Charleston’s restaurant scene is constantly being favorably compared to dining culture in cities such as New York City and San Francisco, but eaters living in the Charleston area can venture beyond restaurants to experience the land and culture that makes the area so culinarily unique.
On a winter weekend afternoon, there are typically at least a half dozen groups steaming oysters for a good cause. Bring work gloves, a decent oyster knife and canned beer, then stake out a spot at the shucking table and prepare to eat your fill. Or if you’ve never participated in this particular tradition, arrive with a good attitude and a willingness to get mud on your hands and oyster juice on your shirt: Someone will show you the ropes.
Try as tourists might to find them, there aren’t any mid-Atlantic-style crab shacks around Charleston, with newspapers spread on the tables and J.O. spice on the blue crabs. But free crab cracks are a staple of nightclub culture, and it’s not unusual for political candidates and neighborhood groups to stage weekend crab cracks. Nobody uses tools to free the sweet meat from the boiled crabs, sometimes heavily sauced with garlic butter: This is hands-on work.
Anglers sometimes cast for shrimp to serve as bait, but tossing a net into the water doesn’t require any follow-up to qualify as a rewarding activity. Every shrimper has his or her own casting style; all you need is a net and a few balls of pluff mud mixed up with fishmeal to find yours. The art of weaving and tying cast nets was brought to the Carolinas by enslaved West Africans, and is still practiced by some of their descendants today.
New Year’s Eve starts early in the Lowcountry, with Champagne-embellished lunches held all over town, including at restaurants favored by the downtown crowd, such as Husk and SNOB. Twelve hours later, a few of the local churches that hold watchnight services, which commemorates the Dec. 31, 1862, night when enslaved people waited for word that Abraham Lincoln had signed the Emancipation Proclamation, and follow up their celebratory meetings with fried chicken suppers. Finally, it’s not New Year’s Day without Hoppin’ John and greens. Many restaurants stay open to serve the expected dish.
Perhaps the quintessential Charleston rite of spring is lunch in a tea room, the church tradition that got its start when hungry tourists traveling Ashley River Road in the 1940s dropped by Old St. Andrew’s Parish Church and were entranced by volunteers’ homemade lunches. Lowcountry churches yearly serve cold sandwiches and slices of Huguenot torte, along with okra soup, shrimp salad, coconut cake and a selection of other homemade sweets.
Charlestonians mark the seasons by ingredient availability, and soft-shell crabs are the most beloved indicator that spring has arrived. Restaurants race to produce the most tantalizing soft-shell dishes, and it’s not uncommon for enthusiastic eaters to try to get their fill of them by sampling as many of the preparations as they can.
Very few Lowcountry residents now keep backyard plots of the grain that is central to Charleston’s history, but Middleton Place annually invites the public to witness its cultivation and collection. The museum has lately rounded out its agricultural projects with a productive kitchen garden that supplies the museum’s restaurant with the ingredients it needs for traditional catfish stew and peanut soup.
Pity the snobs who dismiss Shem Creek as a sunny place to get drunk on the cheap (although that’s certainly an option on either side of the waterway). With the recent arrival of Saltwater Cowboys, food in the vicinity of the traditional shrimping ground has taken a sharp turn for the better. Beyond Saltwater’s barbecue and masterfully fried shrimp, Tavern & Table is also serving food that’s sometimes good enough to keep diners’ attention when dolphins swim by.