Thursday, February 19, 2009

South Carolina: Comme ci, comme ca.

Myrtle Beach is a pancake town. Pulling into the city, I passed Harry’s Breakfast Pancakes, Woodhaven Pancake House, Omega Pancake and Omelet House, Plantation Pancake House, Golden Egg Pancake House, Pan American Pancake and Omelet, Southern Pancake House, Omega Pancake House, Golden Griddle Pancake House, Garden City Pancake House, Dino’s House of Pancakes, Tar Baby’s Pancakes, and Applewood House of Pancakes. Pancakes are one of the few foods I really don’t care for. As it turned out, I really don’t care for Myrtle Beach, either. I’d read that motels on the beach were cheap on the off-season and I thought Myrtle Beach would be a sort of campy, fun spot to hunker down and write for a day or two, so I checked into the Sea Breeze and felt immediate trepidation, then regret. As I mentioned, it was scary. I spent a lot of time in my room, but felt totally uninspired and watched cable until I numbed myself out enough to sleep. I read on chowhound that the best she-crab soup was in Murrell’s Inlet, 20 miles south, so on my second day there I took the back roads to discover a pretty fishing town--a lot of little waterfront houses on stilts and live oaks swathed in Spanish moss. But between Superbowl Sunday and the off-season, every last crab shack was closed. Even the gas station was closed. Early the next morning, I took a peaceful eight-mile walk on the empty beach, then drove down to Charleston.

Charleston’s opulent beauty was so refreshing after Myrtle Beach. I parked and walked for hours, passing block after block of grandiose, perfectly maintained eighteenth-century mansions with perfectly manicured gardens. It’s a college town but seemed to lack any bohemian culture of any kind. Brooks Brothers, Dockers, and Nantucket reds are the norm for men young and old, with such a peculiar profusion of bubblegum pink in the young women’s clothing that I thought it stood for something. (It didn’t.) The city didn’t beckon me to move there but it sure was a nice place to visit. As luck would have it, I got sick again, but I ate at such a great restaurant when I felt better that I don’t feel I missed out on anything at all. The Hominy Grill was just two blocks away from the hostel where I stayed. My first experience with boiled peanuts happened there, and I felt like someone eating sushi for the first time. Alone in the restaurant with no example to follow, I pulled the nuts apart and picked the meat out with my fingernail. Boiled peanuts…are not for me, but everything else in the restaurant was perfect—simple lace curtains, warm cream walls, candlelight, butcher paper on the tables, and great service even though I got there late. The Hominy Grill specializes in traditional low-country foods made with fresh local ingredients, and I wanted to try Chicken Country Captain or Purloo, a low-country rice dish with Middle Eastern roots, brought to the south via African slaves. My stomach, however, had other, less adventurous ideas, so I ordered fried chicken with two sides, green beans and sweet potatoes. This simple meal was breathtaking—the first on my trip where, had I had a dining companion, I would have put down my fork and laughed with disbelief and pleasure. The sweet potatoes were a silky, custardy mousse, the green beans succulent in a ham broth, the chicken salty with a light crust in a pool of buttermilk gravy. For dessert I had buttermilk pie. Smooth as silk, with hints of clove and cardamom and a distinctly un-lemony, buttermilk sourness, it was, as my mom would say, divine.

On my last day in Charleston I sniffed out a casual little sandwich shop off Charleston’s tourist track, in the West Ashley neighborhood. I read that The Glass Onion, a no-frills place where you order at the counter, was more fiercely committed to localism than anywhere in Charleston. Refreshingly, the only evidence of this was a refrigerator case on the far wall containing local greens and eggs for sale. I ordered a shrimp and oyster po' boy with a deviled egg. (For years I’ve wanted to open a restaurant with a deviled egg of the day, so this was exciting for me.) What a difference fresh shrimp makes. The thin membrane gives with a gentle pop, releasing a rush of flavor right from the ocean’s floor that lingers at the back of the tongue. In keeping with the unfussy vibe of the place, the sandwich was made with store-bought mayo on a deli roll, but the Boston lettuce and ripe tomato were totally fresh and delicious. Plus, the guy brought me a lip-smacking peanut butter cookie when I waffled on dessert, free of charge.

On my way to Savannah the next morning, I drove about ten miles out of town to check out a plantation. It was really cold walking around the Magnolia Plantation but some camellias and azaleas were still hanging on and the grounds were gorgeous. Two egrets and a heron waded in the swamps. The plantation is still owned by the same family that owned slaves there and I couldn't believe how that aspect of the property's history was glossed over. The slave cabins were being refurbished and I sneaked into one and got chased out by security guards. It was a pretty haunting place.

Next up: Georgia

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