Ledy's Soul Food and Seafood
Lunch and Dinner
817 St. Andrews Blvd.
It's hard to pass by the old plate-glass storefront home of the Busy Bee Wholesale florist and Ledy's Soul Food without turning your head. The smell of fried food wafts over to the street and leads your nose into the lot and inside the small restaurant, awash in the nuances of pepper and spice.
The place certainly has an aura. Children play outside on the rough concrete curb. Seasonal Christmas bells are painted on the front glass. Ms. Ledy looks out from behind the melamine counter, peering through the tendrils of hanging plants in the small seating area, a glint of gold and motherliness in her smile. It feels strange, loving even, this middle-aged black woman greeting you with such authentic warmth. You feel it when you walk in the door. Lunch or dinner, she wants your money, but she also wants you to leave happier than when you arrived, so she's going to trade you some great food for a very fair price.
Places like Ledy's represent the most valuable culinary tradition in the Deep South. Forget all the fancy grits and celebrity chefs. They aren't nearly as important to our local food culture as people like Ms. Ledy. If you want to talk authentic Lowcountry food, then you have to talk about African slaves and dead Amerindians. And if you bring up things like that, the celebrated foods that have helped propel a cottage tourist industry into a regional juggernaut seem strangely misplaced in a fancy downtown hotel. Rice and beans and grits and hocks are all soaked in the bloody tears of a million lost souls.
The menu at Ledy's, like every other soul kitchen of its kind, reads like a laundry list of ethnic contributions. Delicious fried everything, from trash fish like the bone-filled croaker or baked "Shark Steak Filet" ($7.00) to a delicious cup of the mucilaginous okra soup ($3.50), Ledy's food reflects the people, and the poverty, from which the authentic Lowcountry derives. Sit down one evening at her small, spotlessly clean bar and history stares straight at you. Ledy's young daughters swill sweet tea over plates of red rice and thin, fried pork chops; they'll tell you just how good this stuff is. "Crispy ... and delicious," they say, and they're right. Ledy's platters — chicken, pork, shrimp, or fish (which come baked or fried) — represent the best of Charleston's soul, for less than nine bucks. The girls do their homework to the penetrating sounds of gospel and the wholesome collards of their loving mom.
Ledy's sons take the orders. They're older than the girls, perhaps in their late teens. They can argue for half an hour over whether their mom's sweet potato pie should be eaten warmed over or cold. I've had it both ways, and sorry guys, it doesn't matter. For $2.50 a slice, it's as good a sweet potato pie as your fork will ever touch. For a dollar, Ledy's "chewies" will blow your mind. On Saturday mornings you can get "Shrimp & Gravy" ($7.00), "Salmon with Onions" ($6.00), or "Liver & Gravy" ($6.00) over a pile of grits. Hot dogs are a buck all day; a hamburger will set you back three. This is real food, and it's really good.
I eat at Ledy's all the time. Sometimes the service is slow, a dish has too much salt, or I get something that I don't particularly like, but I always tip the kids and leave with a smile on my face. Ms. Ledy is a black female entrepreneur struggling to make it in a world still ruled by white men. She holds no grudge, only faith in a God more loving than they. Scripture adorns the walls. A chalkboard presents a biblical verse concerning the virtue of patience, a valuable trait to have when waiting for freshly-prepared food. There is no television in front of the children, only the sounds of a local gospel station lilting through the kitchen door and the chatter of little voices, fresh with the excitement of another passing day. The guys take care of the girls and mom watches over it all from behind a breadwinning apron. Homework, family, food, and love all come together every night over the four small tables inside. Above the bar, on the rear wall hangs a simple sign that reads "BELIEVE." They all do, and you can taste it in the food.