This summer has really flown by. And we kind of weren't paying attention to the planning of any kind of vacation. Before we knew it, the weeks had already been booked for soccer camp, sleep-away camp, classes, you name it. And we were left trying to figure out how to slip in a little family vacation time between all the commitments.
We also wanted to find another place we could meet up with some of our broader family, like we did last summer in Maine. We picked Charleston, South Carolina - a place that my Bride and I had visited a lot way back when we lived in Augusta, GA. But it had been more than 12 years (!), and we both thought it was time to head back. (the other option was New Orleans, but the Boy isn't quite up to Hurricane-drinking-age yet.)
In case you have missed out on the experience, South Carolina in August is a touch warm, and a bit humid. It was about 95 degrees with 80%+ humidity most days. We brought the dog along for the trip, and she kept shooting us looks that seemed to indicate she was a little underwhelmed with the Southern Summer.
Here are a few other pictures of the week.
We roadtripped it down. An 18 hour drive. I love road trips. They were kind of a family tradition when I was growing up that I don't hear enough about these days. But I've got I-95 fairly well charted, and the kids do well in the back seat. So we loaded up the car, and headed south, hunting for what has become the traditional first pit stop on any road trip.
Bojangles - cajun chicken in a biscuit.
My Bride and I swap the driving every couple/three hundred miles or so, and I bring along hours and hours of BBC Radio 4 podcasts ('Gardeners' Question Time', 'Thinking Allowed', 'The Farm Programme'). Time just flies by!
I can tell my relative relationship to the Mason-Dixon line from the abundance and variety of porkskin products available at your average gas station.
That one at the top? You read that correctly. That says "FAT BACK." In a freaking bag.
These are my people.
The trip really started out all about food, and we tried our best to carry that theme all the way through the week.
Before we went, I had heard an interview with chef Sean Brock, executive chef at McCrady's and owner of Husk - a new restaurant he had recently opened to celebrate and showcase the best of Southern cooking and ingredients. Chef Brock spoke with Churchillian-passion at great length on national radio about the dwindling supply of sorghum syrup to the American public, and why that was a tragedy of near epic proportions.
I told my Bride that I didn't care what else we saw. I had to eat at that guy's restaurant.
We browsed and grazed and gluttoned. We planned out outings around where we would eat. Fortunately, Charleston is a walking city, and we walked everywhere, every day, for literally miles and miles and miles (in the sweltering heat. Did I mention it was hot?) - thus ensuring we worked off our last meals, and working up another appetite for the next one.
We ate lunch at the Swamp Fox on King Street. The decor kind of sucks in a hotel-restaurant-slash-conference-center sort of way. But the food was terrific.
We started with a complimentary chef's plate of house-made pimento cheese spread, served with slices of pickled okra and crusty french bread.
I ordered what I had come to Charleston for: Shrimp & grits. (and a rum cocktail. because there had already been much walking.)
Those of you who say you do not like grits do not properly understand the heights that such a humble base can be taken to. I tell you: go here. Get these grits. This recipe made me weep. It was that good.
Or maybe it was the rum. Either way, these were the best grits I have ever eaten in my life.
We rolled out of that restaurant after getting the chef's card (Steve Klatt - who wants to share his recipes! how cool is that! I love this town). After a couple of hours of walking around the heat (holy mother of all that is sacred, have I mentioned yet how hot is was there?) we needed refreshement. We found Nick's BBQ.
Critter: We looked at that place already, didn't we? Isn't it the fancy one?
Me: Kid - anyplace that has a neon pig sign out front is pretty much saying "Come on in. We're short on fancy around here."
I picked up perhaps the best BBQ shirt I've ever found at this place. (And I know of which I speak. I have a few BBQ shirts.) I didn't manage to snag a picture of it. So you'll have to make do with this instead.
We had dinner the next night a great little place called Poogan's Porch. Poogan was the owner's dog. Apparently he liked the porch. I can see why. It was a nice porch.
Here the kids were enjoying the "joggling bench" - something I've never run into outside of Charleston. It's kind of like an old fashioned novelty seat, with rockers on the bottom, and long enough that you can bounce (or joggle, if you will) the board up and down, and end up squished together in the middle.
