A Few Thoughts from Charleston

A typical commercial street in Charleston

The first thing that strikes you when you arrive on the Charleston peninsula is how very old the city is.

We have a lot of news coming up in the next week, from special dinners for Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve to the soon-to-launch winter menu, but I really want to take some time to ruminate over a trip Mark and I took to Charleston a few weeks ago. It’s such a beautiful city, but what overwhelmed me was the history and the surprising realization of my own ignorance.

On the peninsula, you can stand anywhere on almost any street, look in any direction, and see only buildings that are way older than anything in Chicago. Besides the sheer beauty of the streets, homes, and trees you soon notice that there are plaques on many of the buildings relating stories about their history, the people, and the roles they all played in American history. There’s a lot that many people don’t know about the history of Charleston, and of the South in general, and to people like me who cook, this history is particularly interesting so it’s exciting to see how the story is being retold and we finally seem to be getting many things right.

Howard Zinn, a favorite historian of mine, famously said that history is written by the victors. Well, the Union won the Civil War and the story has been told as such ever since. It’s a good thing the Union won, and the Emancipation Proclamation ended an institution that should never have existed. That said, since the war, the story that has been told by many history books and most definitely popular culture has been profoundly unfair to the South, something I never realized until I was standing in front of the old Exchange building on Bay Street. The next days were filled with a series of revelations that brought me to understand why many Southerners continued to resent the North and distrust the Federal government long after the war was over, some of them holding back even to this day.

Let me say now that I am aware of the other untold stories of American history – the native Americans who lost nearly everything, the Mexicans who lost Texas to annexation and still more land to war, and others – this is not to forget them or gloss over them – it is but a fairly narrow blog as far as American history goes. I hope history continues to dig up the stories of the defeated, the cheated, and the forgotten. I am also not seeking to generalize, but convey an evolving understanding of history as I have learned that much of my own education left important facts out of the texts.

The old exchange building, site of so much American history

First off, it’s important to point out that in spite of all the media hysteria some years ago about the hanging of the Confederate flag in the SC State Capitol, the Confederate flag-wavers did not speak for everyone. Charlestonians are proud of their city and their history, and while they are Southerners and still remember the Civil War in a way that seems alien to us of the old Union States, they think of themselves as Americans first, and most are proud first of their role in the Revolutionary War and American history.

Turning to the 800-pound gorilla in the room,  the institution of slavery will forever scar American history, not just that of the South – it was recognized and permitted by our Constitution so the North bore as much responsibility for that abomination by going along with its institutionalization. The fact is it happened, and the Northern States were there with their delegations, and in the end there was consensus – the economic engine of the South would continue to be the plantation economy with slavery as its fuel. This would prove to be a heavy yolk to burden long past reconstruction.

The live oak promenade at Magnolia Plantation
The live oak promenade at Magnolia Plantation

Slavery and its aftermath not only established a white aristocracy made up of a tiny portion of the population which was fabulously wealthy, it drove a wedge between two populations that made up almost the entire population – poor white folks and slaves and their descendants. The reverberations in the body politic continue to this day. What deeply affected me on this trip  is that I felt like for the first time in my life I understood the South, even though if you asked me two months ago I would have said “sure, I understand the South.” It’s true I’ve long had a very good understanding and deep love of its cooking, which made so many other things about the South seem so strange,  but my understanding was incomplete because I didn’t see the whole story. It turns out the story of the South I’d been told was, if not all wrong, horribly biased and fundamentally dishonest.

My dad is fond of saying that the more you know, the more you know how little you know. This was one of those moments, so it should go without saying that I am writing this with a sense that I probably don’t know what I’m talking about. I’m writing it because I hope it will help me pull my own thoughts together in a way that will permit productive future study.

A major bomb fell when I felt what I already knew about the Civil War. The War devastated the South.  It was fought on Southern soil, families were broken and entire cities destroyed (save Savannah and Charleston, relatively unharmed because no Union General could bring himself to destroy them for all their beauty.) It is easy for us to insist that what the South was fighting for was indefensible, and certainly slavery and racism were and are indefensible, but it is absurd for us to think that they should remember the war the way we do, or how it’s told in history books. The plain fact is, these states decided to secede from the Union and form their own. Then, the North attacked, invaded, and eventually effectively occupied the old Confederacy. The South is the only part of the Continental United States to have been invaded and occupied, and those are deep wounds. More were to follow.

The bungling of Reconstruction by the United States Government and failure to deal with festering racism lead to a long and painful period of Jim Crow. The War left plantations unable to finance continued operations, and the plantation owners lost their most valuable assets – their slaves. As horrible and indignant as that fact is, a lot of wealth went “poof.” It had to, but what to do next was the problem. Suddenly, the primary economic engine is gone, and you have a huge population of freedmen, poor whites, ruined plantation and merchant families, and not enough jobs (or often food) to go around. That simple (but insurmountable in the short term) problem fed racism as much as anything.

For a hundred years after the war, the South saw its culture, its food, and its people stereotyped, pilloried, and ridiculed in the national media and popular culture. It seemed the war would never end, even as so much progress was made, it always seemed that the respect of the Nation was still elusive. Many people in the North (and now also West Coast) still see the South as the land of racists, bad-for-you food, and simple people, but little by little, perceptions are changing, and the truth is emerging.

