OK, I am going to give this a shot. I am going to attempt to, in one post, tell you all about our four days at the Charleston Wine & Food Festival (and beyond). Along the way I will do my best to (briefly!) describe the amazing food we ate, the incredible music we heard (incredible music!) and the cool people we met. Are you ready?
It all started with food in an airport, at LaGuardia Airport to be precise. Ugh, right? Well, it was ok. I left it to Therese to pick, because the last time I picked a restaurant for breakfast in LaGuardia, Therese was not impressed. So the first place we saw was Crust, and that’s where we stopped for our inauguratory (it should be a word) meal of the trip.
Sunnyside up eggs, turkey sausage, hash browns and cranberry juice. Adequate. Let’s move on.
So we arrived in Charleston, picked up our rental car at the airport, and got to our hotel (Embassy Suites Historic Charleston, as usual) just in time for lunch. Around the corner, we found Virginia’s on King pretty empty, had some lunch. I ordered a chicken salad sandwich, with sweet potato fries and, to substitute for blue cheese cole slaw, lima beans. OMG, so much food, I couldn’t even finish half of it. But that’s why we have a refrigerator in our hotel room, right? (I would polish off those leftovers later on, don’t worry)
After some quiet time, we got on the road and headed to our first festival event, the “Baked at Bowens” seafood bash out at Bowens Island Restaurant on James Island (as you’ll soon discover, all the festival events have snazzy names). It was practically in the middle of a marsh, plenty rustic, with all these rustic wood buildings and open fires roasting salmon and all kinds of yummy cevices and other small plates. With great bluegrass-y music provided by Dallas Baker & Friends.
Some of the food stalls were outside, but there were a bunch in a shack right down by the water. Those were some of the best bites. There was a ceviche that had like a spicy mango mayonnaise underneath it, and a General Tso’s Oyster, and a shrimp and fish combo that I could’ve eaten over and over (wait, I did go back a couple times for more of that).
The next morning, we met a bus near the Frances Marion hotel and headed out to Hemingway (this event was called “Highway to Hemingway“), about a 2-hour drive from Charleston, to sample pit-cooked barbecue at the famous Rodney Scott’s Barbecue (if you are trying to place the name, Scott’s BBQ was on the inaugural (wait, that’s the word!) episode of Roger Mooking‘s Cooking Channel show “Man, Fire, Food“). Along for the ride were John T. Edge of the Southern Foodways Alliance (he was sort of the emcee), Nick Pihakis of Jim n’ Nicks BBQ (our favorite BBQ place in Charleston) and architect Reggie Gibson. In 2013, Rodney’s pit burned down, and Reggie Gibson designed the new, state-of-the-art building for the cooking operation (you’ll see some pictures of it later).
We got off the bus and there was a party atmosphere afoot. Before we ate, we got the tour. First, there was the store on the left, and the Cooking House (whatever they call it) on the right.
Then, we got a closer look at the operation inside the cooking hut. Out back is the burn barrel, where wood is burned, and the ashes are taken out by shovel for keeping the fires inside stoked.
While we were there, it was time inside the cooking joint to brush the hogs with spices, so we got to see some of that (major smoky, my friends).
My eyes were smarting, my nose was dripping, and I could hardly breathe. Enough hardcore bbq action for me – I was ready to eat. And sure enough, as I left the hut, a nice young lady handed me a styrofoam container filled with lunch. And oh, what a lunch.
There was a slice of white bread covered with barbecued pork, with a chunk of the thickest, teeth-chipping-est pork skin I’ve ever seen. Then there were containers of cole slaw and baked beans. Then there was a container of banana pudding covered with whipped cream that I gave to Therese. But I didn’t need any dessert: the food by itself was plenty, it filled me up just fine. I sat at a picnic table set up in the middle of the parking lot, and feasted. Local beers and cocktails were served under a tent in the middle of the lot also, as well as lemonade and sweat tea and water.
As we finished eating, the band started playing on a stage next to the parking lot, the Touch Band of Kingstree, Rodney’s favorite band for the last 15 years. They played funky stuff, really great. We digested to their ear-tingling tunes for an hour or so before getting back on our bus and returning to Charleston. The last thing I saw as we left Hemingway was John T. Edge and Rodney’s 80 year old aunt waving at us from that parking lot.
The day finished up for us with another food and music event, the Divine Rhapsody that took place at Charleston’s Circular Congregational Church. The church has a sizeable yard surrounding it (as well as what is purportedly the city’s oldest graveyard), and that is where the food stations were set up, serving delights provided by the South Caroline Chef Ambassador Program. Of the bites offered at the various food stations, I was only able to eat two: a beef brisket that came with two different kinds of bread and a spicy sauce, and a lamb porterhouse (with the latter, I had to ask them to leave off the grits, which were dairy-laden). I was not in a drinking mood that night, and it was hard to find something that was not alcoholic, but eventually, Therese and I found a couple bottles of water.
