Certain months are synonymous with food — the big bird and your Aunt Sally’s mac ‘n’ cheese in November at Thanksgiving. Sweet holiday goodies in December.
On a purely local level, early March brings top- notch chefs from afar to Charleston for a festival, and our restaurants put their best food forward. In late January, we host the world’s largest oyster festival.
But June — Mother Nature has her back.
It’s our favorite food month because, in the words of renowned songwriter Oscar Hammerstein II, “June is bustin’ out all over.”
One big reason June is at the top of the list is because that’s when the greatest variety of locally grown vegetables and fruits are ripe for the pickin’.
June is when the window opens for our beloved tomatoes and corn. When black-and-blue is a condition we welcome, as in juicy, sun-sweetened blackberries and blueberries. June is when the taste of an especially sweet cantaloupe or peach is worth a conversation, even with total strangers.
But there’s more to be abuzz about in June besides veggies and farmers markets. For a few precious weeks, we are the land of plenty. Think white roe shrimp and a fresh influx of finfish like black sea bass. Hens are busy laying farm-fresh eggs. It’s time to brake for boiled peanuts.
Take your food outside. The weather’s ideal to pack a picnic or visit a food truck rodeo. Wash down all that good food with a refreshing, “homegrown” summer cocktail or beverage.
In June, there’s no doubt that summer has arrived. School is out and vacation, or at least the mind-set of it, is in. The living is easy.
“Spring being a tough act to follow, God created June.” So said another American, writer and journalist Al Bernstein, and we agree.
Plant eaters’ paradise
The South Carolina Produce Availability Calendar from the state Department of Agriculture lists 24 different vegetables and fruits in season during June, more than any other month of the year. At the top of the chart are all kinds of beans, at the bottom is zucchini squash, and Oriental vegetables fall in the middle.
Rique Scott, working at the Joseph Fields Farm tent at the Charleston Farmers Market in late May, confirmed their return. “He just got the (yellow) squash and zucchini,” she said, and tomatoes were expected within two weeks. “That’s the huge thing. Everybody is looking for the Johns Island tomatoes.”
Michael Parker of the family-owned Hickory Bluff Nursery and Berry Farm in Holly Hill also was at the market, selling strawberries. He expects to have both blueberries and blackberries by the third week of June, and said the season was looking pretty good. “When it gets hot, the blueberries start cycling better and have a higher sugar content.”
Even eggs are more plentiful in June. “Usually they (the hens) lay more in May and June because the days get longer,” said longtime market vendor Celeste Albers. “We get our prettiest pasture now,” said her daughter, Erin. “The vetch and ryegrass is lush and beautiful.”
June marks the return of local shrimp, eagerly anticipated by those folks whose freezers are depleted and have a taste for the Lowcountry’s premier shellfish. Although the season for inshore or “beaches” shrimping sometimes begins in May, it will be early to mid-June this year, says shrimp biologist Larry DeLancey of the S.C. Department of Natural Resources.
First off will be the prized white roe shrimp, whose season will last a few weeks, followed by brown shrimp. They are different species with different attributes.
“Around here the spring whites are bigger because they’ve lasted all winter long and they grow fast in the springtime when the weather warms up,” DeLancey explains. Because the brown shrimp don’t spawn in local waters, they are smaller.
“The whites are prime in texture and quality and bring the highest prices,” he says. But brown shrimp have their devotees, too.
Spring tides and warmer waters are stirring up the fish, which also means a greater variety landing on your plate.
“The ocean is alive,” says fishing boat captain Mark Marhefka of Abundant Seafood, which sells to both restaurants and individual customers from a Shem Creek base. June’s catch will include mahi, wahoo and blackfin tuna. The bottom fish also start actively feeding, Marhefka says.
“The groupers, red porgy and snappers, all are biting. Everything right now is basically spawning. There’s a lot of sex going on,” says Marhefka, who recently returned from one of his best trips in many years.
Also expected to come on strong are triggerfish, all the jacks and black sea bass. Look for banded rudderfish on select menus — once considered bycatch, it’s become a favorite of chefs.
Cocktails all over town take on decidedly herbal notes as summer approaches and mixologists make use of the garden, especially basil, cucumber and mint.
