<BODY><!-- --><div id="b-navbar"><a href="http://www.blogger.com/" id="b-logo" title="Go to Blogger.com"><img src="http://www.blogger.com/img/navbar/3/logobar.gif" alt="Blogger" width="80" height="24" /></a><form id="b-search" action="http://www.google.com/search"><div id="b-more"><a href="http://www.blogger.com/" id="b-getorpost"><img src="http://www.blogger.com/img/navbar/3/btn_getblog.gif" alt="Get your own blog" width="112" height="15" /></a><a href="http://www.blogger.com/redirect/next_blog.pyra?navBar=true" id="b-next"><img src="http://www.blogger.com/img/navbar/3/btn_nextblog.gif" alt="Next blog" width="72" height="15" /></a></div><div id="b-this"><input type="text" id="b-query" name="q" /><input type="hidden" name="ie" value="UTF-8" /><input type="hidden" name="sitesearch" value="iscasemvara.blogspot.com" /><input type="image" src="http://www.blogger.com/img/navbar/3/btn_search.gif" alt="Search" value="Search" id="b-searchbtn" title="Search this blog with Google" /><a href="javascript:BlogThis();" id="b-blogthis">BlogThis!</a></div></form></div><script type="text/javascript"><!-- function BlogThis() {Q='';x=document;y=window;if(x.selection) {Q=x.selection.createRange().text;} else if (y.getSelection) { Q=y.getSelection();} else if (x.getSelection) { Q=x.getSelection();}popw = y.open('http://www.blogger.com/blog_this.pyra?t=' + escape(Q) + '&u=' + escape(location.href) + '&n=' + escape(document.title),'bloggerForm','scrollbars=no,width=475,height=300,top=175,left=75,status=yes,resizable=yes');void(0);} --></script><div id="space-for-ie"></div>

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Memories of Grandma

All quiet on the blog front in the last week, I know. Where my motivation went, I’ll never know.

I do know that if I don’t plant my butt in front of a computer more often and actually start typing, I won’t be getting to the Asheville part of my road trip until December! Geez.

And yet, this post has little to do with my road trip and everything to do with missing my Grandma, whose grave and old home I visited while back. I realize this blog is mostly about food, but I was going through three years worth of papers stuffed into boxes last Sunday and found a copy of an interview my mother did with my grandma shortly before she died.

Let me testify: if you don’t do something like this (an interview) with your own family, you might regret it. I simply wasn’t around my grandmother enough to learn the things mentioned in this interview on my own. And, unfortunately, she died during a period of my youth where I busy trying to get away from my family. I rarely spoke to her by phone since she was hard of hearing, and most of our conversations had to be done face to face.

So, this interview means a lot to me. It’s one of the few pieces of my grandmother’s life I have left, and I cherish it more than anyone could ever know. No amount on earth could ever be worth what these few paragraphs mean to me.

Note: The following is written the way my grandma spoke, as transcribed by my mother. Since she was speaking to my mother, “your grandpa” and “your daddy” refers to my great-grandpa and grandpa respectively. Last names have been replaced with initials...just because. Translation of uncommon terms provided in parentheses.

A little more background: My grandmother, Nellie, was born up in a holler in
Relief, North Carolina, in an area of the Blue Ridge Mountains her family had lived in for several generations. Despite being unable to read or write, she provided for her large family and worked hard all her life, growing and preserving food, cooking, sewing, cleaning, and raising young’uns.

Some, ahem, interesting things you might notice in the interview: drunkenness, marriage between cousins, race mixing, bootlegging, wild game hunting, and child labor. It is likely that a few folks reading this today will frown upon some of these things, much as people did back then. It is also likely that my grandparents didn’t give a shit what those people thought, so long as they minded their own damn business. I’m comfortable in saying that I’m of the same mind.


