Ever since I visited Charleston, South Carolina for a family reunion as a child, I've wanted to go back. The city has loomed in my imagination as the city of mansions, home-cooked collared greens, and my mother's slight Southern accent for as long as I can remember. And so when my mother asked me what I wanted to do on my recent return to the States, a trip to Charleston was at the top of my list.
We planned a short, three-day visit to the Holy City (named as such for having over 400 churches in its limits) filled with sight-seeing and food. Though my mother was born and grew up in Charleston, she hadn't ever really experienced the city as a tourist, and was all-too-happy to tour the city with me. Here's a short recap of what we did.
We drove into Charleston on a Sunday afternoon, having made our way north from Florida. As much as I love the German public transportation system, there's something to be said for the ease of the American highway network and the nostalgia that we all possess for the American road trip. (Though I'll be the first to admit that my mother did the driving, so I'm biased on this particular point).
Our first stop was to Charleston Cooks! to attend our pre-booked cooking class. Unlike the one I participated in in Barcelona, this course was a demonstration led by a really funny South Carolina native and student at the local college. He showed us how to make chicken and sausage gumbo with toasted Carolina aromatic rice and butterscotch pie, all while telling us about the culinary history of Charleston. The gumbo was delicious, and I especially liked the butterscotch pie that was cooked in silicon cupcake liners to create individual portions. After the cooking class, we checked out the store next door where I picked up some "hog dust" seasoning and benne seed wafers (toasted sesame seed cookies) to take back to Germany.
The cooking school is just along the water in Downtown Charleston, and so we walked around some afterwards to see the area. It wasn't long, though, until we got hungry again. For dinner, we decided to try out a restaurant called Blossom that we passed by chance on East Bay Street and happened to like the menu. Honestly, I think it was my favorite meal of the trip! We dined on fried green tomatoes with bacon jam, pimiento cheese, tomato butter, and red pepper jelly and tiny, sweet corn griddle cakes topped with spicy homemade chorizo, pepperonata, and Blossom mustard to start. For our second course, we had intended to split the traditional she crab soup, but our waiting, not wanting me to go without my own soup, also brought out a complementary cup of portobello mushroom and gouda soup. We were just about full by the time our dinner came, but couldn't refuse my mother's Carolina mountain trout topped with crawfish and field pea succotash in a Tabasco beurre blanc or my buttermilk fried oysters on top of grilled cornbread with tasso gravy and a sauce gribiche. We'd also ordered a side dish of loaded Brussels sprouts topped with cheese and tasso ham. Now I know we were full then, but we just couldn't refuse the red velvet cake bread pudding with strawberry cheesecake ice cream. Red velvet cake is a specialty of my mom's that she picked up from her Charleston grandmother, and this dessert was definitely the real deal. Mmmm mmm! My description won't do the meal justice, so feast your eyes on the pictures below:
Fully stuffed to the brim, we ended our evening back at our quaint, Charleston home-turned-hotel on Queen Street called The Elliott House Inn in a big, fluffy four-poster bed. Lucky for us, we chose a pretty central location and could easily walk just about everywhere in the city. The hotel with its large courtyard and traditional Southern piazzas to catch the sea breezes was perfect! I especially liked the friendly staff (one of whom was a former history teacher) who were more than happy to help us on our stay.
On the second day of our trip, we woke up to a lovely breakfast of coffee, muffins, and grapefruit served on a tray by our hotel door. The breakfast was small, but perfect after our large dinner the night before, and gave us just enough energy to make the 2 kilometer walk to the Charleston Museum. It was pretty good as far as museums go. The staff were very friendly, giving it a small-museum feel, but the exhibits on Charles Town's history and the city's Civil War defense were substantial. I was especially amused by the rooms filled with Egyptian antiquities and stuffed animals that had been collected by Charleston's wealthy explorers over the decades. To my mother's delight, many of the objects had been salvaged from a natural history museum that she's visited as a child and that had been destroyed during a hurricane. Sadly, the textiles section was closed to prepare for the "Fashion Flashback" exhibition, which we just missed.