It’s also prime time for refreshing drinks such as Firefly Sweet Tea Vodka or one of the Wadmalaw Island distillery’s three spiked lemonades. Locally based Fat & Juicy has a terrific margarita mix, even without tequila.
Local breweries also get in the swing. At Westbrook Brewing Company in Mount Pleasant, a Belgian-style beer is in the works as part of its Bearded Farmer Saison series. “It’s an interesting flavor, kind of a champagne-y — crisp, tart and sometimes slightly acidic,” as described by employee Colin Robison.
At Coast Brewing Company, they’re about to release a Shreddin’ Wheat brew. “That’s a popular summer one because it’s refreshing yet hoppy with a pleasant lemony character from those hops,” says Coast co-owner Jaime Tenny.
And there is something local for the teetotaler drinker as well. Check out Sociale Mocktails, “the natural alternative to an alcoholic beverage.” Sold at various retail outlets (visit socialemocktails.com to find out), they are offered in four flavors: Mojito, Margarita, Cosmopolitan and Lavender Martini. Add spirits if desired.
Pack the picnic basket
Before it gets too hot, plan a picnic. At the beach, at one of our many local parks or another creative venue, it’s an opportunity to enjoy nature and a meal at the same time. Somehow the food tastes better than it would indoors. Even a piece of cold fried chicken.
If you don’t want to cook, there are plenty of places to purchase food, from Subway sandwiches to gourmet fare at Caviar & Bananas downtown.
Charleston likes to do things in grand style, and the picnic at the Spoleto Festival Finale counts as one of them. Gates open at 3:30 p.m. June 9 at Middleton Place, and the lawn under the oaks is a fine spot for picnicking — and a walk around the gardens is a nice diversion.
Live music will start just after 4 p.m., with three local and regional acts set to take the stage before the show ends after dark with a spectacular fireworks display. There will be a Beer Garden and picnic food available. Visit spoletousa.org to find out about tickets.
June isn’t too shabby as far as food events go. Here are some notable food happenings this month:
May 31-June 2: Semi-annual Charity Knife Sharpening Event at the Coastal Cupboard, Belle Hall Shopping Center in Mount Pleasant. Get your knives sharpened for $1 per knife with proceeds going to help fight hunger in the Lowcountry through the Feed the Need nonprofit. Event includes raffles to win cutlery, cutting boards, cooking classes and a dinner at Charleston Grill. Recipes and samples from Doc Crombie’s BBQ sauce and free gourmet food samples. Friday and Saturday 10 a.m.-5 p.m. and Sunday noon-4 p.m. Call 856-4321 for details and for tips on how to transport your knives safely.
June 5, 7 p.m.: Dishcrawl Avondale. Ticketholders will visit several restaurants in the hot-spot West Ashley neighborhood. The names of the restaurants will be revealed 48 hours beforehand via email. Tickets are $45. Visit www.dishcrawl.com/avondalecrawl.
June 8, 3-10 p.m.: Food Truck Rodeo sponsored by Limehouse Produce and The Post and Courier. Fifteen trucks, at least five bands and other exhibitors in the newspaper’s large parking lot at King and Columbus streets. Free admission. Lawn chairs and friendly pets are welcome. Beer and wine available; no coolers allowed.
June 13, 7-9:30 p.m.: Little Chef, Big Chef Competition to benefit Louie’s Kids, a childhood obesity nonprofit, at the S.C. Aquarium. Kids are paired with 13 local chefs to create tasty, healthy dishes for guests to sample and vote on. Tickets are $65 in advance and $75 at the door. Visit www.louieskids.org.
June 22: Charleston “Grub Crawl.” Sponsored by Bon Appetit magazine, it’s an on-the-move event that travels from restaurant to restaurant for eating and drinking. The evening “crawl” is sold out, but tickets remain for the afternoon one for $149 apiece. Visit bagrubcrawl.com.
File/Staff Restaurants and chefs should have more types of fish to put on their menus.×
File/Staff Tomatoes hit their stride in the Lowcountry in June.×
File/Staff What would a mojito be without fresh mint? Expect to see more garden-inspired cocktails as summer approaches.×
File/Staff Our signature local shellfish returns to the table in June with the opening of shrimping season.×
File/Staff Forget Maine ... Big and beautiful Lowcountry blueberries will start showing up this month.×
File/Staff For many folks, nothing is finer than a South Carolina peach.×