I can remember back when I was 3 years old. The way we played, we’d go to the branch (creek), get rocks and build play houses. We’d travel the mountains...we’d go for miles back in the mountains, a playin’, pick up chestnuts, and I’d lay on the hillside in the brush...make grasshopper cages (you do this with grass needles), and I’d look far away, playin’ alone and think, someday, how I’d want to be in those places…go places. And the first train I’d seen, I was up on a hill where my daddy worked in the corn and I’d watch the train as it passed by. When we left the mountains, the first river I’d ever seen we’d moved to Erwin. I was 9. My daddy bought a T-Model car, so he’d take us to a movie. The first show I’d seen was scary. It scared us all...about a woman with big eyes. Yeah, we’d make trips. My Daddy worked in a shop making parts for trains. He made $4.50 an hour. That was good money back then.

The way we washed clothes, we’d boil water, drop some clothes in, take ‘em out and put ‘em on a stump from a sawed off tree. We’d use boat paddles, they called ‘em bats, and we’d bat our clothes. You could hear everyone down at the branch batting their clothes. We’d make our own soap out of lye and meat skin, hog meat skin. People would bathe in it, too. We’d put it in a big iron kettle and cook it until it became thick. We’d have to wait ‘till it cooked, then cut it in blocks.

When I was 12, we moved to Elizabethton where my daddy worked in a silk factory. I took care of Bob. (Her nephew.) He was a baby.

They wouldn’t let me go to school. The truant officer would come around and they’d tell him that I was older...didn’t have to go. I worked in the house. They always used me as a slave. Well, I used to sew and make my own clothes by the time I was 13. You can imagine what my clothes looked like!

Thirteen, that’s how old I was when I’d stay with people…I’d take care of those who were sick. I’d cook for them, clean their house, dust, wash clothes. They paid me $2.50 a week. After awhile, we moved to Johnson City...I was 14. Well, I done the same thing there. I’d wash their clothes on a wash board. I’d take care of 4 or 5 young’uns. And you know the kind of pleasure I’d see? Me and a bunch of girls would start walking the road. There wasn’t many cars back then. We’d walk for miles, and we’d laugh and carry on. Every so often, there’d be a T-Model pass and we’d holler at them. And next we’d, ’bout 4 or 5 of us, walk to the country church hoping to find a handsome boy...never could find any. We’d stay at church and walk home in the dark. We were never afraid.

Your grandma always stayed at home. She went to church a lot. Her and my daddy argued all the time. That was back in the Hoover days. We liked to starved to death. When my daddy got the job at the Foundry, we lived a little better. They made steel parts for trains, cars. I’m trying to remember how old I was when I met your daddy...about 16. I met him at King Springs. There was a spring and there was a dance hall built over it. We’d go there on Sundays and sit. The way we dated, we’d go for walks...to friends houses. We’d go to the cow pasture and practice football. I was 22 when we got married. He went into the Army about 17...served 3 years the first time. We had 3 young’uns when he had to go in again. Jane was about 2 years old. He stayed in one year...he went overseas. That was when he got his leg broke.

Back when we lived in the mountains, my daddy got mad at my mother...said he’d just kill himself. And they had a place where they hung hogs over at the house. We looked over there, us kids. My daddy had his legs over that pole and his head hangin’ down and his arms just a-shakin’...had us kids cryin’. Then another time he said my mammy didn’t love him…he got drunk. He said he’d just leave. He went up in the holler. My mammy got his brother and they went up on the hillside where they could see up that holler where those legs was, and they saw his heels. He had his head hung down in the branch. He was drunk...cussing. They dragged him out, carried him to the house. They put him to bed to sober up.

Another time, he and my mammy got into a fuss. He wasn’t drunk then. He told her he’d just leave. Well, when he went outside, he took his gun off the rack...said he’d just kill himself. The moon was full that night and the cows had been feeding out in the yard that day. We heard a shot go off. My mammy took out, running. My daddy hadn’t shaved in 2-3 days. He shot up between his hat. He fell in a cow pile. My brother ran out to him...he ran his hand up underneath my daddy’s head. He said, “Yeah, mom he shot himself. Here’s his brains under his head.” So my mom passed out and my brother had to carry her in. My daddy got up and walked in with him.

