My family and I recently returned from a vacation in Charleston, South Carolina. Let me summarize: This is a foodie town.
Of course, there’s plenty else to do (we went to three different beaches, and I still managed to get home whiter than when I left). But if you love food, especially the history, technique, local ingredients and passion behind it, Charleston is your kind of town.
I was only there just short of a week and didn’t experience all it had to offer, but I wanted to share some highlights, especially from a behind-the-scenes kitchen tour I took. The “chef’s kitchen” tour is presented by Culinary Tours of Charleston, a division of Bulldog Tours. Tasting tours are available daily, but this specialty tour is only given once a week, on Friday mornings.
I had to go alone, as we had no childcare options that day. This was fine with our two kids; they were happy with Daddy’s arrangements to wear swimsuits and frolic in a couple public fountains made for such enjoyment while I completed my 2 1/2 hour tour.
Our tour began with coffee, cheese grits (yom) and a light, orange-zest laced cinnamon roll at Barbara Jean’s, while our tour guide, Hoon Calhoun, regaled us with the historical basis for Charleston food culture.
Of course, much of this culture revolves around its origins as an early British colony (read: [King] Charles’ Town) and its subsequent agriculture-based, slave-fueled plantation lifestyle. During these times, elaborate meals showcased the region’s bountiful resources of vegetables, rice, and seafood in concert not seen elsewhere in the world.
These meals were often made by talented slave cooks, who were frequently traded from household to household in order to learn new skills. “We should not forget,” Calhoun said, “that the food culture here rests squarely on the shoulders of the slaves who worked here.”
Upon the official end of slavery with the Emancipation Proclamation, Charleston’s food landscape changed. Busy working women, former slaves and owners alike, now found themselves in the fields all day rather than cooking. This was the beginning of modern Southern high-fat, quick-cooking methods, as well as peasant-style stews and other items that could cook all day.
Calhoun noted that today’s Charleston marks a return to the earlier form of cookery: fresh, refined and celebratory of all the region has to offer.
An interesting note: Why does Charleston no longer wear its former crown as rice capital of the region? Calhoun said that ships from China would come to Charleston for its coveted rice. The answer also lies in the end of slavery. Heavy machinery replaced slave labor, and the silty soil of the region could not support the equipment. Rice production moved to states with sturdier soils, including Arkansas.
With this knowledge in hand, our group moved on to tour the kitchens, taste the food, and visit with the chefs who are keeping Charleston’s food culture one of the most dynamic in the world.