, and with Jestine’s out of the grits business until next Sunday, I needed an alternate. In the core of downtown, I found the old City Market. Dating back to the early 1800’s the Greek Temple styled-market was the central store for foodstuffs in the city. Today, artisans descending from the African “Gullah” culture weave sweetgrass baskets for sale in the old shop stalls.
Near the old City Market was another Charleston legend–Hyman’s. Now in their fourth generation, Hyman’s row of restaurants (Hyman’s, Hyman’s Express and Aaron’s Deli) also specialize in that Lowcountry fare. Hyman’s has a slight variation on the theme, with a Parmesan sauce on the Shrimp and Grits that could act as training wheels for the northern skeptic. I felt, after Jestine’s that I had evolved my palate to Charleston’s taste and refinements in cuisine, and eschewed the sauce.
The irony of Charleston is the irony found in all Southern culture. Cities like Charleston and Savannah try to create a cultural heritage around the “lost South”–those gentry whose gentile civility and hospitality were lost in the Civil War. Of course, that life of privilege was sustained on the backs of an enslaved people. And yet, while those coastal cities of the Deep South retain much of their physical antebellum attributes, the taste of the South is not at all something that would have been familiar to the Calhouns and Pinckney’s and other first families of Charleston. The tastes of the south–of BBQ and pork and Shrimp and Grits–were the foods of the slaves and indentured servants, made from the scraps of the harvest and the gleanings from the sea. To experience Shrimp and Grits in the shadow of “The Holy City’s” elegant town homes and Rainbow Row with that knowledge creates a cultural dissonance that never really resolves, but nonetheless tastes glorious.