The Year of Charleston is almost up. Since the Mayan apocalypse didn’t happen, there will still be she-crab soup available next year and plenty of shrimp spooned up over creamy corn grits. And there will still be modern local classics: Crispy pork ear sandwiches and pork fat fries, classic cocktails derived from century old receipts, mound upon mound of pro-am charcuterie and some that’s even worth eating.
But the zenith of public relations marketing has been reached, and the direction we head now is inevitably down. Should we alter our facial hair yet again, get a new tattoo, a worn-out guitar, and pack it off to Nashville with the rest of the New South fashionistas? When ticket sales to our wonderful annual food festival inevitably begin to decline and the people from New York no longer opine about our region as if they’ve discovered some long-lost overweight Shangri-La with bad politics but delicious fatback, should we all hide in Asheville and start practicing bikram yoga and juice fasting? Or is that what the Brooklyn hipster wannabes are already doing?
I suggest we just cut the bullshit, jettison the slick marketing and smug self-congratulation that has cropped up around here lately. We had names for scruffy characters with handlebar mustaches driving beat-up pickup trucks and selling boiled peanuts long before such images became the basis for fashion magazines selling $20,000 shotguns. We called them rednecks. We also knew how to make our own hooch and get blindingly drunk from it, which is just to point out that we already had whiskey cocktails of a sort and the means to mix them surreptitiously in a college football stadium.
Yes, we know we are quaint. We know that the black people out on the Sea Islands talk funny, and that they’re losing their culture to coastal development. We know that our town has old buildings because after we stupidly tried to defend slavery we were too poor to build anything else for a hundred years, and then too stubborn to tear anything down. We know that Hoppin’ John isn’t just for New Year’s Day, and that possum tastes best with sweet potatoes.
Somewhere between Bulls Bay and Wadmalaw Sound someone threw a cast net into the water today. They probably drew it out without much success, but even in the middle of winter, they may have snatched a few creek shrimp or a wayward mullet. At a hundred farms and ranches — backyards, even — a youngster checked her chickens’ nesting boxes carefully for eggs; they’re scarcer in the waning daylight than during the lengthened sun of summer. More than one person milked a goat or a cow. A thousand deer met their maker in the local woods since the last full moon. Someone this month shot a pig, scraped off its fur, and cooked it slowly over an open fire for a gathering of friends. People are beating a steady path to Backman’s Seafood, carrying away white mesh oyster bags filled with salty local clusters. Spring will bring even more abundance, summer a climax, and in fall our climate will provide an additional cropping season full of tomatoes, okra, sesame, and corn.
Of course, that’s not entirely true. Most of the vegetables people eat here will be trucked in from the Salinas Valley in California, the beef will be tortured first in Midwestern feedlots and mammoth slaughter facilities, and the seafood won’t really come from the sea at all — at least not in the wild, fishermen-with-a-net motif that will be printed on the front of the box in the frozen foods aisle. But this also will be our food, because just like New Jersey we have Costco and Walmart too. And their fiscal year has nothing to do with tide or season.
In fact, like everyone else in the country, we’re really just modern Americans, except when we’re not. Then we’re inbred bluebloods in a Conroy novel, or bourbon drunks who eat nothing but stone-ground grits, handmade pot still liquor, and watermelon pickles — but most of these people are white and wearing sundresses on a $3 million piazza, since that’s what sells.
Undoubtedly, there’s always an element of grand myth and fantasy attached to popular cultural memory. Others have likened our particular embrace of such passions to a “golden haze.” And while the propensity of our people to turn a standard funeral into a week-long gastronomic orgy at the bereaved’s home certainly should be studied and written about, we should be careful how we allow ourselves to be packaged and sold. Just on the other side of minstrelsy and carnival attraction lays an equally old, if more dishonorable profession. As this year of Charleston wraps up, and such aspirations pass along to another unfortunate locale, I say let it go. The tide will still flood the Crosstown tomorrow, and Bowen’s Island will still serve a good dinner, even if it burns down yet again.