The Foodways of Charleston

For the better part of two and a half days, I did little else but eat and drink my way through Charleston, S.C., with 120 other like-minded gluttons from across the country.

We gathered for the seventh annual "field trip" of the Southern Foodways Alliance, a group dedicated to the documentation and celebration of the culinary traditions and foodways of the south.

At the table with cookbook author Nathalie Dupree. (Bill Addison)

As part of the Center for the Study of Southern Culture at the University of Mississippi in Oxford, Miss., SFA is 800 members strong, under the devoted leadership of John T. Edge (who is better known as "John T."), a food writer, commentator, cookbook author and impassioned whirling dervish.

The membership reflects a variety of food-and-drink connections and interests, including chefs, restaurateurs, entrepreneurs, historians, academics, food writers as well as passionate food hobbyists.

On this trip, for instance, I was in the company of cookbook authors Nathalie Dupree, Damon Lee Fowler, the brothers (Matt and Ted) Lee and Gullah native Sallie Anne Robinson, to name just a few. Here, though, they're just regular folks, hungry to learn more about this mysterious, irresistible place that is the American South. Everything we eat and drink throughout the weekend has historical meaning and relevance to Charleston, which is considered the home of Lowcountry cuisine.

The scene at Bowen's Island Restaurant Saturday night. (Kim O'Donnel)

This means boiled peanuts, rice, okra, crab, shrimp and oysters, for starters. Friday morning breakfast was "The Big Nasty," a piece of fried chicken topped with white sausage gravy, bookended by a biscuit. (I was mortified by how much I was enjoying this at 8:15 a.m.) Lunch was classic soul food made possible by three family-run dens keeping the traditions alive -- Martha Lou's Kitchen, Gullah Cuisine and Bertha's Soul Food. It was a feast of lima beans, collards, okra gumbo, fried chicken (and pork chops) and banana pudding. The honored cooks refuse to share their secrets, but that's okay, as long as they keep on cookin'.

With just a few hours to digest, we worked our way to Bowen's Island Restaurant, a seafood joint with an illustrious past and a unique way of doing things, to say the least. Ever know of a restaurant that has its own oyster pickers on site? Me neither.

Originally a fish camp, where fisherman would dock and fish all night, Bowen's eventually began serving food. Its unique history over the course of sixty-plus years caught the attention of the James Beard Foundation last year, designating it an American Classic. Owner Robert Barber, Jr., grandson of the original owners, May and Jimmy Bowen, received the award wearing shrimper's boots. Barber also ran for lieutenant governor of South Carolina last year, losing by 3,100 votes.

Last fall, Bowen's Island burned to the ground, and shortly thereafter, SFA dispatched oral historian Amy Evans to document Bowens and its cast of characters, including oyster pickers "Goat" Lafayette, Nell Walker and Jack London.

On Saturday, we found ourselves lunching on a 21st-century interpretation (and deconstruction) of three South Carolina classics: she-crab soup, rice bird and syllabub, under the molecular gastronomic wizardry of chef Sean Brock of McGrady's.

Later in the day, we tasted Madeira, a fortified wine from the Portuguese island with the same name, with strong historical ties to colonial America, and Charleston, in particular. In fact, Madeira was not only the only wine consumed, it often was the only beverage, when water was unfit to drink.

Our last supper together was on the grounds of the Old City Jail, an imposing Gothic structure with a wild, haunting past. Built in 1802, the four-storied building operated as the Charleston County jail until 1939, housing famous prisoners including slave revolutionary Denmark Vesey. Locals tell you that if you walk the perimeter of the building three times, you will meet the ghost of Lavinia Fisher, a serial killer who is said to have been hung in her wedding dress around 1820. Now under the guardianship of the American College of Building Arts, the building is open for private tours if you need a good scare.

The Gothic towers of Charleston's Old City Jail. (Kim O'Donnel)

Dinner, however, was far from haunting, a buffet from three culinary heavyweights: Louis Osteen (shrimp and grits) Donald Barickman (fried flounder with corn and okra salad) and Frank Lee (black-eyed peas with pulled pork and some kind of salsa that I licked off my fingers).

My belly still full when my plane touched down yesterday afternoon, I fell into a food coma once home, my brain also sifting through the history lessons and powerful imagery. Tomorrow: More on things to do, shop and eat in Charleston, and more historical nuggets.

By Kim ODonnel |  June 25, 2007; 11:53 AM ET African-American History , Travel
Previous: Kim in Charleston | Next: Getting to Know Charleston


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Thanks for sharing the details of your trip, Kim. I'm jealous! I follow the goings on of the SFA, and had seriously considered going. For future reference, do you think that non-professionals (albeit hardcore foodies) would be welcome? I may try for next year.

Posted by: MBinDC | June 25, 2007 12:53 PM

MB: Culinary non-professionals are most welcome to come. The only requirement is that you like good food and drink. The nice thing, too, is that you can make of the experience what you you want. There's a little something for everyone.

Posted by: Kim O'Donnel | June 25, 2007 1:05 PM

What did you think of the Madeira? Was there a featured vintage/label? My husband is a bit of a colonial history buff and often reads about TJ, Washington, etc. drinking Madeira. We tried a bottle once and it was... now quite gawdawful, but close.... we figured we must have chosen a poor representative of the line. Any thoughts? Or recommendations for where we can get recommendations?


Posted by: Madeira | June 25, 2007 1:35 PM

Mannie Berk, of The Rare Wine Company, was our guide. We tasted two Madeiras -- the first was a Charleston Sercial under the Rare Wine Co. Historic Series. It is moderately priced, at $39.95. The second one, was a limited edition, called a New Orleans Madeira, produced after Katrina. It was much sweeter. Not sure sure of its price or availability. I rather liked the Charleston Sercial and liked it better with food than just for sipping. The Web site is:

Posted by: Kim O'Donnel | June 25, 2007 3:24 PM

I know you can get that Madeira at Arrowine in Arlington...I've gotten it there before. And, just because...I love Charleston! Kim, can't wait to read about the other places you much good food and drink! I was so glad to see you got to FIG!

Posted by: More Madeira | June 25, 2007 5:23 PM

I've enjoyed reading this post. About a year ago I traveled to Charleston for a company meeting, and was able to explore for all of 2 hours on foot. I walked fast. I was fascinated by the tiny cemetary behind an old church (was that the Circular Church?), just imagining all the people that had walked those paths through the centuries. At that time, I vowed to myself to return to Charleston with my fiance for a proper few days to truly explore the culture, architecture and, most of all, the food! We are going to have to start planning.

Posted by: NSinBaltimore | June 29, 2007 4:42 PM

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