I have just spent several great days in Charleston. Any trip to the historic South Carolina seaport town would be “great,” but going as part of a Southern Foodways Alliance “field trip” ensured that it would be memorable. Chapel Hill’s Marcie Ferris now chairs this group that calls Ole Miss its home.
Marcie also is heading the planning for a SFA gathering of southern food aficionados in Chapel Hill Sept. 8-9 to explore Triangle food and foodways. Bill Smith of Crook’s Corner, whose signature watermelon and tomato salad was featured on the cover of the July issue of Southern Living, is lending his considerable expertise and will host the group for Sunday brunch. Sheri Castle, who shares her cooking skills with patrons of A Southern Season, is part of the planning group, as well as Fred Thompson, whose new book Barbecue Nation is the talk of the outdoor grilling crowd. Add the name of Nancie McDermott, whose book Southern Cakes, has landed her a gig on The Food Network; the Barkers at Durham’s Magnolia Grill; and Metro’s own Moreton Neal, and you find in the Triangle one of the South’s most impressive groups of cookbook authors and food writers.
While Charleston may sound like a far piece from Down East, it actually is an easy drive — only about four hours, for example, from Greenville, the heartbeat of the Northeast. I mention Greenville because I learned before going to Charleston that my friend, prominent Greenville trial attorney and political leader Tom Taft, and his wife, Liz, have a home there. Tom and Liz, an ECU faculty member with awesome credentials, manage to spend at least one weekend a month in Charleston. I envy them that luxury.
Their Charleston place is not just any old house. But it is an “old house” — one of the oldest in the city, located on historic Rainbow Row just one block off Waterfront Park. My mistake was not calling Tom before my trip. We sipped Madeira and ate cauliflower custard almost in its shadow, and I could have knocked on the door and asked the housekeeper for the quarter tour. Tom assured me I would have been welcomed.
The buildings on Rainbow Row were built in the mid-1700s and at one point were the commercial center of the city. Now they are a unique street of brightly painted homes — pink, yellow and blue. Tom and Liz caused a bit of a stir when they painted their house blue — yes, Carolina Blue — in honor of the university where Tom received his law degree. I wonder if the folks at Duke, where Tom was student body president, will be miffed when they find out. The Board of Directors of the East Carolina University Foundation, chaired by ECU alumnus Ken Chalk of Winston-Salem, met in Charleston last year, and the Tafts entertained them on Rainbow Row. Tom is an officer of the Foundation. Suppose he and Liz had chosen the ECU colors, purple and gold. Old Charleston would have been abuzz.
The Taft’s Charleston place is slated to be featured in the September issue of Charleston Magazine. I can’t wait to see the photos. Speaking of Charleston Magazine, one of my dinner companions at Circa 1886 on my first night in Charleston was Marion Sullivan, food editor of the magazine. Anchoring the other end of the table was Nathalie Dupree, Grande Dame of southern cooking and author of countless cookbooks. Both are close friends of Circa 1886 Chef Mark Collins, so he gave us lots of attention and sent samples of his specialties out between courses. Mark, along with Marion and Nathalie, were key founders of the Charleston Food + Wine Festival that sold out last spring. I plan to be there in 2008.
Wake Forest alums from the 1960s should know that one of Charleston’s major restaurant groups, Maverick Southern Kitchens, is owned and operated by Wake alumna Danya Carlin Tate (1968) and her husband, former Burlington Industries corporate counsel, Dick Elliott. Danya was a high profile campus beauty, an officer in the student government association and a Fidele. They own several of Charleston’s best restaurants — Slightly North of Broad (S.N.O.B), High Cotton, and Old Village Post House.
My first event in Charleston was a rice cooking demonstration in the studio kitchen at Charleston Cooks, Danya and Dick’s upscale boutique. Danya’s office was upstairs, so I had a chance to visit with her — gracious, hospitable and obviously the successful businesswoman.
I was surprised at the considerable North Carolina presence in Charleston. I knew that Tog Newman, long-time chair of the North Carolina Arts Council, and her husband Michael have a place on Montagu Court, but I did not know about the Tafts and others until recently.
Folks who have been around for a while will remember the Farmville antique business, Mandarin Gallery, that for years offered one of the East Coast’s largest selections of Asian furniture and furnishings. The proprietor, Don Baucom, now has a shop in Charleston.
Bob Ward of Greensboro, the Unifi executive who chaired the Board of Trustees at East Carolina University, and wife Margaret, now a member of the Board, have a Charleston home, as do Chapel Hill attorneys Steve and Dorothy Bernholz. Edwin Clark, the Wilco Hess oil company executive from Greenville, and his wife, Ann, enjoy Charleston and may be in the market for a place also. This Old South city is going to have quite a Tar Heel enclave.
Let me share a few things with you that I learned in Charleston. Anson Mills, the South Carolina company created by former architect Glenn Roberts, has a major presence. Roberts closed his practice and set out to grow and mill near-extinct varieties of heirloom corn, rice and wheat organically — and recreate ingredients that were in the Southern larder before the Civil War. Today, his company produces grits, cornmeal, Carolina Gold rice, graham and biscuit flour, and polenta milled fresh for the table.
Carolina Gold was the predominant rice variety grown in the coastal Carolinas and Georgia. Thanks to Roberts and his tenacity, this rice — famous for its color, texture and buttery taste — is growing again in North Carolina near New Bern. He would like to find available land on the Cape Fear, the location of many early North Carolina rice plantations, including Orton. I suspect it was Carolina Gold that was grown at Somerset Place at Creswell in Tyrrell County.
Charlestonians believe their city to be the epicenter of the old rice culture and themselves to be the ultimate authorities on rice. I know no good reason to challenge that claim, and I did come home with a few hints for cooking better rice (like washing it first to remove excess starch) in case you have been lying awake at night worrying about it. Start with Carolina Gold, if possible. It’s available in Triangle specialty markets and online at www.ansonmills.com. It ain’t cheap, folks, but you get bragging rights for serving “designer” rice.
Friends and I cooked Carolina Gold last night. Carla Della Valentina, who was reared in Italy, started the process as if she were going to make risotto. She sautéed a little onion in butter, then added the rice and shortly some white wine, stirring all the while. We didn’t have chicken broth in the cupboard at our spontaneous gathering, so we added water, covered the pot and let it simmer for about 15 minutes — Down East style. We set it off for two or three minutes before removing the lid and stirring. Some folks say stir immediately. Even without the chicken broth, it was delicious.
We talked a lot about grits in Charleston, since Nathalie Dupree, whom I mentioned earlier, along with Marion Sullivan, have authored the definitive Shrimp and Grits Cookbook. Buy coarse, locally ground grits and store them in the freezer. In my neighborhood, I prefer Daniel Boone stone-ground grits from the Boonville Flour & Feed Mill — the kind that comes in a paper bag that is twisted up and tied with a string at the top. Ask distinguished Raleigh attorneys Edwin Speas and John Shaw to bring you some when they go home to Yadkin County.
Between you and me, folks, it helps if you put a little love in your grits. Cook them in milk or cream or chicken broth. Add some cheese, garlic or butter. Stay with them, stir them and adjust the liquid. For shrimp and grits, especially, you want thick, creamy and hearty grits. With luck, someone will say, “My goodness, is this really GRITS?” and you can reply, “Why, yeeeeeeeeees. Can you believe it?”