My Grandpa M came from Cherokee. He was raised there…he was Indian. He was in the Civil war. He died when my oldest sister was born. Grandpa H was 104 when he died. He was Dutch. My grandma M and Joe H were brother and sister. Grandpa H was a preacher. My mother was 12 when they married.

Grandma M...when they moved to the mountains, they had to sleep in the woods at night. They had to hide their personal belongings in the bushes because the Rebels came through. They’d (the Rebels) take cows and anything away. There was a woman who lived there and always knew when the Rebels were about to invade. She’d let everyone know so they could hide their things. The Rebels found out about her, and she was shot in the chest. She had a little girl.

My grandpa got shot. They threw him up in a wagon, and they drove through a thicket, and he worked his way off the wagon and escaped. He crawled to a haystack and stayed there for 3 weeks. He got well enough to go home. They came and got him…took him back. A drove of them went through again, back to the river. They shot the democrats and buried them in the river bottom. That was the end of them.

My grandma thought he was coming in one night. She had a bullet that had come out of one of the soldiers who had been killed. She looked out the window and saw a white horse coming. There was a man on it. She ran to meet him. The horse reared back. The dogs were barking...her little sister was clinging to her. She went back to the house. She sat at the chimney corner and watched the man on the horse. When grandpa got home, he took the bullet and threw it away. She didn’t see the man on the white horse again. He was dead. It was his bullet...the one that killed him.

My daddy and mother used to make moonshine. They’d sprout the corn to make the beer. They kept it hid from us young’uns. Between 2 bedrooms, there was a wood stove. Somehow, they dug a place in the floor that led to the basement. They had a stove pipe that leg through. We didn’t suspect anything...the stove pipe would never get hot. In one bedroom that had canned food, and behind those is where they stored the jugs of moonshine.

There was a sawmill near the house. They’d haul out lumber and had toe sacks (potato sacks) filled with straw for the workers to sit. They’d throw them in the yard. My mother would put half gallons of moonshine in those sacks. The workers would haul the sacks on the trucks with the lumber. She’d get the money from the sacks. That’s how they made a living in the mountains.

They got tired makin’ moonshine in the basement, so they’d put us kids to bed early and decided to make it upstairs using the fireplace. It blew up! My mother was burnt. She went to the doctor the next day. He told her the sparks from the fireplace caused it. She didn’t tell him what they were doing. We didn’t know this until we were much older. We never knew while they were doing this. That’s why my daddy was getting drunk. When your daddy was living we went up toward Relief, but couldn’t get to the back roads that would lead us there.

At Christmastime my daddy would ride the horse to Bakersville to buy Christmas. He’d buy stick candy, fruit. That was one Christmas. I can remember one time my daddy bought my sister and I a doll. We went barefoot in the wintertime. We were happy to get shoes for Christmas. When we wanted a doll, we’d make our own with tied rags and charcoal for eyes. We didn’t have toys.

They’d grow late cabbage. They’d dig a ridge and bury the cabbage heads leaving the roots sticking up. We’d have cabbage all winter. They’d dig holes with straw in them and keep potatoes that way. We’d have Hanover potatoes for all winter. We’d eat birds. My daddy would catch them in a trap, and my mother would cook them in a big iron pot over the wood stove. We’d have gravy from that. They called them snowbirds. We ate a lot of wild meat...like groundhogs, squirrels, rabbits. There were none of the disease back then in those animals. They’d kill sheep, too. They called it “Mutton” meat.

Love Always,


Friday, August 10, 2007

Let Me Show You Something!

After leaving Calabash, we arrived in Carolina Beach - a small and somewhat impoverished beach town with a military base nearby. The town is on an island, called Paradise Island, and is within the greater Wilmington area. This is where we wanted to go for two reasons: the obligatory beach visit and to see carnivorous plants in their natural habitat.

The food was secondary on our agenda during this part of the trip, but we did find one seafood restaurant worthy of a visit from the pork mobile called Bowman's. Although it wasn't up to Calabash standards, it was the best meal we ate between a so-so barbecue joint on the island and a mediocre restaurant in downtown Wilmington.

