Although we had just ordered three appetizers, a soup and two main courses (we did eat every bite), my husband was, indeed, inquiring about where we might go later that evening to try more of Charleston's culinary delicacies.
Most tourists are drawn to Charleston for its graceful, grand homes and hauntingly beautiful gardens. But an increasing number are going for the food, as the rich and varied cuisine of the region undergoes a renaissance propelled by an interest in locally grown ingredients and an influx of new chefs.
During a late-spring trip to South Carolina to visit family, my husband and I sneaked away for a few days to taste what all the fuss was about.
Our mission was to eat our way across the city and a few of its neighboring islands, sampling traditional favorites such as fried chicken and grits, along with fancier fare in restaurants where chefs are experimenting with specialized ingredients.
Planning your trip
WHERE TO EAT
Fig, 232 Meeting St., Charleston; (843) 805-5900, http://www.eatatfig.com. Closed Sunday. Open for dinner Monday-Thursday, 5:30-10:30 p.m.; Friday and Saturday, 5:30-11 p.m. Entrees from $26.
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In between meals, we strolled, taking in the gardens and trying to catch an ocean breeze. I was delighted to discover another feature of Charleston that pleased me almost as much as the food and the sights: The city boasts an unusual number of upscale consignment stores, where Chanel suits and designer clothes, many of them lovingly cared for and beautifully presented, can be had for a song.
But a quick tip: Before embarking on a venture of this kind, it is crucial to don comfortable shoes, so as to be able to walk off what you do to yourself. This is not the time — believe me because I know — for the new sandals purchased at said thrift shop, no matter how cute they are.
We began our feasting with some history and tradition. On the advice of Ted and Matt Lee, friends of a friend as well as Charleston residents and authors of two cookbooks about Southern cooking, we headed to Po Pigs Bo-B-Q.
I was skeptical at first. Po Pigs is a roadside joint next to a gas station on an empty stretch of Highway 174 on Edisto Island south of Charleston. We had visited an old plantation in the morning, and I was wilting in the heat, smarting from insect bites, limping from my inappropriate footwear and wondering what we were doing here in the sticks when we could be inside with air-conditioning.
My heart sank further when we walked in the door. I beheld a simple room, clean but nothing special, holding a few tables and, at the front, a steam table. I am from the West Coast, and steam tables signify to me congealed school-cafeteria food. I tried to send my husband a disapproving look, but I could not catch his eye.
He was staring at the buffet with a look of wonder and joy usually reserved for our children. I followed him to get a closer look.
How to describe what I saw? Tray after tray of things I had only read about in books or seen in movies: chicken stew, pork hash, red rice, lima beans, and yes, of course, hush puppies.
Now, I realize these are not rare foods. Anyone who has spent even five minutes in the South — I had not before this trip —has eaten them.
But not like this. The overall effect was that of a potluck with dozens of guests, each of them an accomplished cook who had brought along his or her best dish.
My favorite was the fried chicken, a dish I eat every chance I get. But never have I had it so perfectly prepared, the skin so crispy and salty, the meat so tender.