CHARLESTON - This pastel-colored seaport town sits low and pretty at the junction of the Ashley and Cooper rivers. Lighted with gas lanterns, bursting with blooming oleander and camellias, lined with stately old Federal and Greek Revival mansions, and thick with magnolias, palmetto palms, and live oaks dripping Spanish moss, Charleston looks too good to be true - more like an Epcot pavilion than a real city.
But it's not all good manners and living history. Beneath the scrubbed and potted and tourist-ready, an authentic food culture thrives, anchored by dozens of great restaurants. From the linen clad to the plastic forked and everything in between, they crank out dish after dish of shrimp and grits, she-crab soup, boiled peanuts. The food is simple but refined, influenced by far-flung places but distinctive to Charleston and the surrounding Low Country - one of this country's few true regional cuisines.
At the Hominy Grill, a local hangout in a tin-ceilinged old barber's shop in a gritty but gentrifying part of town, Robert Stehling cooks classic Low Country dishes with just the right amount of chef's refinement. His shrimp and grits start with stone-ground corn from the Old Mill of Guilford, an 18th-century, water-powered grist mill near Greensboro, N.C., where Stehling grew up. The grits bubble away on the stovetop for about an hour and are then enriched with Parmesan and cheddar cheese, Tabasco, and butter. The shrimp are local whites right off the boat in Mount Pleasant, sauteed with mushrooms, scallions, garlic, bacon, more Tabasco, and lemon juice.
"Originally it was a breakfast-time poor man's food," says Stehling. "Everybody had a cast net and access to the water, and they could get their hands on shrimp for nothing. In the old days it was just shrimp and grits, nothing else, but that's not how we eat anymore."
Shrimp and grits is just one of many dishes emblematic of Low Country cuisine - the regional cooking of tidewater South Carolina and Georgia from Pawleys Island north of Charleston to the mouth of the Savannah River on the Georgia state line. Heading inland, the region stretches from the Atlantic Ocean across the flat and swampy coastal plain about 80 miles west to the scrubby pine-covered ancient beach dunes known as the Sandhill. The cooking combines the best of the local bounty, shrimp, wild oysters, blue crabs, wild game, and Carolina Gold rice, with the techniques and flavors of the various peoples who have made the region their home - English settlers, Sephardic Jews, French Huguenots, and the West Indian and African slaves.
Besides shrimp and grits, the rest of Stehling's menu reads like a greatest hits list: okra and shrimp beignets, deep-fried doughnut holes stuffed with shrimp and okra; sauteed chicken livers with country ham gravy; Chicken Country Captain, a browned chicken curry with currants and toasted almonds served over rice; and for dessert, buttermilk pie, a sweet pie shell filled with tart buttermilk and beaten eggs seasoned with lemon juice and nutmeg.
Around the corner from Hominy Grill, Virginia's on King, posh and spotless with brick walls and leather booths, is named for Virginia Bennett, the mother of one of the owners, and serves up the cooking of their family table. Okra soup - beef stock, tomatoes, bacon, and okra - tastes like something from another time. Frogmore Stew, also known as Beaufort Stew, tidewater boil, or Low Country boil, is usually a simmering cauldron of shrimp, corn on the cob, sausage, and red potatoes dumped on newspapers and devoured. Here it makes its way into a handsome bowl but tastes as good as ever. She-crab soup is rich and creamy, a sort of crab bisque but finished with deep pink crab roe and a splash of dry sherry. The tea is sweet and good, and the pineapple upside-down cake is my new favorite dessert.
Gullah Cuisine is in Mount Pleasant, just across the Cooper River by way of the new suspension bridge from Charleston. The Gullah people are African-Americans from coastal South Carolina and Georgia whose ancestors came to this country as slaves from rice-growing regions in West Africa. Many still speak an English-based Creole language and retain the traditional ways: storytelling, herbal medicines, agriculture, crafts, and of course, food. Owner Charlotte Jenkins has filled Gullah Cuisine with local paintings and handwoven sweetgrass baskets. The food tastes like the best home cooking, dishes that have been passed down and perfected over generations.
"I learned these dishes from my mother and grandmother," says Jenkins. Fried chicken is perfectly crispy golden brown; collard greens with ham are salty and luxurious; and the macaroni and cheese is orange and just rich enough. There's also fried conch and alligator tails; Gullah rice with shrimp and smoked sausage; oxtail stew; hopping John, black-eyed peas and rice; and an okra-thickened shrimp and andouille gumbo.
If you go north on Highway 17 away from Gullah Cuisine and toward Myrtle Beach, after miles of nothing you will come to SeeWee Restaurant. Named for the local SeeWee Indians, it's a former grocery and general store turned restaurant. There's an outdoor patio with a wood-burning fireplace, rustic outhouse-style bathrooms, and daily specials scrawled on a chalkboard. "People love eating 'round the fire," says co-owner Kurt Penninger.
SeeWee is known for its fried seafood and colorful vegetable plate. Mine was packed with fried okra, spicy sweet potato casserole, collard greens, macaroni and cheese, thin corn-flour-dredged fried green tomatoes, and butter beans. They stock the North Carolina-made Cheerwine soda, and layer cakes and pies of all sorts.
"Good plain food," says Penninger.
Jonathan Levitt, a freelance writer in Maine, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.