There used to be a large oscar fish that held court in a tank too small at the New Moulin Rouge. It sat on the upper reaches of Rutledge Avenue. The proprietors of the joint in the then predominately African American neighborhood gave us hot dogs to feed it. It would damn near clear the tank edge and take a finger off when it got within range. When we discovered the Moulin Rouge, we were amongst a handful of white people who frequented the place. Like much of the rest of that world, the fish is gone. The place no longer hosts the co-owner’s aptly named funk band called the Secrets, who once played an entire impromptu set of James Brown on special request at my wedding reception. Like the Secrets of the New Moulin Rouge, the Charleston they once represented is long gone.
With that city went the other secrets. The back staircase that wound its way up to Charlie’s Little Bar in the dark recesses of the still abandoned Saracenic building on lower East Bay. The red door to Capone’s in what used to be the KGB bar scene at the intersection of King and George Streets. It was a lost scene geared to locals, a party that over the last 20 years moved off to North Charleston and West Ashley.
It took with it the people who made it hum. When I first moved to Charleston, the smug locals south of Calhoun Street referred to those north of the demarcation as “Brown Town.” Upper King housed soul food establishments and clubs that served the aptly named Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial district. When we long ago included the Eastside’s Hannibal’s Kitchen in our annual dining guide those same folks south of Calhoun howled in protest for sending them unbeknownst into a “dangerous” area of town. Today you’ll find Hannibal’s crab rice on the prominent Instagram feed of Sean Brock.
And in this way, the new “Charleston” was discovered. John T. Edge and his crew from the Southern Foodways Alliance broke out of their Mississippi center to explore our Lowcountry environs. The exposure of new media helped propel chefs like Mike Lata to notice and acclaim from the James Beard association. The attention on Charleston and its food led to a bourgeoning national interest with the Charleston Wine + Food Festival as its annual soiree.
Such attention brought visitors, and some stayed on to help reshape the city. That reshaping can be better stated as the gentrification it more accurately represents. The civic entities charged with promoting tourism in our city began with the stated goal of attracting less visitors, who could afford to spend more. “Brown Town” and the wonderful living culture it once housed and represented evaporated — and its food along with it.
The transition of new media and its implications has taken a toll. The manifestation of a new myth subsumed the quirky, undiscovered Charleston of 20 years ago. And from the shiny new airport and its glossy billboards to a whitewashed mantra of being “Charleston Strong,” the city was recreated anew. National interest in food culture engendered a cult of personality where the image-making of local chefs trumped the food they sought to create.
This new medium drove a message leading to a homogenization and the representation of our cuisine often succumbed to a predetermined script. Open a manifestation of a local oyster bar called The Ordinary and we will eventually need a simulacra appropriately monikered The Darling. Where we used to celebrate the distinctiveness of something different and new, we promote more of the same.
Given this trend, long-standing landmarks suffer. I remember receiving an email from then City Paper editor Stephanie Barna expressing concern that Martha Lou’s Kitchen was in trouble indicated by the steady lack of cars each day across the street from her office window. Such concern led to concerted efforts at balancing the city’s awareness of our most under-appreciated kitchens. And it was these local food writers and chefs that helped to bolster their constituencies.
A year after that letter, I rose early to pick up Ms. Martha Lou from that pink cinder block building and drove her to the opening ceremony of the Wine + Food Festival where she received a long overdue recognition for her efforts to serve the stomachs of Charleston the heritage of its foodways. But we lost a great many kitchens that stood in the developer’s line of fire. The gentrification of the upper peninsula claimed the storied Sunday gospel brunch at Alice’s Fine Foods and the overflowing bowls of butterbeans at Ernie’s Soul Food. If there was a silver lining, the changing demographics destroyed the old “key bars” that dotted the area, private clubs where only white patrons admitted themselves by obtaining a working key to the front door.
As Charleston’s national image as a vacation destination shifted, so did its popular food culture, transformed from a mythic representation of the Old South and its plantation lore to a modern reinterpretation that ironically pays more homage to a West African diaspora and recognizes the extraordinary historic sacrifices paid within a city that slaves built.
More than anyone, this change was driven by Sean Brock and the vision he collected. His efforts certainly exerted the largest gravity of the last 20 years. When we first reviewed his tenure at McCrady’s, we aptly titled it “The New Sheriff in Town,” but he paid for the moniker. Other more established chefs rejected his molecular cuisine. Many who derided his influence were mentors he once worked under, and the scrutiny took its toll, even as he strived for a deeper understanding of the culinary geography within his adopted home.
Brock changed us through a critical examination and a redefinition of what it meant to cook in the Lowcountry. He was an outsider, who mined the Lowcountry’s culinary soul from the inside, and we often enjoyed long talks late at night driven by whiskey and a mutual love of the food. When the prominence of Charleston first brought Anthony Bourdain to town, a young, unknown Sean joined us for an interview, and a few years later Bourdain returned to “correct” his portrayal of our culinary scene. Brock wanted to replace the notion of genteel outlays of oysters and champagne with a more realistic vision of the rediscovery and repatriation of our native foodways and those who truly championed them. Bourdain chose Brock as his guide, and the chef promptly took him to Waffle House — on a whiskey bender of course.
These days Charleston is sobering up, collectively and individually. Brock has joined Mickey Bakst and Steve Palmer in efforts to expose the real problems of substance abuse and mental health that plague the restaurant industry. Brock himself has undergone a transformation. We hung out a few days ago, and he’s in a better state than I’ve ever seen him, focused on a new path forward.
Perhaps the city will follow, becoming more focused on the true measure of its history and culture. We will see progress when the emphasis in promoting our outer image reveals the true costs of its making — when we attract a more diverse clientele to visit and to stay. In 20 years, perhaps we’ll move beyond the interest of rank development and high-end “Disney-fication” and become a more economically integrated, livable city, where the locals recognize and savor the rich distinctiveness of their secret places and our visitors come to truly discover them.