This post is all about vacation pictures, so enjoy!

Tall, Long Needle Pines - Green Swamp, NC

Sarracenia flava, aka Yellow Trumpet Pitcher Plant

Venus Fly-Trap

Common sundew, aka Drosera intermedia

Celebrate the moments of your life


Thursday, August 09, 2007

The One True Calabash

There are two towns in North Carolina that will lead you to believe you have died and are seated at the Pearly Plates.

Depending on your religion, you’re either in barbecue heaven (Lexington, NC) or seafood heaven (Calabash, NC). There’s a third heaven for all you fine lovers of livermush (Shelby, NC) - but don’t bother telling anyone, lest you feel inclined to sit through the lip curls and squinched faces.

Unfortunately, Shelby wasn’t on our itinerary this last road trip. I’ll discuss Lexington later on, but let’s talk about Calabash: the myth and the reality.

Myth? Whachu talkin’ bout Willis?

The prevailing myth in the Carolinas is that one can say their cuisine is Calabash without actually being from Calabash. In fact the name, “Calabash”, and the term, “Calabash-style”, has been bandied about by any and everyone serving deep-fried seafood from the shores of the Outer Banks to the top of the Blue Ridge Mountains. Yet technically, if it isn’t from the town of Calabash, it isn’t real Calabash seafood.

"Calabash" Restaurant in North Myrtle Beach, SC

Why they do so is obvious: Calabash has the reputation for delivering simple, fresh, and delicious seafood (mainly fried, but offered as boiled or broiled as well) with a distinctive style. For a restaurant to say it serves “Calabash-style” seafood conjures up images of nets teaming with fish just hauled off a boat and ultimately delivered steaming hot to your table. Actually, those boats are quite real in Calabash and are literally down the street from the restaurants.

I’ve mentioned previously my own upbringing as a North Carolinian raised in a food environment that was more pizza than pinto beans; more burgers than barbecue. Like many Southerners of their generation, my parents were products of the last half of the 20th century and none too excited to worship at the feet of tradition. Music-wise, my Dad listened to the outlaw country of Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson rather than traditional bluegrass, while my mother distanced herself from her Appalachian roots entirely in the soothing sounds of Chuck Mangione, Anita Baker, and Kenny G.

Despite this, my parents were huge Calabash-style seafood fanatics. Being in the mountains, we often got our fix from the only two fish camps in the area – one in the boonies near Leicester and another sitting on a lone highway between Swannanoa and Black Mountain; neither of which are still in business.

My parents not only loved (still love) seafood, but their love of the ocean and all things associated with it left an indelible mark on me; so much so, I’ve lived by the sea since I left home.

My parents weren’t perfect (neither was I), but they tried. One thing is clear: they done right the minute they set me down in front of that red and white-checked plastic tablecloth covered table and introduced me to the deep-fried holiness of popcorn shrimp, deviled crabs, and hushpuppies.

For me, coming to Calabash was not only a great stop between Charleston and the Wilmington area, but it was also a pilgrimage to a culinary shrine and a tribute to the tastes and loves of my parents. I won’t deny that there was also a quest for authenticity – to say I had been to the source, to experience “the real”, and to judge it for better or worse.

It’s a helluva weight to put on such a small town. It’s an even bigger weight to put on one restaurant in said small town, and yet something tells me the Calabash Seafood Hut, much like Atlas balancing the weight of the sky on his shoulders, is use to such challenges.

We rolled into the town of Calabash shortly before noon, stopping at the first second hand store we saw. After browsing through the dusty old clothes and even dustier old books, we asked the clerk where River Road was. Oddly, she had never heard of it. Two older women who were shopping overheard us and we asked if they were local. When they said yes, we asked them: “where is River Road?” They seemed stumped and asked us where we were going. When we said the Calabash Seafood Hut, it was as if all of a sudden the clouds opened up and a beam of light shone down.

“Oh, just go up to the stop light and turn right! You can’t miss it! We’re getting ready to eat across the street from there.”

So much for Mapquest.

