CHARLESTON, S.C. -- All of us were looking for American Cuisine at the Symposium on American Cuisine here. And generally we despaired of finding it.
There were some sightings -- a great outdoor barbecue the first evening, and a couple of she-crab soups at a tasting arranged to show off Charleston's chefs. But they just whetted our appetites. So the talk was of where to eat, or more specifically, where to eat real Southern food.
John Taylor, who recently opened a world-class cookbook store named Hoppin' John in Charleston, is acknowledged as one of the few experts on traditional Charleston cooking. He held out little hope. The old cooking just doesn't exist any more, he told the audience of more than 200 hungry cornbread searchers. Not only restaurants have abandoned tradition in favor of balsamic vinegar and phyllo, home cooks don't bother with butter beans and hoecakes any more.
The attendees were divided into small groups to visit local restaurants one evening; it was our first chance for fieldwork. While some found good food, nobody reported finding Southern food. My group was served figs with prosciutto and grouper with walnut sauce, plus strudel for dessert -- nothing even faintly Southern, though I saw on the restaurant's weekend menu she-crab soup and cheese grits. Unsatisfied with the official searches, I took a side trip for Bessinger's barbecue, which is pretty good stuff with a quirky mustard barbecue sauce found only in that part of South Carolina. But meandering downtown and investigating the tiniest and most local-looking restaurants, I unearthed only stir-fries and cappuccino, not Charleston red rice.
In a final desperate pitch I asked my taxi driver on the way to the airport whether any place on the route might serve red rice. "I wish my wife was home," he replied. And he insisted on stopping by the marketplace so I could buy some red beans and at least make some Charleston food when I got back to Washington. Then he gave me his recipe for red rice.
"There's all kinds of ways you can cook it," said R.A.Y., as he asked me to refer to him in the newspaper. ("My wife would laugh at me," he said to explain his bashfulness.) You can make red rice with ham, bacon, sausage, or all three, he enumerated. And he proceeded to dictate instructions as he drove.
When I told him I'd been unable to find red rice in a restaurant, he was surprised. "Restaurants cook it every day," he insisted. "That's a soul food dish." There are lots of soul food restaurants, he said, but not downtown. They serve stew beans, lima beans, cabbage, black-eyed peas and hoppin' john, said R.A.Y., making me wish my flight might be grounded. Still, I was skeptical. So R.A.Y listed his favorites: Ernie's is "the number one restaurant," then Martha Lou's and Alice's, he said. Even Piggly Wiggly supermarkets have a deli counter with soul food.
So I called some friends who were staying in Charleston longer, and left a message at the hotel suggesting they try Ernie's. The Omni Hotel telephone operator was taken aback; "I didn't think they'd try this restaurant," she exclaimed, but admitted that she thought it a good place for soul food.
My friends had to search out a maintenance man who knew where Ernie's was. Then, as they were about to leave, somebody on the staff suggested they wouldn't feel comfortable at Ernie's and rerouted them to Alice's.
No, Alice's wasn't the soul food restaurant of anybody's dreams. Canned vegetables. Cornbread that tasted of modern factory preparation, they thought. Nothing that seemed made-from-scratch. I checked with John Taylor, and he, too, had tried Alice's and found it wanting. He hadn't been to Ernie's, and didn't know Martha Lou's, but has been to others, he said, and has yet to come across a soul food restaurant in Charleston with a full-blown traditional menu, with yeast breads or with real desserts. "They use Crisco," was his summation.
Yeah, they probably do. But at least it's a break from balsamic vinegar. Tabletalk One of the hits of the American Cuisine Symposium was a tongue-in-cheek video by St. Louis restaurateur Richard Perry about what an advertising agency would do on his account. "Free bread -- see your waiter for details," proclaimed one "ad." Then there was my favorite endorsement: A couple at the table saying, "We ate at Richard Perry's." And the announcer adding, "If you come in, you can say that too."
A real-life advertisement that crossed my desk was no less comic. S&S Public Relations was promoting a Cajun product line, claiming that Cajuns are the descendants of Creoles -- who were exiled from the city of Acadia in France. It was a surprise to me, since the Cajuns are not descendants of Creoles, and furthermore, the Cajun forbears were exiled from France, but to Acadia, which is Nova Scotia, not a city in France. I can imagine what such historians would do with blackened redfish.
Prolific chefs: Stephen Pyles of Dallas' Routh Street Cafe is opening no less than two restaurants in Minneapolis. Jimella Lucas and Nanci Main of the Ark on the coast of Washington state are said to be opening an urban outpost in Seattle.
Peripatetic chefs: Lydia Shire's short reign at Los Angeles' Four Seasons is at an end. She is looking for a new home for her imaginative American cuisine.
R.A.Y.'S CHARLESTON RED RICE (6 to 8 servings)
4 strips bacon
1/4-pound link sausage
1 medium onion, diced
1/2 bell pepper, diced
1 stalk celery, diced
15-ounce can tomato sauce
Salt and pepper to taste
1 tablespoon sugar
2 1/2 cups rice, preferably converted
4 tablespoons ( 1/2 stick) butter
Dice bacon and sausage and fry in a large saucepan. Pour off half the fat. Remove bacon and sausage from pan and fry onion, pepper and celery in the remaining fat. Return meat to pot. Add tomato sauce and 2 1/2 cans water. Season with salt and pepper and bring to a boil. Add sugar to cut the acid of the tomato and simmer another minute. Add rice, cover, and cook slowly, about 45 minutes. Add butter and stir it in with a fork. Serve with barbecued pork, fried fish, fish cakes, chicken, pork chops or more sausage.