Central to all of this understanding is the retelling (truthfully this time) of the contributions Africans and their American descendants to the plantation economy, Southern gastronomy, and Southern music. This is one of the greatest American stories because it is the ultimate story of survival and perseverance in the face of unimaginable hardships. We all know the colloquialism to “become a statistic” but here is one for you- 15% of Africans on Middle Passage slave ships dies in route to the New World. That’s up to about two million people. That sort of number screams genocide. If you include deaths at all of the stages of the slave trade and not just the voyage, we could be looking at four million human beings lost, only to greed.

And yet many of them made it. And they knew how to grow rice. An overlooked fact today in the US (but never forgotten in the Lowcountry) is that the original American plantation economy was built upon rice – Carolina Gold, so named not because it was money but because of its beautiful golden color in the field before harvest. Charleston was built with rice money. One the eve of the American civil war, 60 million pounds of rice were shipping from Charleston’s busy port each year, and Charleston was the wealthiest city in America. Not New York, not Philadelphia or Boston. Charleston was the city of the rich, and as such a major destination for international travelers who knew that when you made a trip to America, you had to go to Charleston if you wanted to eat well.

Gold rice in the field

Relatively recent scholarship has finally been acknowledging as fact what should have been obvious all along – it was the slaves, Africans, who brought the knowledge, the intellectual property of rice cultivation from their ancestral lands on the Rice Coast of west Africa. Remembering Howard Zinn’s statement, we remember that even as the South lost the war and the slaves gained their freedom (but still without real economic opportunity) the newly freed people were anything but the winners, and their story would not be told for another 100 years. History wanted us to believe that it was enterprising Europeans who brought the knowledge of rice cultivation to Africa and then to the shores of the new world and that Africans were just savage labor.

The reality was quite different, and we now know and acknowledge that the African rice coast was home to one of the most dynamic and sophisticated agricultural systems ever employed, and it was home grown with their own native rice species, Oryza Glaberrima that had been developed over more than two thousand years of cultivation in Africa, predating any contact with the Europeans, who wouldn’t have know a damned thing about rice cultivation anyhow. An absurd story was long pitched that Portugese sailors brought the knowledge of rice cultivation back to Africa from Asia and taught the Africans how to grow rice. Sailors!

So Africans were not only taken from their homelands and families and sold into slavery, but it was their knowledge of sophisticated water management systems and other peculiarities of rice cultivation that built the plantation economy from the very beginning. They gave everything and got nothing materially in return, but their legacy is vast in terms of their contribution to American culture. They were the builders and cooks and gardeners, bringing such staple crops with them over the Middle Passage as yams, field peas, okra, watermelon, and sorghum, while mastering the cultivation of such new world crops as corn and peppers. In the kitchens of plantations and merchant homes, they would create the new cooking that would become Southern cooking. Regional variations throughout the South from the east to the west, low-lying coastlines to Appalachian mountains, would take up elements of African cooking as their own and create the great regional cuisine that is American Southern, as regionally distinct, interesting, and sophisticated as French country cooking.

It’s only been lately that chefs nationwide are waking up to this treasure of food traditions. It has been the greatest news seeing how hot Southern cooking is now in New York, probably indicative of an impending nationwide renaissance of this cuisine which is deserved and overdue. But therein lies the rub – why does New York get to dole out respect? Of course we all know the answer, but for the South it has surely been a long time coming, and it’s not even like we are there yet, where Southern culture, its food, and people are respected as they should be on the national and international stage. It’s true, fried chicken is bad for you if you eat it every day. Well, so is Beef Bourguignon, so how about ridiculing French food for awhile and giving our own homegrown cooking some respect?

It’s fairly easy to identify lingering racism as a part of the problem, but it probably has more to do with the tendency of winners to puff up their chests and belittle their fallen foes. It’s sad that I can still think of this in these terms; we’re not foes, are we? We might not like not to think so and feel like we are all doing our part for national unity, but participating even passively in a media culture that denigrates entire classes of people (not just races) as uneducated, gun-toting bumpkins doesn’t help.

It took 100 years for African Americans to get to the point where they could just begin to claim equality and have their story heard, and it seems with each generation race becomes less and less important. Let’s hope that trend continues. It’s now been well over 100 years and it seems the South may be getting its footing in earnest after more than a century of tumultuous change. Actually, it’s had its footing for awhile, and the South is rising once again. This time, it will be stronger, more fair and equal, and better. This is possible as they come to grips with their own history. The North must come to grips with its own, including its roll in the institution of slavery and the destruction of wealth after the war, and how the Northern banks left the South in poverty as the rest of the nation prospered post reconstruction. Then, maybe we’ll finally have enough understanding to move beyond the red state/blue state nonsense that grips our body politic.

Fellow Northerners can check out Garden and Gun – a beautiful magazine that’s about as Southern as it can be, as an example of Southern culture finding its identity in an elegant and thoughtful way. Yes, garden & gun. Actually, that sounds like family to me, even growing up in the North. That’s how we ate until the last generation or so, by garden and gun. My grandparents hardly ate anything that they or someone they knew personally didn’t grow, raise, or shoot. It’s a popular magazine down south, perhaps an indication that they are more in tune with their own heritage than we are.

A swamp in November

I opened a Southern restaurant because I thought it was a beautiful and interesting cuisine that wasn’t respected or taken seriously but is ultimately deserving. I urge anyone interested in history, American heritage, Southern cooking, American cooking, or politics to visit Charleston and its environs. At the very least, you will eat well in one of the World’s most beautiful cities.

The sign at the head of the dirt road that leads to Bowen's Island, a local treasure
Bowen's Island Restaurant at night, where we ate ourselves full of local seafood on the salt marshes
The tea plantation on Wadmalaw Island, where tea is grown for Firefly Vodka, among other markets