After disembarking from our pork mobile and entering the restaurant, we seem to arrive between the fishing boat captains leaving and the “spending our grandkids’ inheritance” crowd following behind us. Our waitress gave us a moment to look at the menu while she brought out a basket of hushpuppies to start with.

Important Side Note: You know, in the Carolinas someone is always making a big deal over who’s barbecue is the most authentic or tastiest. And yet, consider the lowly hushpuppy.

Hushpuppies vary wildly from region to region, cuisine to cuisine. Sometimes they are perfectly round, sometimes they are oblong, and sometimes they look like a Ferran Adria experiment gone wrong. Some have onions in them, while others do not. Some are savory and some are sweet. Some are mostly cornmeal, some are partially corn meal, and some are mostly flour.

I’ve noticed that hushpuppies served with barbecue tend to consist mainly of corn meal and contain no sugar, while hushpuppies served with seafood tend to have more flour and contain some sugar. These bits of fried bread are dense and soft on the inside while crunchy and slightly sweet on the outside.

If you ask me, that’s a damn delicious combination, dangerous for any diet.

When it came time to order, Bruce and I basically ordered the same platter; a platter loaded with deviled crab, shrimp, oysters, whiting, cole slaw and french fries. Bruce, not an oyster fan, substituted scallops instead.

Our plates of food arrived not long after we placed our order, along with a pitcher each of sweet and unsweet tea. Sitting on the table were bottles of ketchup, cocktail sauce, and Texas Pete hot sauce – not that I needed to use much of anything with seafood this good.

In fact, things weren’t as good as I remembered: they were better. And why shouldn’t they be? Here I was in Calabash having real Calabash seafood and it was rocking my world! The seafood was lightly breaded, crisp, and hot. Each bite was a clean, fresh, succulent, and rich rebuke to all pretenders and challengers to the throne.

The best part of this whole experience was sharing my love of deviled crab with Bruce. Deviled crab was definitely a favorite of mine growing up. I ordered it, along with boiled or fried shrimp, every time my parents and I stopped by the fish camp. Deviled crab is definitely a specialty of this region and I honestly don’t think it’s available in California (though I could be wrong). Naturally, Bruce was hooked.

In general, deviled crab is blue crab that is cooked, stripped of meat, that meat is added to bread crumbs and spices, it is all stuffed back into the shell, and then it is deep fried. Not only a cool presentation, but OOOHH so good.

So good, in fact, one doesn’t have time to truly appreciate its beauty before it’s all gone.

In a way, I’m glad Calabash seafood isn’t available where I live. First of all, watching my weight would be damn near impossible (it’s already difficult having Little Lucca just down the peninsula). Second, I appreciate having to travel for good food. I don’t want everything to be everywhere, and often is the case where some dish I enjoyed in one place (such as a Cuban sandwich) is brought to another (San Francisco), and those who make it never get it right. I just end up disappointed and wanting to travel.

I guess the lesson here is that good food waits for you. It stays in one place, welcoming you to come back for more.

You just have to know where to go.


Friday, August 03, 2007

I'm Cranky and Gassy

It's been a hell of a week.

I was watching Dr. Phil the other night instead of writing for this blog and I think I have something explosive in me. Not from the beans, but anger management stuff. Actually, I'm not getting enough sleep and I think it's making me cranky. Added to that, I just haven't had the time to do what I love to do: like take hikes, such as the one I took above in Morgan Territory near Mount Diablo about a month ago.

Or even write about food!

Well, I promise I'll have something for you next week, if not sooner.

In the meantime, be sure to check out some of my other writing that goes more in depth about my quirks, temperaments, and deeply disturbing family issues. You can read it all HERE.

Chek u latr, playa hatr


Friday, July 27, 2007

Simple Food

Don’t be fooled into thinking I’m an expert on Appalachian cuisine.

No...I’m an expert on Big Macs, sweet and sour pork, and pepperoni pizzas. Appalachian cuisine is something I’ve had to learn about in adulthood, and in San Francisco, despite having grown up where I did and having grandparents born and raised in the deep, dark hollers that blanket the region like a patchwork quilt of red brick churches, apple orchards, and moonshine stills.

