Go to any city renowned for its food — New York, L.A., San Francisco — and you will find lots of ethnic diversity. Charleston’s food, despite a smattering of influences about town, can be read mostly as it always has been, in black and white. Yet that seems to be changing. With an emerging preference for local produce, a search for inspiration from exotic corners of the world, and a growing abundance of local immigrant kitchens, Charleston’s cuisine is changing for the better. We continue to move beyond the tourist draw of a few signature dishes, toward a more diverse selection of flavors — and that’s always an exciting prospect.
Here at the height of summer, menus around town suggest a rush toward truly local products. “Local” has finally supplanted “organic” in the boutique food market. At the restaurant and retail level, the origins of meat, dairy, and produce have become important to diners and consumers. Avondale’s Sublime Pies and Cakes recently transformed into the Homegrown Grocery, offering local products from area farms and purveyors. Numerous restaurants in town are experimenting with heirloom tomatoes and other local foods. McCrady’s is even working toward establishing its own Johns Island farm.
Foodies seem to have decided that pragmatism is where it’s at. They don’t see the point in buying a tomato or a melon that was shipped 3,000 miles just because the little sticker says organic. They also don’t care that local farmer Celeste Albers’ eggs aren’t certified organic because she chooses to use feed milled by the monks in Mepkin Abbey instead of the “organic” stuff that would have to be shipped 200 miles. Hers are the best tasting eggs in town, and I’m glad to see that others in Charleston think the same way.
I’m not giving the organic places a hard time, but in the last few months our local culinary industry has begun to move beyond the semantic benefits of “wholesome” food to embrace a new vision of real flavor, one based more on an appeal to taste than environmentalism. If you really want to improve the landscape, you have to convince the average Joe that tainted shellfish from China really isn’t the way to go. That they’re better off with our local stuff, even if they have to spend a few extra bucks and put up with a little fertilizer down the food chain.
I’ve never been a crunchy granola kind of guy. I’m too practical, or Southern, or perhaps just allergic to patchouli oil, and I love pork skins and mass-produced commercial root beer too much. You can’t buy that kind of stuff and take it home in a Guatemalan fair-trade hemp bag from places like Doscher’s and Piggly Wiggly. I like farm stands in season and butchering half a grass-fed cow for the freezer, which is in the same spirit as using local produce that these chefs seek to now capture.
I’m also the kind of guy who likes to stop at the grocery stores that cater to transplanted foreigners and expatriated immigrants — First Asian in North Charleston, Euro Foods on Ashley River Road, and the Latino shops on Johns Island. At such places you can find an exotic sampling of spices and products like bitter melon, fresh dragon fruit, and just about any dried noodle in existence. These flavors from afar, and the willingness of restaurateurs to experiment with tastes and textures that don’t originate in Western Europe, are influencing our local food scene.
Eat your way through Chef Jason Houser’s menu at Muse, or take a gander at Fez, the forthcoming French/Moroccan fare planned by David LeBoutillier for the old LuLu’s Bistro on Maybank Highway, and you’ll see what I mean. The last year brought a profusion of harissa paste, merguez sausages, and preserved lemons, signaling a change in philosophy, especially when you consider that one of the more successful dishes at the new and improved Charleston Grill revolves around a mind-blowing pile of Asiatic, coconut-perfumed rice.
The influx of immigrants on our shores only enhances our culinary traditions. Charleston chefs should continue to embrace our local products and food, while exploring these new residents’ cuisines in even greater depth. Only by embracing the diversity that we are fortunate enough to attract can we leverage that culture, combine it with our own, and begin to create the type of exciting food that defines the best of urban cuisines. I’d say we’re off to a good start.