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Charleston loses a favorite culinary teacher

They call her Mama

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There are people who you meet that stick with you. As if they have some evocative life force trained to wrench you by the lapels and cry out, "Look how beautiful, this life!" If there's an archetype of such, it's Rose Durden.

It seems apropos that I first met her during the backyard slaughter of a couple of chickens by a 90-year-old Vietnamese lady who spoke no English. The fowls had been carefully selected by Mama Rose that morning at the Ladson Market. Her best friend Lang, my neighbor, daughter of the lady with the sharp knife, stood close by — all three arguing in Vietnamese about how such a deed should properly be done — Lang defiant, Grandma dismissive, Rose ever the instructive translator, telling me details of the conversation, with demonstration, from her biased perspective of course.

There was talk of writing an article, a great story of these women brought to America on the cresting waves of an awful war, teaching themselves to cook "American food" from tattered books and television shows. There was insistence that our family travel to Vietnam, "We'll eat snakes and ducks in clay!"

"Can we eat dog?" I asked.

"No, Jeff you're crazy! Only my cousins do that."

But it never came to pass. Instead there were revelatory trips to the market, elaborate lunches at Lang's, bowls of pho and eggrolls delivered hot to the door, and usually the instructive voice of Rose, perhaps just dropping by Lang's with a whole beef rib in the early morning, forever correcting Lang's pleasant exaggerations with a wink and a smile. Such was the scene. They'd come over and get me to help unload the car.

She and Lang were experts. They knew where to get fresh shrimp straight from the boat and fish that was still alive. They talked of food markets the way some might caress a muscle car. And there was the constant argument of who might be the best cook, evidently a Vietnamese tradition and a close call at home. But in the professional kitchen, Rose was unsurpassed. She helmed Carolina's for years; her wontons still a menu favorite. She moved on to open My Tho, her own place named after her hometown, and headed the kitchen at Laura Albert's for awhile. Even in "retirement," there was constant catering, and she leaves behind a trail of apprentices, friends, and foodie fans.

She represented a first generation of culinary dreamers who toiled for Charleston, alongside names like Osteen, Barickman, Lee, and Waggoner, striving to make it something more. But Rose didn't have publicists or agents, she had students, and if you talk with food service people who have lived here very long, you'll hear her mentioned often by name, and Rose has only one. They call her Mama.

She passed away last weekend after falling ill on a recent trip to Vietnam.

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