The few carry-over foods from my grandparents to my mother to me, I abhorred. Pinto beans and string beans were about as bland and uninteresting as you could get to a young boy use to plates of meatball-topped spaghetti and “barbecued” cheeseburgers. So, I’ve had a lot of learning and unlearning to do, especially about foods I eschewed in favor of Generican (generic American) food. Why I do so is complicated and conflicted; I am a motherlode of neuroses for any therapist or preacher to mine.

Have you heard of shucky beans? Or leather britches? Well, me neither until recently. String beans I have heard of. In fact, I spent many summer afternoons stringing them only so my mother could throw them in a big, dangerous pressure cooker and have them ready for Sunday supper.

Well, shucky beans or leather britches are string beans – what most people out here call green beans – that have been dried. Actually, string beans are hard to come by in California. Most of what we get are those ubiquitous Blue Lake beans; a stringless variety developed in Oregon in the early 20th century and once only popular amongst canners. Nowadays, Blue Lake beans are the de facto green bean of both the supermarket and farmers’ market shelves and, frankly, the lack of variety annoys the hell out of me.

Oh sure, sometimes you’ll find Romano or Kentucky Wonder beans for sale at the farmers’ market. I saw some last Tuesday at the Ferry Building for $5 a pound. You’ll also see the yellow wax bean and haricot verts on occasion, which I’m sure are lovely in their own way.

Other than what I’ve mentioned, you will not see in California any bush or pole bean that is a heirloom variety or even a common Southern variety, like the creasy (or greasy) bean. Heirloom tomatoes we have out the wazoo, but don’t expect to see heirloom green beans – even at the food porn palace.

I’ve decided to experiment and make my own shucky beans using that lowly and common Blue Lake bean; a gentle $1 per pound. I’m not really dogging it; I do enjoy the flavor of Blue Lake beans. It’s just that I still have the urge to pull off a string and the fact that these are stringless makes me feel as though I’ve been robbed of an important culinary tradition.

Is this really progress? That these stringless, uniform beans dominate the market stalls?

Anyway, shucky beans are made by first washing the beans to remove any residual dirt or whathaveyou and then riffling through them, picking out the misfits and snapping off the ends simultaneously. It helps to have animal oversight available while you do this in order to catch your misses and offer up advice on when the cat box needs changing.

Then you take a needle and thread (I double up the thread) and “string” the beans by pushing the needle through the center of each bean and collecting them towards the end of the string. I find that having a horizontal work surface, like a cookie sheet, to work on is helpful. As far as what kind of string to use: I used both dental floss and polyester sewing thread and didn’t experience a problem with either.

After about 2 or 3 feet of this green bean garland, tie off the strings at the end and then tie the whole thing to form a loop. It’s now ready to hang and dry.

If I had a shady front porch that was screened in, I’d hang them there. As it is, I live the dirtiest part of town by a bridge with no protected porch to sit on, string beans on, sing an old ballad on, or even pet my old coonhounds on.

Instead, I have a whale rib hanging from my ceiling and a small fan plugged into the wall adjacent to it. This is where I will hang the beans to dry for the next month. A small desk fan I’ve set up near the beans is turned on to circulate the air around the beans so that they don’t mold, especially since I have them drying out of the sunlight.

My cats are fascinated by the hanging beans at first. And then, like with all things (excluding shoelaces and paper bags), they grow bored and ease back into the jaded, lazy bums that I love so much.

After a couple of weeks, the beans are dry enough so that I can turn off the fan and let them dry for another week or two. Now’s the time to decide whether to put them in storage (a paper bag works well) or to cook some up. Of course I’ve decided to do both!

Most people will say to soak the beans overnight after you’ve washed them. They also will tell you to add salt after you’ve cooked them and both of these ideas I don’t necessarily disagree with. However, I sometimes suck at following instructions.

