whole hog

My mom called a few weeks ago on a cold, grey January morning. She had frequent flyer miles to burn. Did I want to go with her to Charleston, SC for a few days to visit friends? Let’s see…free flight, free place to stay, fresh seafood, mile high biscuits, creamy grits, humid salt water air, temperatures well above freezing, and hanging out with my mom for 4 days? Uh, yeah. Sign me up.
And so it was that I escaped this winter’s coldest weekend yet. We touched down last Saturday evening to meet a balmy 51º F. Cold by most South Carolinian’s standards, but a welcome reprieve for us northerners. After a glass of wine and a taste of homemade pimento cheese (a southern comfort food specialty) our host sent us to bed with a stack of maps, magazines, and books about historic Charleston. “We can do whatever you like,” she said. “The only thing planned is Sunday brunch at Husk.” My eyes lit up. Husk is Charleston’s new localvore restaurant. I had googled it before I left. “If it doesn’t come from the South, it’s not coming through the door,” says chef Sean Brock, who has even bannished olive oil from the kitchen. As he explains, the resulting cuisine “is not about rediscovering Southern cooking, but exploring the reality of Southern food.” Their menu, which changes daily based on what the market has to offer, had me drooling on my keyboard. Dark Days eating never looked so promising.

Sunday morning found us oceanside at Isle of Palms beach. If it weren’t for our brunch reservation my mom and crew would have a heck of a time trying to pry me away from the waves, the crisp salt water breeze and the blazing sun. I couldn’t soak it up fast enough. Lucky for them, brunch was calling, and I was hungry.

Housed in a historic Charleston mansion, the interior and decor at Husk was everything I expected – spacious, high ceilings, wood floors, tall double-hung windows, uncramped tables, warm, and inviting. The entryway boasts an oversized chalkboard that lists dozens of ingredients and their sources. We were seated upstairs overlooking the type of grand southern style balcony that I wistfully long to somehow tack onto our little northwoods cabin. I kicked things off with a Bloody Mary. Fully expecting a proper southern garnish of shrimp and okra, I was completely charmed when my drink arrived cloaked with a dainty slice of country style ham draped elegantly over the rim and a sole dilly bean afloat. It was one of the tastiest bloodies I’ve ever had. Did I detect a hint of creole spice?
It’s a good thing I had a drink to nurse while perusing the menu. This was going to take some serious thought. Wood fired clams with sausage and sweet pepper cream? Duck leg confit over farro and greens with red eye gravy? Or maybe the cornmeal dusted catfish with field peas and bacon jam. In the end, I went whole hog (literally) and ordered the Honey-Benne Lacquered Pork Belly served over Johnny cakes with a poached egg and spicy hollandaise. Memories of the morning beach romp faded and were flawlessly replaced with a taste bud frenzy. I was so full after my meal that I barely had room for a bite of my mom’s dessert. Which is too bad. The Black Bottom Pie was was served up in a small Mason jar with layers of chocolate mousse, bourbon vanilla cream, and crumbled molasses shortbread cookies. In a pinch, the dessert could have fallen back on its cuteness alone.
Our sharp hosts quickly picked up on my love of food and kept us well satiated for the duration of our visit. Crab cakes, pulled pork sandwiches, and creole style beef over parmesan grits were highlights. They also caught onto my fascination with visiting local grocery stores and markets. My mom and I wandered the aisles, oohing and ahing over southern staples. White Lilly flour, collard plants the size of small trees, fresh seafood, Carolina gold rice, sorghum syrup, and gorgeous pecans. I couldn’t resist. I packed my carry-on full of black eyed peas, fresh ground grits, Gullah spice (the core of traditional African-American low country cuisine), and benne wafers (a Charleston original – thin sesame seed based cookies, said to bring good luck). Some good old-fasioned soul food is in our future: Hoppin’ John, Charleston Red Rice, Shrimp and Grits, and maybe even a Buttermilk Pie.
Needless to say, the rest of our local Dark Days meals for the last half of January sort of paled in comparison to my southern Honey-Benne Lacquered Pork Belly. There were juicy burgers with local beef and crunchy oven fries. My husband Mark made a batch of cat-approved burritos stuffed with broccoli from the freezer, potatoes from cold storage, and local feta and eggs, smothered in homemade tomatillo salsa. And to kick off my southern cookin’ escapades, last night’s menu featured slow baked local ribs in our home canned apple cider and barbecue sauce with a side of buttery mashed potatoes and tangy slaw of garden cabbage, carrots, celeriac, and shallots.
I’m more inspired than ever to wait out the dark days in the kitchen!

4 Responses to “whole hog”

  1. 1 gina January 30, 2011 at 8:25 pm

    Reading your blog is exquisite torture! I feel like I’m eating along with you as I read, only to realize that my watering mouth is empty. Fortunately, I have a vivid imagination. Thanks for sharing!

  2. 2 dani January 30, 2011 at 9:44 pm

    Hot Damn! I’m drooling and itchin’ to get me some southern soul food. (And some sun!) Can’t wait to hear more about the trip!

  3. 3 Dean January 30, 2011 at 9:49 pm

    Your writing is so descriptive I felt like I was beside you ,which I wish I had been. I love winter ,especially the skiing, but a change of pace is nice which we will get in Tucson in a few weeks. Thanks for your words. Dean

  4. 4 Julie January 30, 2011 at 10:36 pm

    Wow. Scrabbler’s trip to Husk! I want some of that food.

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