Black pavement so hot it scorches your feet. Gravel so smooth and at the same time sharp enough to make you yelp. Wait, you urge silently as that jingle grows closer and closer. It’s July and you’re still young enough to race through the street with abandon. All you want is a Big Dipper, a strawberry shortcake, a Screwball — the one with the layered ice hiding the tiny, frozen gum ball.
[image-3]That’s what five-time James Beard Outstanding Pastry Chef semifinalist Cynthia Wong and Mary Oster, her partner in business and pastries, want you to remember. Their Life Raft Treats — including Wong’s famed ‘Not Fried Chicken’ drumstick and a play on a Choco Taco — are made from scratch with local ingredients, including the hints of nostalgia so subtle you’ll find yourself daydreaming.
“You can work for someone and have it be meaningful, and really love it, and give it your all, and have it be a great part of your career,” says Wong, who left her post at Butcher & Bee in the spring. “But there’s always a little something in your own heart, it’s like building a house inside your mind. It’s like stepping onto a life raft and paddling away to your dream.”
Wong and Oster’s dreams are becoming a reality as they pop up almost daily with their Life Raft cart. This week alone you can find them at GrowFood Carolina on Thursday (4:30-6 p.m.), Second State Coffee on Friday (1:30 p.m.), and at both Freehouse and Westbrook breweries on Saturday. The duo were even able to sell out at their joint pop-up with Short Grain at Edmund’s Oast Brewing Co. on Tuesday.
“When you stop working for someone — I’ve worked for someone else my whole life — it’s terrifying,” says Wong. “To have the support of Shuai and Corrie and GrowFood and Jeffrey from 2Nixons, Caviar and Bananas, Second State, saying ‘hey, let’s do this together, let’s have fun together.”
[image-4]All of the treats are made with local ingredients like Storey Farms eggs and Lowcountry Creamery milk. And because it’s just Oster and Wong, with the help of their husbands on the managerial side of things, all the treats are no more than two days old. They run $5 a pop, which some may balk at if they’re used to old beach town prices. But these are not the Screwballs of our youth.
“I don’t want people to have an image that it’s luxury food,” says Wong. “It’s a delicious treat for everybody, for anyone who loves food, who loves being in Charleston.” And with this week’s weather, the timing couldn’t have been better. “We were rushing to get out there because it is such a perfect time,” says Oster. “Everything kind of lined up.”
The two hope to transition to a full fledged truck by the end of summer, and have an even bigger dream for the future: a combo ice cream/candy counter store.
[image-5]But the journey hasn’t all been candy canes and gum drops, of course. “At times we’re like ‘how are we going to make enough for this weekend?'” says Wong. “And there’s that really fantastic restaurant training: OK we’re going to dig ourselves out of this hole we have six hours. We’re gonna make it happen. That came in really handy.”
As more people around the city start to scream for Life Raft and Oster and Wong peddle their goods in the blazing summer heat, Wong hopes her patrons will take some time to enjoy their delicious, inventive drumstick, bar, or cone in their hand.
“We want there to be a little joy in every bite,” says Wong. “For it to bring a smile to your face, a childhood memory, something that takes you away, we want them to almost just giggle.”
Maybe a giggle from Life Raft’s Minty Cohn? Ha. The dark chocolate waffle cone with mint ice cream, fresh mint, and a bittersweet chocolate shell are divine.
But the human pleasure? The tiny dot of sheet candy placed carefully on top. “Oh my god, I remember these!”