What I did, instead, was take about 2 cups of dried shucky beans (or 1 string of them) and rinsed them off. Next, I brought 2 quarts of water to a boil and then added 2 teaspoons of salt. Next, I added the shucky beans and let that boil for approximately 10 minutes, stirring occasionally.

While the shucky beans were boiling, I heated a slow cooker (or Crock pot, or whatever you want to call it) on high with half a cup of water already in it. After boiling the beans for 10 minutes, I removed them from the heat, let it cool for a few minutes, and then added everything, plus a country ham hock, to the Crock pot.

Once covered, I left it alone to cook on high for 6 hours.

After 6 hours of cooking, the beans were tender and rich. They, along with the meat on the ham hock, were soft, tender and rich, as was the broth they cooked in. Perhaps it was the cured flavor of the ham coming through, but everything had a strong umami flavor. Drying the beans really does concentrate the bean flavor while also allowing the slow cooking process to work its magic.

Using a slotted spoon, I removed the beans from the broth onto a plate. The broth I ended up taking to work the next day for lunch. I flaked off the meat from the hock to garnish the beans and that was it – no seasoning necessary.

Of course, what better to go with a side of shucky beans than a sliced fried Country Ham and a freshly made buttermilk biscuit?

I’m not one to toot my own horn (or am I?), but I’m pretty sure Bruce and I were the only two souls in this city of 750,000 to have a plate of shucky beans, country ham, and biscuits that night. That’s pretty presumptuous - sure - but I also know this town pretty well, and this type of cuisine and the people who'd serve it aren’t very common here.

And there’s a certain mix of feeling both special and lonely while enjoying a meal like this – a conflicted feeling.

But perhaps I’m just complicating things again.

It’s not that complicated.


Friday, July 20, 2007


It's funny what a little bit of water between us will do.

Everywhere I've been, such has been the case. In Tampa, we joked that St. Pete was home of the newly wed and nearly dead. San Franciscans have some weird hang up about traveling to the East Bay for any reason, but think nothing of traveling 3 hours to Lake Tahoe for the weekend. Jersey isn't really Manhattan and Manhattan isn't anything at all like Brooklyn – just ask your neighborhood Hasid.

And I'm sure you can go to Charleston and have a great Charleston experience, but I'm really glad we made it over to Mount Pleasant. Unlike Charleston, Mt. Pleasant is smaller, greener, and once off the main highway – actually pleasant. Imagine huge oak trees with Spanish moss swaying in the breeze, large historic homes, friendly locals, and breathtaking views of Charleston, the Charleston Harbor, and the coastal wetlands that surround it.

Back on the highway, Highway 17, one encounters a unique phenomenon – unusual even for the South. Scores upon scores of sweetgrass basketmakers and their makeshift shacks line the highway for miles; most shacks are empty, but a few basketmakers are out selling their wares – or at least trying to.

I imagine prices for sweetgrass baskets aren't as high as what I paid in the Old Market in Charleston, but then again I find it hard to complain. Whether you spend a little or a lot, your money goes to keeping this community of folk artists and their craft alive, so whatever they charge and whatever you spend – it's worth it.

Also worth it: Gullah Cuisine.

Like Hominy Grill, we had planned on eating here and I'm glad we did. Our dinner at Gullah Cuisine is what dragged us over that great suspension bridge and got us to explore Mount Pleasant. Perhaps Gullah Cuisine should get some kind of recognition from the local Chamber of Commerce, because we patronized at least 3 additional local businesses simply because we were there – foodie tourists that we were.

Despite what you may have heard or read, the Gullah/Geechee culture and language is very much alive and flourishing. While the culture is strongest and most prevalent in such places at the Sea Islands or in smaller coastal towns between Charleston and Savannah, its presence in the Charleston/Mount Pleasant area is palpable.

And palatable.

The cuisine of the Gullah community maximizes use of regional food resources, namely rice, corn, legumes, okra, and especially seafood. Classic lowcountry dishes like Purloo (a rice casserole), Hoppin' John (black-eyed peas and rice), and Shrimp and Grits are indicative of the culinary creations developed out of the African American experience in the lowcountry.

