One need only look at the subdivisions popping up like a bad case of hives to know that inbound moves to the Lowcountry far exceed outbound ones. South Carolina is now the No. 2 move-to destination in America according to the 2015 National Movers study. And yes, we know what that’s doing to infrastructure, overcrowded schools, sprawl, etc. But what does it mean for our food?
With more and more chefs moving to the area, is the stuff that makes Charleston’s cuisine unique getting diluted? For a city that prides itself on its traditions, that mines the past for recipes, and that goes to elaborate lengths to bring back heirloom foodstuffs, does being a local chef matter?
To find out, I talked to a handful of the few true-blue, natural-born Holy City chefs and asked them, What is Charleston food to you?
Jonathan Ory remembers when boiled peanuts were considered gang symbols. Growing up in West Ashley, the former owner of Chicago’s Bad Wolf Coffee says in high school Timbo’s Peanuts’ T-shirts were considered as bad as wearing Bloods and Crips’ paraphernalia.
“I played in a lot of hardcore bands in high school and we’d practice in the rental storage units across from Timbo’s,” he says. Naturally, the band members were regular customers and inevitably bought some of Timbo’s merchandise — shirts that featured a caricature of a peanut wearing a hat with his hands in the air making pistol fingers. But, as Ory says and Timbo Grainger confirms, Middleton High School’s principal was not cool with them.
“They couldn’t wear them at the pep rallies because the principal thought it was a gang sign,” says Grainger.
“So Timbo hears this,” Ory recalls, “and he comes raging into the school and has this huge having out with the principal. He’s like ‘I’m a veteran, blah, blah, blah! These are just good kids!'”
Ory just shakes his head still dumfounded. When your favorite peanut man gets elevated to Suge Knight status, it leaves an impression.
But there were other early Charleston food memories that made an impact on Ory who now heads up Butcher & Bee’s new Workshop project.
Going to Buist Academy School, Ory remembers when his classmate, Gin Joint owner and chef MariElena Raya’s father, Robert Dickson, hosted their entire fifth grade class for a meal at his Robert’s of Charleston restaurant.
“It was like a multi-course meal and it was food we’d never had like red-wine braised beef,” says Ory. “I’d never seen food plated like that or had attention paid to it like that. That stuck with me.”
It wasn’t a typical Charleston meal — at least not by your Southern Living or Garden & Gun standards. Dickson, a New Jersey native, served classic French food at his eponymous restaurant on Market Street. But should that be considered any less Charleston?
Not according to 30 years of Robert’s of Charleston diners. When City Paper contributor Jeff Allen covered Robert’s closing in 2009 he wrote, “One can hardly call themselves a Charlestonian without celebrating a birthday or anniversary at Robert’s of Charleston” — which is to say, for all our talk of shrimp and grits, perhaps there’s room in the Holy City food canon for more recent recipes.
For Raya, some of her best memories growing up here involve walking to her Dad’s restaurant after school. “We’d pick up pralines on the way. Sometimes the police officer on the horse would follow us and make sure we were OK,” she says. As a result, she divides Charleston’s food scene into two distinct categories.
“I separate old Charleston from new Charleston,” she says. “The old Charleston are the Robert’s, the Carolinas, the Magnolias. The people who set up that part of fine dining in Charleston. The new is what happens in every city — people come because they find the food scene on the edge of being something really cool and they bring their own to it.”
Now that’s not to say she doesn’t appreciate the classics. Raya says she loves Southern food — your biscuits, fried chicken, and cornbread — but adds, “What I love about Charleston food I don’t think you can get in a restaurant. You know what I mean? It’s like oyster roasts or stopping to get boiled peanuts. A lot of times it has to do with gathering people and enjoying food. Like a Lowcountry boil. Things like that, peeling shrimp that’s just been caught.”
Jeremiah Bacon of Oak and The Macintosh agrees. For Bacon the Lowcountry has always meant seafood. Raised on Kiawah Island long before the The Kuwaiti Investment Company developed it into a luxury resort community, he spent his youth steering a jon boat through the tidal creeks and surfing at Folly with friends.