After eating and relaxing for an hour, we went inside the church for a combination musical performance and moderated panel talk. The performance was by Leyla McCalla and her band (she played cello, banjo and guitar, and her mates played viola, banjo and guitar), accompanied by local trumpeter Charlton Singleton. Ms. McCalla is of Haitian ethnicity and now calls New Orleans her home, so some of her songs were in French. She also displayed a great fondness for the poetry of Langston Hughes, singing settings of his poems. Mr. Singleton started off the evening with a solo call to prayer that was riveting, and later provided solos in Ms. McCalla’s peaceful rhapsodic songs. Once again, we experienced what, to my mind, sets Charleston’s festival apart from, for example, the New York Wine & Food Festival: every event we attended had first-class music, in addition to the highest quality of food.
In between groups of songs, the panel talk took place. Moderated by cookbook author and documentary filmmaker Lolis Elie, it included Chefs Frank Lee and John Besh (representing the food world) and Charlton Singleton and Leyla McCalla (representing music). They talked about the possible connections between food and music, especially touching on the similarities of being a professional in either genre (e.g., inspiration was a touchstone of the discussion).
At the end of the evening, during the audience Q&A, the question of lack of ethnic and gender diversity in the worlds of food and music came up. Chef Besh seemed to get a bit defensive at one point, interrupting McCalla a couple of times. Cooler heads prevailed, and it was obvious both that this question could not be fully answered by those present, and that there is far to go to remedy the problem.
On Saturday, all we had to do was attend the Culinary Village in Marion Square, which ran from noon to 5pm. This park is right next to our hotel, so all we had to do was take a few steps from the entrance, and there we were! I took just one photo that day, of the first thing I ate – a turkey burger that was one of the best I have ever tasted. This was entirely representative of the day, since everything we ate was of the highest quality.
And yes, this was slider-sized, eaten in just a few bites. As were all the other things we ate that day – some required a fork, but all were small plates, some just a taste.
I loved the way the village was set up. There were numerous tents set up in such a way that there were many themed areas, organized around the beverages being served there. There was a beer village, a wine village, a vodka tent, that sort of thing. And in each place, along with the copious numbers of beverage options, there would be a couple of food stations interspersed. The way they did it spread out the food areas, so that we were able to pace ourselves without working too hard. And of course some of the more popular stations had huge lines, so while waiting your turn, you could build up an appetite. There were so many things we tried, and as I said, they were all incredibly high quality, I can hardly remember them all. But to give you an idea, here are some that stood out: a fried wonton with pulled chicken strewn over it, huge steamed mussels, vegetarian cassoulet, prime rib.
After spending most of the day in the culinary village, you would’ve thought that we would never have wanted to eat ever again. But a couple hours after leaving there, while sitting in our hotel room, I felt a decided lack of chocolate in the weekend. So I called my favorite Charleston chocolate shop, the Christophe Atelier, and found out they were open late. So Therese and I made a trip there, picked up some dark (diary free) chocolates from them (it’s easy to tell what is dark, because their labels are orange – milk chocolates and other things have labels that are other colors). On our way back from the chocolate shop, we picked up some seafood sandwiches from Fire Street Food, a restaurant on King Street (whaddaya know, we were hungry even after all our noshing that afternoon!).
For Sunday, the last day in Charleston, our schedule was pretty wide open. Our flight was after 4pm, and before then we could do whatever. There were festival events taking place, but there hadn’t been anything that fit our tastes. So I made a brunch reservation at Indaco, another well-regarded restaurant on upper King Street. It is an Italian restaurant, with an emphasis on pizza, but I ordered a pasta dish for my lunch (with all we had eaten that weekend, there had been a decided lack of noodles up to that point).
The black pepper Tagliatelle dish usually comes with Pecorino Romano cheese, which of course I asked to be left off. But otherwise, I ate it all, and enjoyed it immensely. The crisped tesa, or cold-cured pork belly, and the egg yolk which when stirred into the black pepper pasta, made a creamy saucy texture – it was all very rich and luscious. I do think the dish needed just a touch more moisture – either a second egg yolk, or a tablespoon of stock. Perhaps the melting cheese would’ve provided that, I’m not sure. But for the most part, I enjoyed my lunch quite a bit.
With still a couple of hours to kill, and it being a relatively warm sunny day, we decided to do one of our favorite things: head down to the tip of the peninsula and walk around and gaze at the historic homes. So I looked up the free trolley schedule on my phone, and we hopped on and took it down to Broad Street and headed south and east from there. We spent our last bits of time in Charleston before heading north to chilly New York wandering the old streets and taking in old wrought iron gates, carved wooden pilasters, and window boxes full of flowers already in bloom.