Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Culinary Expedition in Charleston

Today marks 150 years since the opening shots of the Civil War were fired in the harbor of Charleston, S.C.  So it was a cool thing to get a chance to be in Charleston last week for the National Chicken Council’s Food News Seminar. It offered great opportunities to learn more about the culture and cuisine, known as “Lowcountry.” 

Seminar topics ranged from Gullah culture and cuisine, nutrition in walnuts, the chocolate-milk-in-schools debate, the rising prices of food, changes in the perishable aisles of your grocery store, and the controversial practice of “plumping” chicken with salt water.  
We watched a cooking demo on Lowcountry cuisine by Matt & Ted Lee, whose Country Captain Chicken beat Bobby Flay’s in a Food Network throwdown. 
We also visited the the Dock Street Theater, first opened in 1736. 

We visited America’s only tea plantation, the Charleston Classics Tea Plantation on Wadmalaw Island. We also went to the Firely Distillery (and no, I didn't participate in the tastings at either of these places, in case you're all wondering!)  

The  barrier islands of South Carolina are home to the Gullah, descendants of African-American slaves. Their isolation allowed them to preserve many African customs such as basket weaving, rice cultivation and shrimp fishing.
Charlotte Jenkins, owner of Gullah Cuisine restaurant, cooked a fabulous lunch of  shrimp with gravy over grits, Gullah jerk chicken (mildly seasoned than Caribbean jerk), deviled crab, okra gumbo, collard greens, and cornbread. There were three different kinds of rice — Okra perlou (a Lowcountry term for pilaf), red rice (with a little tomato-y base) and Gullah rice (flavored with chicken, sausage and shrimp). I loved the pecan squares (similar to pecan pie) for dessert. 

We were treated to a performance by Gullah gospel singers.

Local sweetgrass weaver Henrietta Snype showed us the tradition that’s been handed down through her family for generations. 
As one would expect at a chicken industry meeting, the menus included fried chicken, barbecued chicken, grilled chicken, poached chicken, smoked chicken, chicken galatine, chicken mousse appetizers, and chicken sausage. I especially enjoyed the locally caught shrimp and crab. Rice, grits and collard greens were also popular.
I was mystified when people were talking about “bald peanuts.” Turns out it’s “boiled peanuts,” where raw peanuts are boiled in the shell. The taste and texture is similar to a bean or lentil. A French Lowcountry restaurant, The Fat Hen, has boiled peanuts in its signature salad, along with roasted corn and butter beans. It was soooo delicious! 
 I think the Fat Hen's chef, Fred Neuville, prescribes to that popular theory that bacon makes everything better. Lots of his dishes, including collard greens and cole slaw were liberally laced with bacon. 
McCrady’s tavern was built by Madeira importer Edward McCrady in 1788.  When Washington toured the Southern States in 1791, he ate at McCrady’s. 
I had dinner there with my friend Cheramie Sonnier, assistant editor at the Baton Rouge Advocate. I loved the fennel soup, and that’s one dish I intend to replicate at home. 
But we were a little disappointed in the Chicken Gallantine and Strawberry Custard dessert from chef Sean Brock. Maybe our expectations were too high after hearing he was a James Beard award-winner. But, if it was good enough  for the President, by George, it’s jolly well good enough for me!
Cookbook author Nathalie DuPree invited some of us to visit her charming home in downtown Charleston. I got a kick out of her garden, where she's "planted" broken dishes. 

We saw the Angel Oak tree, on St. John's Island, a live oak that is estimated to be around 1,500 years old.

I'll be posting more about some of the seminars, people, and food from the conference. But for now, let me finish with my little song, "Nothin' could be finer than to be in Carolina in the morning!" 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Valerie, you've made me want to go! How cool that a local food lover invited you into her home and how funny that boiled is pronounced bald.


p.s. I don't know what to select so I always select anonymous!