I started cooking in 1973 in Columbia, S.C. Three high school friends and I opened the quintessential hippie vegetarian restaurant and natural foods co-op called 221 Pickens Street.
We did kooky stuff: made tofu and yogurt, baked whole grain breads, grew wheatgrass and sunflower sprouts, juiced carrots and apples, sprouted every kind of seed imaginable, sold local honey and extra virgin olive oil from 50 gallon vats, provided organic brown rice and soya beans in bulk, promoted a low-fat, non-meat, whole grain, live food, green leafy lifestyle.
Twice-a-week runs to the State Farmers Market supplied co-op families with produce and gave me the chance to buy directly from local farmers. Tuesday at 4 a.m. was the best time to shop, as the early bird would get the worm. Sunday, farmers would rest. Monday, pick and travel, arriving at the Market early Tuesday morning. Individual farmers would occupy the middle stalls with the wholesalers on the perimeter.
The quality and variety of the produce reflected the seasons and personalities of the farmers: squeaky curly spinach bursting out of bushel baskets, tiny yellow crookneck squash lovingly displayed by grandmother farmers, huge incredibly ripe figs meticulously layered so as not to bruise, watermelon girls in Daisy Dukes, and that mysterious thresher that could shell crowders and pink-eyed peas. The market was an experience, an adventure, a hunt. Little did I realize at 18 years old how sourcing local would color my life and define my career.
Fast forward 12 years to 1985 when French cuisine ruled. Foie gras, truffles, butter, cream, sweetbreads, lamb, halibut, oysters, stocks and reductions, pastry, chocolate mousse, eau de vie — yum! On a trip to France, the famed French chef Paul Bocuse told me, “Learn your technique, apply it to your region, your heritage.” Through the ’80s and ’90s, using the fundamentals of French cooking to express the rich culinary culture of the Lowcountry, a new generation of chefs created a rhythm of mise en place that placed emphasis on local, house-made charcuterie and developed a camaraderie and belief that a rising tide floats all boats in Charleston. Twenty years of homage to French cuisine has grown into unabashed American cooking, and finally to Southern, Lowcountry style. Mustard greens, butter beans, and vine ripe tomatoes are chic partners with heirloom pigs and organic chicken. Whole grains, like farro and grits, complement tilefish, turnips, and ham butter. Local arugula, California olive oil, and Split Creek Farms goat cheese is now an ordinary salad. We drink great wines from every corner of the planet. The menu is wide open, and Charleston chefs are inspired.
While local producers were thinning out in the late ’90s, there was triggerfish, squab, foie gras, pink-eyed peas, and the vegetable plate on Slightly North of Broad’s early menus; though we did have to jockey for Celeste Albers’ Wadmalaw eggs and pea shoots (still do, they’re so good!). Today, there’s a groundswell of interest all over the country in locally produced everything and producers are popping up like Mepkin Abbey mushrooms. To see so many local growers at a late fall trip to the Farmers Market at Marion Square is as incredible as the chocolate almond croissant from Macaroon Boutique.
The attention to quality ingredients, integrity of the cooking, and dedication to local products has attracted media attention, which has grown with the addition of great chefs and restaurateurs over the last 20 years. We have a new generation of chefs who are bringing well-deserved national attention to Charleston, and we’re all enjoying a resurgence of local producers. Humble am I to have played a small role in developing Charleston into a culinary destination and to be part of the best chef community in the nation.
As I reflect back on the vegetarian/co-op days I see that everything old is new again — only better. Southern is cool. There are more choices, healthier alternatives, better cooking skills, grassroots groundswell for natural foods — and this time the pig can join in, too.
Now, can we get Too Goo Doo spinach again?