“In the ’80s, when the shrimping industry was so big, we’d sit on our boards and we’d watch 40 shrimp boats out there,” he says. “And that’s every day!”
But what the water gave it could also take away. “Inevitably, at least two or three times a summer, people died on their boats or drowned swimming,” he adds. That fear bred respect and it’s something Bacon feels to this day, whether he’s surfing or plating what we media folks have labeled trash fish.
“I’ve talked to people at SlowFood about the word trash fish, the semantics of it. I think we should ditch it,” he says. Sure he didn’t grow up eating amberjack or triggerfish, varieties older fishermen once called garbage, but Bacon feels we’ve moved beyond that. As Raya might say, that’s old Charleston. New Charleston doesn’t think those fish are trash, they just think they’re good. So why carry on the old label?
That’s the thing about this city. We’re so concerned with holding onto the past we don’t always allow ourselves to embrace the present. Sweeney’s Chef Joseph Jacobson bucks that trend, however. You see, Jacobson grew up an Orthodox Jew in Riverland Terrace.
“We called it Little Israel because there were so many Jewish families,” he says. His parents did their best to keep kosher, but there was a hiccup.
“My nanny growing up was an 80-year-old Geechee lady and she’d make mac and cheese and fried chicken and throw a hambone in there,” he says. “Mom would come home and freak out like, ‘Oh my god! There’s pork all over our kosher kitchen!”
Jacobson admits the culture clash was a blessing in disguise. While he got to enjoy the benefits of huge family Shabbat dinners, he also couldn’t avoid developing a love of pork.
“I’ll never forget, one time my parents were walking through the neighborhood and they ran across our rabbi and he asked me, ‘What’s you’re favorite food? I said, ‘Oh, pig!’ My mom and dad shriveled up. They were like, ‘Oh, he’s just kidding,'” Jacobson says. “But I knew from a very young age that pork was my thing.” Some day he’d even like to open his own barbecue restaurant.
Where else but Charleston, would you find a Geechee-influenced, Kosher-raised, barbecue-loving chef? And Jacobson is grateful to this city for inheriting such a rich heritage. But he’s also quick to suggest that food in this Charleston is less about the town’s traditions and more about using what you have. “Southern cooking is taking what’s around and what’s available and making the best of it,” he says.
If you buy into that, it would mean chef Josh Walker’s Xiao Bao Biscuit Thai-style curry made with Spade & Clover’s Johns Island-grown turmeric is just as Charleston as Gullah chef BJ Dennis’ Spring Street Seafood Alley-sourced conch and oxtail stew.
When I asked each chef what their most Charleston dish was, their answers were in keeping with Jacobson’s theory. Rather than the much written about but rarely seen Huguenot tortes and cooter soups, these local chefs fill their menus with recipes that give a nod to their Lowcountry upbringings while fully embracing the present. For Raya it’s her mother’s pepper jelly served at the Gin Joint with house-made lavash crackers — an Armenian flatbread recipe she learned not here, but at Blackberry Farm in Tennessee. For Bacon, it has to be anything from the sea plated with vegetables he cooks to perfection thanks to his Per Se restaurant pedigree. Ory’s obsessed with Asian cooking techniques and has recently hit upon a Carolina bibimbap, a dish he says “speaks of home, but is cooked in a Korean way” combining marinated Bulls Bay oysters, Kan Jang-braised sunchokes, benne seeds, and Carolina Gold rice. And for Jacobson, it’s a 24-hour pot roast paired with Greg Johnsman’s grits, a nod to his grandmother’s Shabbat dinners and his nanny’s home-cooked meals. No cookie cutter Charleston Receipts here. And you know what? That’s OK.
“The Charleston food scene today is more a state of mind,” Raya says. “The people who came into Robert’s and that sort of era of people in Charleston, they really wanted to dress to impress and look a certain way. I think we’re moving away from that. After the recession it’s like people can’t hide behind their money anymore. It’s brought around a more real society.”
A society where you can prepare real Charleston food even if you didn’t attend cotillion, can’t throw a cast net, or, dare we say it, weren’t even born here.