When Calvin Trillin traveled the country for The New Yorker in the 1970s, he always asked for recommendations for a good local restaurant upon arriving in a new city. He invariably found himself directed not to a crab house in Maryland or a chili parlor in Cincinnati but instead to "the best restaurant in town," which would turn out to be yet one more version of what Trillin took to calling "La Maison de la Casa House, Continental Cuisine." That is, pricey, pretentious outfits selling lackluster imitations of French haute cuisine with specialities like "Duck a l'Orange Soda Pop."
I travel around the country a fair bit myself, and I can testify that Maison de la Casa House is not only still in business in the 21st century, but it's doing quite well. Admittedly, the menu has changed a lot over four decades. We now know that to be "fine dining" it's no longer sufficient to churn out pale imitations of French cooking. No, to be really fancy one must mix in pale imitations of many more countries' cuisines, from the curries and lemongrasses of Thailand to the spicy chorizo of Spain.
Thus, when I'm dining in Hartford, Conn., there's sure to be red wine-braised short ribs with white cheddar polenta and balsamic cippolini onions, while in Portland, Ore., there's a balsamic-marinated portabello mushroom stuffed with baby spinach, pine nuts, and goat cheese. The appetizer menus alone — with their small-plate parades of spring rolls, bruschettas, fried calamari, and sesame-encrusted tuna — are simultaneously a rainbow of cultural diversity and a monument of monotony.
This is the new food of Anywhere, USA.
One would think that the "eat local" movement would have helped alleviate the sameness, but, curiously, it hasn't. As it turns out, heirloom greens, farro, free-range chickens, fava beans, and oyster mushrooms can be grown as easily in the hundred miles surrounding Lincoln, Neb., as they can around the San Francisco Bay. The quality of the ingredients is far better at today's farm-to-table restaurants than at the eateries that plagued Trillin in the 1970s, but those local ingredients haven't necessarily translated into a local way of cooking.
Charleston has its share of grim palaces of high cuisine, but we have been somewhat insulated by our historically based regional style. When people come to Charleston they expect to find shrimp and grits, she-crab soup, and benne wafers. This expectation has opened the door to a more creative, inventive brand of cooking that blends traditional ingredients and preparations with the best produce of our local waters and soil.
Local chefs often chafe against the expectation of the "Lowcountry classics," fighting to break out of the mold of she-crab soup and fried green tomatoes. And while they've succeeded in breaking the lock-step allegiance to "traditional fare," I've begun to wonder whether Charleston cuisine is starting to lose its way. The unique restaurant style forged over the course of three decades is growing a little tired, and there's not much new energy to replace it.
There's been plenty of turnover in the kitchens of some of Charleston's better restaurants over the past year or two, and in many cases the result of those changes have been, well, nothing much. A new well-credentialed chef is brought in or a long-time sous is elevated to executive chef, but apart from a few tweaks and occasional specials, the menu looks essentially the same six months later. (Oak Steakhouse, with the revamped menu created by new Executive Chef Jeremiah Bacon, and Tristan, where Nate Whiting has completely overhauled the offerings, have been rare and notable exceptions.)
We've seen plenty of new restaurant openings lately, and their culinary styles are all over the map, literally. Some are ambitious, striving for a form of authenticity and creating faithful versions of the food found in Italian osterias, Spanish tapas bars, Irish pubs, and Mexican street food stands. There's nothing wrong with this, and the ever more diverse array of international food options is a boon for local diners. But it does little to differentiate dining in Charleston from dining in any other American city with a respectable restaurant scene.
Even less helpful are the many new-style La Maison de la Casa Houses that have opened in one strip mall storefront after another. There may be a little local shrimp and Carolina gold rice sprinkled in here and there, but mostly it's the same warmed-over multicultural fusion that you can find in the best restaurants in all 50 state capitals.
All of these trends make sense from a business standpoint, but from a culinary perspective, it means more of the same. But I don't think it has to be this way, and one way out is a return to authenticity.
Now that's a loaded word that requires some explaining. In one sense, authenticity means attempting to recreate some original model as closely as possible, the way those new restaurants are trying to recreate the bar snacks of Spain or the street food of Mexico. Authentic Lowcountry cuisine means a close approximation of the kind of food that people here regularly ate at some point in the past, using traditional local ingredients and recipes to cook in a way that is true to this region.
Authenticity is what put Charleston on the culinary map in the first place, when chefs like Louis Osteen and Frank Lee dared to serve grits and cornbread on fine dining menus. In more recent years, a second wave of chefs took that New Southern style beyond a limited slate of classics and intensified the focus on traditional local ingredients, including heirloom produce and hyper-fresh seafood from area waters.
I'm hardly advocating that Charleston become a culinary museum that serves only recreations of past culinary experiences. Instead, I see authenticity as a way of taking just one or two elements from an older, more traditional way of doing things, exploring them thoroughly, and seeing where they lead.
