[image-1]On July 15, the New York Times ran a feature entitled “36 Hours In Charleston, S.C.” It’s part of the regular “36 Hours In . . .” series, which maps out hour-by-hour recommendations for dining, shopping, and sightseeing from a late Friday afternoon through a Sunday morning in a particular town or city.
To me, the opening sounds spot on for Charleston: “The city is in the midst of a restaurant boom, and King Street has become the embodiment of a new, saccharine-free Southern charm.” As I continued to read, though, I started to stumble across one small discordant detail after another.
Like the comment that, thanks to Charleston’s “balmy” climate, “visitors can spend plenty of time outdoors year-round.” No one who has walked a couple of blocks downtown in July would use the term “balmy” to describe the experience.
And then there’s the selection of recommended restaurants, all of which are fine but seem to focus a little heavily on the Upper King district and omit the new places that have been getting so much press everywhere else. The Ordinary, for instance, is now, if anything, a fixture of the Charleston scene, not the city’s “most vibrant new restaurant” as the article states.
Kudos to Geoff Yost for figuring out why it all sounded a little off.
[embed-1] Despite stating “July 15, 2016” in the dateline, the feature is actually a slightly retreaded version of the same “36 Hours in Charleston” piece that the Times ran back on Nov. 21, 2013. After seeing Yost’s tweet, I went back and compared the two versions side by side, and what they reveal is not so much a piece that is out of date but one that was actually made worse by someone’s hamfisted efforts to make it more timely.
The original piece opened with a Christmas-themed note—the fact that the poinsettia was named for Charleston-born Joel Roberts Poinsett and that visitors would see a lot of them around the city at Christmastime. It was a seasonal if somewhat unconventional way to open a story that ran on November 21st, a time when New York Times readers might well have been thinking about making plans for a long weekend trip over the holidays.
That lede wouldn’t work when the piece was re-run in July, and unfortunately whoever was tasked with updating it did so in the most conventional way possible. “As home to Rhett Butler, Fort Sumter, the fabled battery, and perhaps the country’s highest concentration of magnolias and plantations,” the retread begins, “Charleston has always held a special place in the American imagination . . . “
Oh, good. Moonlight and magnolias and Gone With the Wind. That never gets old.
Some changes were clearly made necessary by the shift in season or by just the passing of time itself. In the blurb for Hall’s Chophouse there’s no longer a parenthetical note that “during the holidays, you’ll hear carols steeped with soul.” The Blind Tiger is now defunct, so it’s been replaced by Closed for Business as the 10 p.m. beer stop.
But the cuts should have gone much deeper. Three years ago, discussing Two Boroughs Larder as the “Son of Husk” was timely and appropriate. Earlier this summer, though, Two Boroughs Larder announced it is closing its doors for good at the end of July.
Until the Times reminded me, I had totally forgotten that Blake Lively and Ryan Reynolds got married at Boone Hall back in 2012, and I care even less about that now than I did three years ago. Even more surprising is that the editors kept the same heading for the Boone Hall entry: “Tara! Tara! Tara!”
Great. More Gone With the Wind foolishness, and in this case it links a fictional cotton plantation in Georgia with an all-too-real plantation in the Lowcountry. A passing reference to “the rows of slave quarters” as “a sobering counterpoint” is the only nod in the piece that there was once something rather unpleasant underlying the plantation economy. Then the author races very quickly to fawning over the “three-quarters of a mile of 270-year-old live oaks oozing with Spanish moss.”
There’s something quite jarring to read in 2016 that Boone Hall Plantation is “still a working plantation.” It’s not. What it is is a working farm. There is a huge difference between the two words both in literal definition and in connotation. After all that’s happened in Charleston in the past three years and all the “conversations” on race and the legacy of slavery and the perils of whitewashing the past, not knowing the difference between those two words and the emotions they elicit seems, well, very out of date.
(Also, for the record, Spanish moss does not ooze from live oaks. It dangles and droops, and it’s quite dry).
But the most regrettable change made in the new and not improved version is in the Friday lunch suggestion, for which “Who’s Got Soul” was swapped out and replaced by “The Fully Wired Sandwich.”
On the surface, the edit was necessary because Alluette’s Café, featured in the original version, closed its doors in 2014. It was replaced by an excellent but very different type of restaurant, Butcher and Bee, and the description reads like an old paragraph rescued from the cutting room floor.
“Everyday the staff takes a photo of the offerings on the chalkboard behind the counter,” the piece notes, “and posts it to the restaurant’s thousands of followers on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.” A social media-savvy restaurant isn’t exactly novel these days, and Butcher and Bee actually stopped posting photos of its chalkboard menu back on April 9, its last day in its old 654 King Street location.
After that, it moved up to 1085 Morrison St., putting it smack dab in the middle of the one neighborhood that anyone writing seriously about what’s going on in dining in Charleston right now has to at least mention. Call it the Upper Upper Neck or Rumney or whatever you prefer (anything but NoMo will do) the area north of US 17 between King and Morrison Streets is now home to Edmund’s Oast, Home Team Barbecue, Spero, Butcher & Bee, Lewis Barbecue, and more.
But even worse is the fact that removing Alluette’s excised the only traces of African-American cooking in Charleston that were in the original piece. Alluette’s Cafe closed in August 2014 after its building was sold and razed to make way for one of the one zillion new hotels that are now rising above Meeting and King streets, and it was just one of a parade of African-American owned restaurants — Huger’s, Ernie’s, Ike’s Hot Chicken & Fish, Gullah Cuisine — that have shut down amid ever-rising downtown rents.
Two years later, Alluette Jones still hasn’t been able to reopen in a brick-and-mortar location.
“I can’t go somewhere and spend $20,000 a month on rent for a soul food place,” she told the City Paper last year. “I’m looking for investors.”
Martha Lou’s Kitchen, which was mentioned in the 2013 piece — is still around, thankfully, but it got excised along with Alluette’s.
And that, ultimately, is what makes the piece seem really dated to my eyes, and also rather depressing. With each passing year more and more people — both those living in Charleston and those visiting it — seem to have discarded the old moonlight and magnolias myths and recognized the historical realities of slavery and the way that terrible legacy still defines and constrains today’s society. In just the past few years, furthermore, we’ve also started to recognize and talk about the foundational role of African Americans in defining Lowcountry food — and argue and fight with each other about how best to understand and react to that legacy.
At the same time, all the debates and conversations don’t seem to be having a lot of effect. The more we talk about Gullah dishes and traditional Lowcountry ingredients, the less we seem to be actually eating them.
It’s a complex and controversial subject and one that, I admit, is hard to address in only 36 hours. But perhaps we could at least stop talking about Rhett Butler and Tara and stop trying to slap yet another coat of whitewash onto Charleston.
And if editors of the Times would like spring for an airline ticket and send a travel reporter back down this way, we’ll be glad to hook them up with some recommendations for how to really take in the 2016 version of our city.