She-crab soup dates back to the early 20th century and a famous recipe created by William Deas, a local butler and restaurant cook. By the mid-1920s it was a fixture in Charleston's private dining rooms, and by the 1950s was the city's signature restaurant dish, too. It's omnipresent today on the menus of both high-end bistros and down-home cafés, and the recipes vary from everything from thick, overly-sweetened glop to delicate post-modern inventions garnished with chili oil or parsnip froth.
There's so much she-crab soup to be found in the city that it's hard to pick favorites. But, the versions served at Anson and Virginia's on King are good representatives of the fine dining style, while Saffron Bakery Café and the Marina Variety Store Restaurant offer good bowls in more humble settings. It's a taste of an older era in Charleston — not the colonial or antebellum days, but the sleepy mid-century years before Charleston awoke to the rest of the world.
• Anson, 12 Anson St., Downtown, (843) 577-0551, ansonrestaurant.com
• Saffron Bakery Café, 333 East Bay St., Downtown, (843) 207-1990
• Virginia's on King, 412 King St., Downtown, (843) 735-5800, virginiasonking.com
• Marina Variety Store, 17 Lockwood Blvd., Downtown, (843) 723-6325
You can learn a lot about Charleston's recent culinary history by studying a bowl of shrimp and grits. In the 1980s, when pioneers like Chef Donald Barickman of Magnolias and Chef Louis Osteen of Louis's Charleston Grill were creating the new Lowcountry cuisine in their fine dining rooms, they purposefully focused on grits. It was a symbol of food formerly considered too low and common for upscale restaurants. They wanted to take the old, honest dishes and transform them into the foundation of a regional fine-dining cuisine.
They succeeded remarkably. Now, there's hardly a restaurant in town that doesn't serve its own version, and the city has produced enough variations for local food writer Nathalie Dupree to create an entire cookbook devoted to just shrimp and grits recipes.
Shrimp and grits is actually a very old combination, dating well back into the 19th century. In the old days, it was a breakfast dish, and made almost exclusively with the tiny, sweet creek shrimp that were seined out of local marshes and tributaries. It was a simple preparation, just plain grits cooked in water or perhaps milk, with the small, sweet shrimp served over the top and maybe a little butter and onion for flavor. And, the proper name for that would have been shrimp and hominy, as cooked grits have long been called by Charlestonians.
Today's version uses large trawler-caught shrimp taken from the ocean, and they're likely to be butterflied and sautéed with a lot of spice. The grits tend toward the rich, coarse-ground kind that have made a resurgence with the help of vendors like Anson Mills, and they're usually goosed up with a lot of cream and cheese and other sinful luxuries. The addition of thick, savory gravies studded with ingredients like tasso ham — which isn't ham at all but spicy smoked pork shoulder that hails from the Cajun country of Louisiana — shows how our contemporary chefs have appropriated ingredients from other cuisines to extend the traditions of the Lowcountry.
The ubiquity of this signature dish has created something of a backlash among local chefs and foodies, who want the world to know that there's far more to Charleston cuisine than just shrimp and grits. But, there's a reason the combination has achieved such fame: stone-ground corn and freshly caught shrimp go beautifully together, and they provide a hearty foundation upon which chefs can layer on sauces and spices with a bold hand. There are as many variations and places to try them as there are restaurants in the city, and they're perfect for breakfast, lunch, or dinner.
• Nathalie Dupree's Shrimp and Grits Cookbook,
by Nathalie Dupree with Marion Sullivan
Carolina Gold was once the pride of Charleston, the famous staple that created the unprecedented wealth of Lowcountry planters. Following the collapse of the rice industry in the early 20th century, the Carolina Gold strain was almost lost to history. In the 1980s, Dr. Richard Schulze, a Savannah eye surgeon, reintroduced Carolina Gold rice at Turnbridge Plantation, and in recent years purveyors of heirloom products like Glenn Roberts of Anson Mills have made the rare variety available to both restaurant chefs and home cooks alike.
When prepared traditionally, Carolina Gold doesn't hold up very well in a commercial kitchen — the whole grains are simply too fragile. Local chefs have had to get creative, mixing cooked rice with cheese and searing them into rice cakes or pressing it flat and toasting it into rice wafers. But you can find it in a more traditional purloo (a.k.a. pilau/priouleau) or sometimes even steamed. Properly prepared, Carolina Gold has a richness and depth of nutty flavor that blows the doors off of plain old enriched white rice. If you see it pop up on a local menu, by all means give it a try.