The Gin Joint — a bar dedicated to serving genuine pre-Prohibition cocktails — is a great example of authenticity at work. This doesn't mean trying to faithfully recreate a Victorian-era saloon. The cocktails aim for authenticity, but the modernistic atmosphere and playful, edgy food, which includes buffalo-style fried duck hearts and roasted octopus salad, are pure 21st century. The point is to dive neck deep into the mixology of an earlier period and, through that, create a slate of delicious cocktails that we can enjoy today.
The result: a full selection of daisies, juleps, slings, and fizzes that until just a few years ago were unheard of on local cocktail menus. The things you won't find — like vodka, which was not readily available in the United States until the 1950s — keeps them far away from the sweet and candy-like "specialty" cosmos and martinis that clog the drink menu in the updated Maison de la Casa House bar.
Perhaps the most compelling example of using authenticity as a limit can be seen at Husk, where Executive Chef Sean Brock uses no ingredients produced outside of the South. This is not an "eat local" thing. Husk buys plenty of vegetable, meats, fish, and cheese from local purveyors but also from farmers and artisans as far off as Virginia and Texas. Brock is almost obsessively committed to heirloom varieties, too, such as the "Jimmy Red" corn he grinds into grits and the old lower-oil variety of benne seeds that top the buttermilk dinner rolls. He and his kitchen crew have dived headlong into traditional Southern methods of preserving and cooking, too, including pickling, curing, canning, smoking, and roasting in a wood-fired oven.
But, despite a few brash pronouncements about proving that "Southern food is the best food in the world," this is hardly a bid for historical authenticity. Smoky fried chicken skins with hot sauce and honey or a leg of lamb terrine with squash, zucchini, and roasted red pepper jus? No Southerner ate like this before 2010.
But Brock is using the authentic ingredients and methods of the past for inspiration to create something new and revolutionary. Husk's "nothing produced outside the South" rule sets a clearly-defined limit — and one, frankly, that is rather arbitrary and sometimes inconsistent (the wine list, for instance, has selections from all over the world). But now that the boundary is set, he and his team have focused all their energy and creativity within those limits.
The results have been remarkable. Husk has been the most talked about Charleston restaurant opening in years — both locally and in the national food press — and its menu is consistently surprising and exciting. It's also one that you will find only here in the Lowcountry.
Jeremiah Bacon has a similar opportunity before him at Oak, since its classic steakhouse format establishes its own set of limits. Bacon has already set out to stretch the boundaries of the form by bringing in superior ingredients informed by the farm-to-table movement. His initial efforts — from local clams casino to a bone marrow bread pudding that's even richer and more decadent than the 24-ounce bone-in rib-eye — have panned out well. It remains to be seen whether he can keep that innovative momentum going and create a new Lowcountry steakhouse style, but I'm cautiously optimistic that he will.
There's even more opportunity out there. For example, what if you define Charleston's region in a different way? Contemporary interpretations of "Lowcountry cuisine" seldom take into account colonial South Carolina's strong interconnectedness with the Caribbean — especially Barbados, Jamaica, and even Cuba. If you redefine Charleston as the northern point of a pan-Caribbean trade and cuisine, you can unlock an array of spices and citrus flavors and define a cuisine by the trading routes that met in Charleston's harbor. Rum, not bourbon, would form the basis of cocktails before dinner, and fine Madeira — perhaps custom blends aged in hot wine attics as they were in the 19th century — would be the wine of choice both during and after the meal.
The strong local influence of African foodways has been explored and celebrated widely in recent years, but it's been mostly in the context of popular cooking. Gumbos and rice dishes may have made their way onto the fine china at white tablecloth restaurants, but there's lots of room for exploration left.
An even less-touched period of our local cuisine is that curious intersection between North and South that occurred in the years between Reconstruction and the Depression, when Northern industrialists bought up the old plantations from broke Southern families and established baronies and hunting estates that made them feel like landed gentry. Gilded Age ostentation met Southern classics and created now-lost local specialties like Georgetown duck and stiff liquor-and-citrus punches.
These are only a few tentative ideas that may not prove profitable veins, but they suggest that our local ore is far from mined out. After all, "authenticity" has other meanings, like being true to oneself and not putting on airs just because you think that's what other people want. But my eye turns naturally to history, and because Charleston has such a long, rich culinary tradition to draw upon, it's a great way to distinguish ourselves from the rest of the country. History's not the only source of authenticity. The most important thing is that chefs — and home cooks, too — follow their passions, find their own little postage stamp of soil, and work it for all it's worth.
Southern food is in a period of high vogue nationally right now, and Charleston has been one of the cities leading the charge. But, success sets high expectations, and after such a strong three-decade run, it would be a shame to let our distinctive style become diluted. Authenticity might just be the key to unlocking a whole new culinary future.