Charleston Revels in Its Unique Flavor
Sunday, June 14, 2009
Frank and I spent only two days in Charleston, S.C., recently, but the jeans are now tight, and I find myself giving the bathroom scale a wide girth, I mean, berth.
It wasn't that we were slugs during our days in the Holy City, so christened for the many steeples that punctuate the low-rise skyline. Quite the contrary. We walked all day, both days, all around the city's famous Battery and historic downtown, where the spring air really was infused with the scent of honeysuckle and magnolia. We even took an enjoyable side trip to Patriots Point, a naval museum, where we walked even more, touring the aircraft carrier USS Yorktown and the submarine USS Clamagore: Sailors, we learned through that experience, are several rungs up from firemen on the ladder scale.
Alas, all that strolling and ladder climbing apparently burnt a meager 140 calories an hour.
The fattening began immediately after we dumped our luggage at the pretty Andrew Pinckney Inn and walked the couple of blocks to the City Market, a staging area for the city's popular carriage and pedi-cab tours. The market is made up of picturesque, low-slung brick buildings, but, disappointingly, most of the vendors seem to sell either kitsch or candy. We found more genuine local color at the stalls of the African American sea-grass basket weavers, who practice a craft descended from slaves. Before cotton became king, rice ruled in South Carolina. In 1730, Charleston exported an astounding 20 million pounds of the sticky staple, and it was the plantation slaves who wove the baskets for all that winnowing.
We arrived in Charleston hungry. Since our "breakfast flight" from Dulles didn't include even a peanut, one of our first stops was a bakery at the market. Frank's apple turnover was almost light enough to float off the plate, and my sticky bun was perfection in confection form. We had been in Charleston 20 minutes and already we would need to stroll for 2 1/2 hours to undo the dietary damage. So we got to walking.
Charleston, we discovered as we strolled, is a city with great self-regard, not unwarranted, as even this Yankee must admit.
For example, it is proud as a planter's punch of its illustrious ancestors and its pivotal role in 300 years of American history. Its atmospheric old churchyards, such as St. Philip's (1838) and St. Michael's (1761), are chockablock with signers of the Declaration of Independence, members of the Supreme Court, governors and, of course, stalwarts of the Confederacy. For those who were doodling during high school history, Charleston was the site of the first engagement of the Civil War. We visited the Edmondston-Alston House on the Battery and gazed through the windows at the harbor, picturing how Gen. Pierre Gustave Toutant Beauregard stood there to watch his rebel forces bombard the feds at Fort Sumter.
Charleston is also house proud, with good reason. The Battery's famous mansions are a mix of styles (Georgian, Federal, Greek Revival, Italianate, even art deco) all grand. They manage to be pretty in pink . . . and turquoise and yellow. Greek columns and graceful staircases with ivy-covered risers abound. Gardens lush with palmetto palms and ferns beckon from behind wrought-iron fences. These sometimes formidable barriers weren't just decorative, though; many were installed by nervous whites after an aborted slave uprising in 1822. The massive would-be rebellion also led to the establishment of an arsenal called the Citadel, later to become the famous military academy at the center of Pat Conroy's bestseller "The Lords of Discipline."
As wonderful as the mansions were, I was more enamored of Charleston's signature "single" houses, which populate the downtown. These 19th-century buildings, usually multi-storied but only one room wide, are set sideways to the street, with entrances that open onto double- or even triple-decker porches that run from front to back along the side of the house. The design was meant to maximize privacy in tight quarters and to capture the breezes essential to survival in pre-air-conditioning days.
In addition to its houses and history, Charleston is quite vain about its long-standing sophistication (it had the country's first museum and first public theater) and its religious tolerance (it welcomed both Huguenots, as early as 1681, and Jews). The Coming Street Jewish Cemetery dates to 1762, and the white stucco 1845 Huguenot Church with its pinnacled buttresses is a National Historic Landmark. Who knew that a style called Gothic Revival would be so cute?
Obviously, Charleston has mastered the art of being proud of itself, but one of its biggest boasts, the one that made the bathroom scale have the appeal of garlic to a vampire, is its cooking. Opportunities to overeat lurk everywhere in the old city.
For instance, we innocently stopped to browse at the Historic Charleston Foundation shop expecting ceramic pineapples and pencil sketches of the Battery, only to be ambushed by help-yourself samples of red velvet cookies, key lime coolers, spicy cheddar biscuits and benne wafers. Fat and sugar are a winning combination in my book, but the wafers in particular were addictive little nibbles: crispy, nutty and, like the baskets, originating with African slaves. Benne is the Bantu word for sesame. I bought a bag to bring home.
Those insidious wafers are part of Charleston's low-country cuisine, which originated in the coastal areas of Georgia and South Carolina and emphasizes fresh seafood and local produce, such as okra, filtered through the culinary influences of France, Spain, the Caribbean and Africa.
Charleston's downtown is positively dense with dining establishments dedicated to upscale low-country fare. Most are splendidly housed in 18th- and 19th-century buildings, with richly appointed dining rooms and uniformed waiters. Alluring gardens and palm-lined courtyards for al fresco dining are standard equipment.
We ate at one such establishment, Carolina's, where I had a classic low-country dish, shrimp and grits with andouille sausage. I estimate that my meal weighed in at about 1,200 calories, without counting the bread basket, the wine or the salad with figs and pistachios.
Then there were the burgers, brioche and beer we had at Fleet Landing on the waterfront, the hot dogs at the naval museum and the free homemade cookies at the hotel. Our continental breakfast could have been a virtuous yogurt and coffee but went heavy on the mini pastries, turnovers and muffins instead.
Temptations were everywhere in Charleston, and we met them with not even token resistance. Somehow, though, even on such brief acquaintance with the city, I suspect that it would be rather proud of itself for knowing that when these Yankees went home, they went home a little tubbier.