For years, I had a very clear impression of Southern cooking. It was based on a single trip to New Orleans when I had just marked my 21st birthday, and it centered on one thing: grits.
A local had “treated” me to that dish for breakfast on the first day of my two-day visit, and I decided right then and there that I knew everything I needed to know about Southern cuisine. So my two dinners on that excursion were some kind of steak at a faceless chain restaurant, and a pretty good hamburger, its meat rendered almost tasteless by a slathering of hot mustard.
There would be additional trips to “The South” in subsequent years. But I found the food in Miami to be more Latin-influenced than anything I’d think of as “Southern.” And in Orlando, I would describe the cuisine as “Disneyfied”—much more about the ambience than the food itself.
(Note: I’ve actually had some memorable meals, and I mean memorable in a good way, at a few of the Disney World restaurants, particularly during the annual food and wine festival. But outside the resort’s perimeter, I haven’t had much luck.)
Over the years, I came to learn that I had not experienced real New Orleans fare, which is based on Cajun cooking traditions. I also learned that there were several fine-dining restaurants outside the Disney gates.
But the light bulb did not appear above my head until a friend told me that if I really wanted to get a taste of The South, I had to go to South Carolina—specifically, to Charleston.
My friend told me that Southern cuisine had evolved. She said that for many years, it was all about “comfort food,” but more recently, it had become a fusion of multiple cooking genres. Some of the flavors had changed, but Southern cooking, she told me, was still about bold flavors.
And what about wine?
“Well,” she said, “Charleston is more of a Grand Marnier town. If you really want to be treated like a native, you order a shot of ‘grammar.’ But there are some places where you can get a great meal and a good glass of wine.”
“Do tell,” I replied. And she did, recommending a restaurant called Husk. It turns out she knows what she’s talking about, as Husk has become an extremely hot table since it was named the country’s best new restaurant by Bon Appetit magazine.
On the day of my visit, several nearby diners were oohing and aahing over their plates, so I caught the eye of one and asked what they were having. It was a pork shoulder confit, which she described as “a smorgasbord of flavors.”
It was an apt description, as I later learned that the dish was prepared with field peas, butter beans, mustard greens, spicy pig ears and pickled peach jus.
What kind of wine would one drink with such a complex dish? The diner I talked to hadn’t even considered wine; she was having “grammar.” But I would have opted for a glass of sparkling wine—neutral in flavor, and with some effervescence to help tame the spice.
I wasn’t hungry enough for a full meal, so I asked my server to recommend a side dish that I could eat with a glass of wine. Without even pausing to think, he suggested the cheese and grits.
That, of course, prompted an instant flashback to my first visit to The South, and I began to question the knowledge of my friend back home…not to mention the good folks at Bon Appetit. But I had asked and he had answered—with great enthusiasm, I might add—so, cheese and grits it would be.
Well, my server did not steer me wrong. The grits were bathed in sharp Tennessee cheddar, and mushrooms were mixed in for good measure. After tasting the gooey concoction, I ordered a glass of Cabernet Sauvignon. My mouth was very happy.
I plan to get back to Charleston soon, as my friend also recommended the Peninsula Grill and its companion Champagne Bar, and a place called FIG, an acronym for “Food Is Good.”
For the time being, however, I’m just happy to have learned some more about “Southern cooking”—even if the lesson did involve grits.
Have you dined at Husk…or anywhere else in Charleston? We’d love to hear about your experiences in the comments box below.