While you can't throw a stick down Meeting Street without hitting a plate of Shrimp and Grits, finding Gullah food cooked by Gullah people for non-Gullah customers is slightly more difficult. Lucky then for two white boys from Frisco there is one well-known restaurant right off Highway 17.

Gullah Cuisine, the restaurant, is housed in a modest, one-story brick building just a few miles down from those basket sellers I mentioned earlier. An awning stretches out over the front entrance and hanging plants dangle from around the periphery of it. Across the dark green canvas are the words "Gullah Cuisine – A Lowcountry Restaurant".

The interior is tastefully done in shades of beige and tan with framed paintings hanging on the wall and ceiling fans turning slowly overhead. White curtains and blinds struggle to beat back the late afternoon sun and heat that washes over the front of the building.

Our waiter is a tall young man dressed in a casual white button up shirt and black slacks. He has the longest eyelashes I've ever seen and for a moment I'm transfixed by them. We're here at a weird hour on a weekend and besides us there is only one couple in the entire restaurant. Eyelashes man and a cook are running the show and our waiter juggles several jobs all at once. Back in the kitchen you can hear plates and pots clash and clang, water shooting out of faucets into metal sinks, and the faint sounds of a garbled radio. The waiter occasionally swings open the rear kitchen door and shouts back questions and order changes to the cook. The cook's response is patient and final.

Our appetizer arrived not long after he took our order, along with a small plate of corn muffins. In hindsight, I guess Bruce and I ate a lot of fried green tomatoes on our trip. This didn't occur to me until now, but I reckon we were pretty eager to stay on course in picking what we thought were the most easily recognizable Southern specialties. So, ladies and gentlemen, I present to you Gullah-style fried green tomatoes with ranch dressing.

While Hominy Grill takes a contemporary approach to traditional lowcountry dishes, Gullah Cuisine keeps itself squarely rooted in traditional soul food and the cuisine of the Gullah people. Here, green tomatoes are dipped in a thin batter containing various spices common to Gullah cuisine and fried until they are soft and a light yellow-green in color. The tanginess of the tomatoes and spiciness of the batter contrasts well with the cool and creamy dressing. The crisp crust of the batter gives way to a hot and tender green tomato.

A tall, cold glass of sweet tea doesn't hurt neither.

When our entrées arrive, I wondered why anybody would even bother to eat at those big box restaurants. Why, indeed, when fresh, hot, and authentic food can be found at a locally-owned business such as this.

Bruce's plate came with two large crab cakes, Gullah rice, and fried okra (came out after the picture was taken). Blue crab is the specialty in this region and 2 weeks after we were there Mount Pleasant was having a blue crab festival. His crab cakes were chock full of crab; more crab than him or I have ever seen in a crab cake. In addition, the Gullah rice was quite tasty, somewhat spicy with the odd shrimp thrown in, and smoky from the sausage added to it.

My two deep-fried whole soft-shell blue crab were battered and spiced with the Gullah spice, which gave them a little bit of a zip. Ummm, can I just say these crabs rocked my tiny, little, insignificant world? Just thinking about them now gives me shivers up my spine. Cooking soft-shell crab is no easy feat: these were cooked perfectly. Along with my soft-shell crab, I had a side of succotash (good, but nothing spectacular) and Hoppin' John, spiced with the same smoky sausage used in Bruce's Gullah rice. I've made Hoppin' John before, but mine always had a more black-eyed pea-to-rice ratio. I liked the fact that this Hoppin' John was more rice-heavy, but mostly because I regretted not ordering the Gullah rice (I think we have a house specialty here).

This being our second fabulous meal of the day (the first being lunch at Hominy Grill), I began to wonder if this day could get any better. After we paid our tab and said our goodbyes, we got in the car and headed up towards that shopping center we saw earlier – the one with the movie theater.

We were just in time to catch Spider Man 3.

Stuffed, we reclined in our highback movie theater seats; the theater was mostly empty. I propped up my feet on the seat in front of me and waited for the movie to begin.

This is what vacation looks like.