In his recent write-up of Charleston’s culinary credentials, Washington Post food critic Tom Sietsema, now on a mission to rank the nation’s top 10 dining cities, dated the current restaurant renaissance back to 2006, when the Charleston Wine + Food Festival made its debut.
Observers can quibble over the exact date, but it’s generally acknowledged that eating out wasn’t a very engaging pastime for much of the 20th century. The best meals, of course, were served in private homes.
Still, even 40 years ago, there were enough ambitious restaurants in town to put together a salable collection of their best recipes. Molly Heady Sillers in 1976 wrote “Doin’ The Charleston,” the first cookbook devoted to Charleston restaurants.
There are 16 restaurants featured in the first edition of the book, which was revised and reissued into the 1990s. Alphabetically, they ranged from Adger’s Wharf to The Trawler, with classics including The Colony House, Henry’s and Perdita’s in between.
Most typewriters didn’t have an exclamation point key before the 1970s, and Sillers found plenty of reasons to reach for the newly convenient punctuation mark. She doled out exclamation points indicating shock (Of the souvlakia at Aesop’s: “A local food critic said it was nearly perfect, but it wasn’t spicy enough!”); emphasis (Of the harpist stationed in The Barbadoes Room: “For entrance making, this is the setting!”) and excitement (Of the service at Perdita’s: “The ashtrays are emptied constantly!”)
Usually, though, she exclaimed over the quality of ingredients and caliber of cooking. Sillers was especially taken with flaming steak Diane at The Market Place; soft-shell crabs at Delorce’s and sweet potato souffle at Bessinger’s Bar-B-Que and Buffeteria.
What’s clear from the cookbook is that Charleston chefs of the time were equally attuned to local produce and trendy European techniques: Dishes were constantly being stuffed and set on fire. The Colony House provided a recipe for veal cordon bleu that a reader who checked the cookbook out of the Charleston County Public Library labeled “excellent.”
“For a city its size, the number of excellent restaurants is second to none,” Sillers wrote.
4 ounces of boneless chicken breast, precooked and diced
Mayonnaise to taste
Curry powder to taste
1 stalk celery, diced
Pinch of salt
Lime juice to taste
4 pineapple chunks
Cut a fresh coconut in half. Mix chicken, celery, mayonnaise, curry powder, salt and lime juice together.
Place chicken salad in shell.
Garnish with pineapple, pecans and grated coconut.
From “Doin’ The Charleston”