Only an hour flight from New York, Charleston feels like it’s a world away. It’s full of Southern hospitality and charm that’s years in the making: most of the residents we met were either fresh implants, drawn by Charleston’s booming food and tech scene, or thirteenth-generationers who could trace their lineage back to when their ancestors first set foot in America, right there on the South Carolina shore. Speaking of the food scene: it rivals some of the best in the world, with a farm-to-table meets Southern cooking melange that creates flavors unlike any I’ve had. Our hotel was next door to FIG (an acronym for Food Is Good), where we had the best kale/wheat berry/pumpkin chili. Also visited on this trip: the infamous Husk (which I found overrated, save for the divine sweet potato pie), Magnolias, and the Charleston Cooks! Southern cooking class, where the sweetest, six-month pregnant instructor explained the mix of Spanish, African, Portuguese and Native American influence that created Southern cooking as we know it today.
One day, we ventured out into the countryside to visit some plantation homes, with a brief stop at the Magnolia Plantation and a lengthier visit at Middleton Place. The grounds were absolutely stunning; as we strolled through the oak trees dripping with Spanish moss, it was easy to picture life in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Slave houses and costumed interpreters doing demos on the grounds gave a fuller image of life at the time.
Ye olde coffee roaster.
Making barrels, and husking rice. Interesting fact about rice (a phrase I never thought I’d write): apparently, rice has a lot to do with why the African culture is so preserved in the Charleston area. The plantation owners quickly figured out that their climate and land was perfectly suited to growing the grain, but they had little to no idea how to actually do so. The West African slaves, however, had been cultivating rice for centuries. Because of this knowledge imbalance, rice plantation slaves in Charleston were treated comparably well. In addition, they had a tolerance for malaria that the colonists did not; as such, they were largely left alone on the swampy plantations, while the colonists moved to the coastal town of Charleston, where breezes and less standing water made the malaria risk lower. The descendants of the slaves are now called the Gullah people, and live on the barrier islands, where their cooking, language, and style of living has remained largely the same as their ancestors.
On Saturday, we went to Charleston’s farmer’s market, named the third best in the United States. It was lovely; live music, delicious food (and fresh green juice!), awesome performances and the cutest fans I’ve ever seen.
Potentially the first exercise machine invented, this mimics riding a horse side-saddle. You can only find them in Charleston and they’re amazingly fun to sit/bounce on.
Charleston recommendations: stay at…The Indigo Inn, a gorgeous cross between a B&B and a hotel with huge and reasonably priced rooms, an amazing location, free breakfast, a wine and cheese hour, and a proprietor, Brian, who is maybe the most charming and lovely man I have ever met. eat at…FIG; the farmer’s market; Sabatino’s New York City Pizza; Butcher and Bee (for gourmet sandwiches). Also, the Charleston Cooks! class introduced me to the best butterscotch pie and cheddar apple grits I’ve ever tasted. do…a walking tour, to get a feel of the city; a trip out to at least one plantation (Magnolia has more to do – including an alligator swamp! – and Middleton has more beautiful grounds); a visit to the Old Slave Mart Museum, where you can hear recordings of former slaves describing their life in their own words, captured during a depression-era stimulus project; a house tour – my favorite was the Aikenn-Rhett house, which is completely unrestored, just preserved, and beautiful in its dilapidated wonder, and the Nathaniel Russell house, with it’s infamous floating staircase (you can buy a discounted ticket that gives entry to both).