There's a tradition in Charleston of she-crab soup. There are competitions. It's more bisque like than chowder-esque. But with chunks of crabmeat in there. Some people leave the crab roe in. I don't know what Poogan's does. But I highly recommend it.
I also had the grilled peach salad with thinly sliced, crisp rounds of country ham. And then the plantation fried chicken. Mostly because it came with 'spicy collard greens'. And I am totally into that kind of thing.
The next day, we squeezed in the old City Market. And Ft. Sumter. And Battery Park.
Actually, I think those were three separate days. But who cares? There's more food to talk about!
When we were at the City Market, we found one vendor selling various confectionaries and sweets. And okra chips. The lady there said she sold more of these than she did all the chocolate combined.
They're deep fried. Taste kind of like sweet potato chips. Except greener. I don't know exactly what that means, but trust me. That's correct. They're delicious, and you can't just eat one. We paired it with cane-sugar cola and grape soda.
Look at how pretty she is. This is the girl I come home to every day.
When I got to Husk and saw the menu, I was like a kid sitting in Santa's lap. "I want one of these. And one of those. And ooh, that other one looks good Screw it. Have the elves bring me two of everything, and an extra helping of reindeer steak."
I liked it so much, I snagged the menu and started taking notes.
Me: What's that like? The pig's ear, I mean?
Waitress: Like a chicken wing, wrapped in bacon.
Me: You had me at "bacon". Bring two orders!!
I had catfish for my entree - perfectly done, and re-establishing its place as my favorite of all the fish-housepet crossbreeds.
We ordered a skillet of 'bacon-cornbread' to share for the table. Which came in its own little seasoned, cast iron skillet (the only proper way to make cornbread). It was coated with bourbon salt. That's salt, drenched in bourbon, and allowed to dry. This can only be explained by divine inspiration.
It gets better.
My Bride and I were arguing over who got the last piece when the waitress came back. My step-mother is far too gracious a lady to stake a claim, and it was good enough that I was going to be crass and let her cede without an argument. The kids both wanted more, but they're far too small and un-muscled to put up a real fight for it. However, my Bride can kick my ass if she chooses. And even if she is usually far too sweet to show it, I could tell she was probably willing to draw blood for this one.
The waitress laughed and explained.
"That's not just butter you're spreading on that. That's butter whipped with rendered pork lard. That's what makes it so good."
Where Husk was comfortably fantastic, McCrady's is a fancier affair. It's one of the oldest restaurants in the US - George Washington was served in the upstairs dining room. They have a certain cache of culture and heritage to maintain. It made me glad I had changed into long pants for the evening.
What I really loved about these restaurants was that the waitstaff was all as excited to see us and tell us about their food as we were to read them and select our meal. That makes a difference. The Critter was over the moon about the skirt steak she ordered, and even the Boy (whose foodie gene is late in blooming) was enjoying himself with the linen tablecloths.
We had the tasting menu. Mine started with this - beef tartare and crispy fried beef rinds.
As discussed, I'm pretty versed in your various types of fried pig skins. I can (and do) sometimes wax poetic about the proper treatment and condiments to bring out the flavor and texture. I can even offer an opinion on fried chicken skin.
But beef rinds?
I shouldn't have been surprised (given my love of all other things rind), but they were fantastic.
The waitress explained:
They're not actually skin. They're beef tendon. Thinly sliced and dehydrated. Then dropped into hot oil, seasoned, and served.
Who the hell thinks of things like this?? A genius. That's who.
How do you top that off? Small square slices of perfectly skillet-fried pork belly.
Yes, we did actually get out and see a few other things around town. The architecture and the pace of Charleston will keep it amongst my favorite spots, even if they didn't have the great restaurant scene. And there's plenty of other things in the area to keep one occupied (we didn't make it out to the beach at all. Or the Yorktown.).
But I love the ad hoc culinary tour we took, and I'd plan another trip of this kind in a heart beat, maybe even out to some of the food source sites and/or into the kitchens of chefs that are open to that kind of thing. I know 'culinary tourism' is a sort of on-again/off-again trend. But I asked my fellow travellers, and they seemed to agree that this trip was an overall success.
(For a whole bunch more pics of the trip, you can click here)