Cheer for Charleston cuisine, by Kathryn Tomasetti
The Independent, April 2019
Growing up in America’s snowy midwest, South Carolina came onto my childhood radar courtesy of our local botanical gardens. The three “domes” housed a jungle, a desert… and Charleston. The latter was a Technicolor oasis, garlanded with fragrant climbers and sun-dappled paths.
Decades on I’ve made Britain my home, but Charleston’s appeal has endured, and the lure of exotic dishes like okra soup, oyster roasts and the “Charleston nasty” (yes, really) has snagged another breed of culinary voyagers. So when British Airways launched the first-ever direct London-Charleston flights this month, my loosest pants were packed.
Uniquely for an American city, Charleston is as walkable as Cambridge or Bath (although its horse-drawn carriages are popular too). Pencil-thin church steeples punctuate the city skyline; wooden porches trim the picture-book-pretty clapboard homes. So clement is the climate that bars spill Mint Julep cocktails into palm-shaded piazzas. Downtown King Street, completely pedestrianised on Sundays, buzzes with smoothie shacks and vibrant little eateries.
What enticing spots they are. From the snug booths at The Rarebit, I dive into piles of crispy okra with cajun remoulade. Plus the house special: buttermilk fried chicken with waffles. The local cuisine is far from light, thanks to both its favoured cooking methods (howdy, deep fat fryer!) and its punchy ingredients, like smoky sausage and chillis. But it sure is tasty.
Charleston’s legacy as a British trading post is multi-faceted. Gullah-Geechee cuisine heralds from West African recipes that emphasise seasonality and big flavours (two-thirds of African slaves entered the United States via Charleston’s port). Age-old examples include okra stew and bacon-dotted red rice at Bertha’s Kitchen (2332 Meeting Street Road) and fried chicken gizzards at Nana’s Seafood & Soul. Locals don’t shy away from the contemporary either. Want to check out the daily specials at Nana’s? Follow its Insta account.
The more I explored Charleston, the more the interplay of tradition and innovation came to light. The historic Charleston City Market is ideal for picking up those flavourful local samples: Palmetto cheese grits, Gullah seasoning and crunchy okra chips. Nearby Charleston Winery (63 South Market Street) supports the county’s only wine-maker, Deep Water Vineyard. Parks, waterfront proms and the nearby sands of Folly Beach offer picnic spots aplenty.
Around the corner, I stumble upon that most modern of eateries: the food truck. Or in this case, a Booze Pop truck. A local slurping a frozen Southern Belle cocktail-ice lolly encourages me to come back in January, when the city hosts its annual Food Truck Festival, followed in early March by the Charleston Food and Wine Festival.
Those on limited schedules can take a Charleston Culinary Tour (2½hr tours from $65pp). I ask company boss Guy Hollowell for his hometown’s unmissable dish. “I would recommend shrimp and grits,” he advises. This calorific medley blends prawns and sausage with creamy cornmeal grits, all smothered in savoury Lowcountry gravy. “It’s a Charleston staple – and everyone thinks that theirs is the best.”
Almost every day trip from Charleston has a foodie link. Before the flight home I ponder Middleton Place (a landmark plantation house with another fine restaurant) and McClellanville (the shrimping industry’s fishy nexus). I settle on Murrells Inlet, a sun-drenched sea village that was once home to the area’s largest fishing fleet – and now houses a lovely boardwalk. Here, the Claw House doesn’t fry all its ingredients: try lobster rolls, oysters and locally sourced ceviche for size.
It once took three months to sail across the Atlantic to Britain from here. Now it’s only eight hours direct.
Kathryn Tomasetti writes travel stories for The Independent, The Guardian and Delicious Magazine