After the museum we walk back towards the Downtown area by way of the City Market were we perused the stales of random crafts and jewelry. I'd read that the area was rather touristy, but I still enjoyed looked at the beautifully woven sweetgrass baskets and the many gate pendants with patterns modeled after the city's lovely iron gates.
For lunch, we stopped at Magnolia's (also owned by the same group as Blossom), for a most delicious fried shrimp po'boy with tasso aioli, arugula, blackened green tomatoes, a horseradish remoulade, and sweet potato fries and shellfish over grits with sautéed shrimp, scallops, and lobster in a lobster butter sauce topped with fried spinach. Our meal also came with a delicious loaf of sourdough bread. As a side, we ordered collared greens, which my mother said were probably the best she's ever eaten! We ate them up so quickly that I just remembered to snap a photo before we finished them. Again, we had another amazing meal with another helpful, and friendly waiter to serve us.
Our next stop for the day was a carriage ride through the city with Charleston Carriage Works. We honestly didn't choose a company ahead of time, but just showed up at the curb on Market Street and asked one of the many vendors for a carriage ride. We were grouped with six other people in the carriage behind our horse, Big John. Our tour guide, a skinny, bearded young college student from Massachusetts took us through downtown Charleston. Along the way, he told us about the history of the city and pointed out a lot of cool facts about the houses, like the "haint blue" color painted on the ceilings of patios to deter bad spirits (and to confuse wasps from making their nests there). Our guide also had to keep Big John from speeding up too quickly as he knew it was the last run of the day and was eager to get home to dinner!
Before dinner we decided to check out a cool place called The Gin Joint on East Bay Street for a pre-dinner cocktail. The drinks were certainly fancy and expensive at $10 a pop, but they were very tasty, especially my Monticello Mule with Jasper gin, lemon, pomegranate molasses, grenadine, orgeat, and ginger beer. I was especially impressed to see that they had Monkey 47, one of my favorite gins from the Black Forest that I thought was only local for us. We didn't stay for food, but the menu looked delicious with crab dip, pork buns, and duck empanadas.
We ended up at Poogan's Porch for dinner, which luckily for us was just a block from our hotel on Queen Street. The restaurant is located inside a beautiful Victorian mansion, and we were seated in one of the front living rooms with a lovely fire. To eat we started with the fried alligator salad with pickled sweet potatoes, cherry tomatoes, and a honey jalapeño dressing along and an order of lump crab toasts and their homemade buttermilk biscuits. The crab was good, but I missed the Old Bay seasoning that I'm used to having grown up in Maryland. The fried alligator salad, on the other hand, was excellent thanks to the kick in the creamy jalapeño dressing. For our entrées, we ordered the Calabash-style fried shrimp and oysters with red rice risotto and collard greens and an order of the roasted catfish with red rice risotto with sausage and pickled okra smothered in a roasted tomato butter. Apart from a mix-up in our orders, everything was delicious, especially the red rice risotto that we both got. We even fought over the pickled okra bits! For dessert we settled on the pecan pie with bacon ice cream, which I loved but which was not to my mother's tastes. Because of the earlier mixup in our order, the waitress was kind enough to bring us an extra scoop of vanilla ice cream just for my mom.
Stuffed, once again, we called it a day and rolled back to our hotel just down the block.
On our third and final day in Charleston, we got up for a quick bite and some coffee at our hotel before heading out on an epic walk to see my old family home next to Cannon Park. It's sadly no longer in our family due to death and divorce, but it was nice to see that the house still stands (minus the side porch, according to my mother). It was amazing to me, though, how much smaller the house looked to me know as I remember it being a veritable mansion in my memories, but such is the way with memory.
After visiting the house, we walked down Calhoun Street to see the College of Charleston, which I briefly wished I'd have attended before acknowledging that I would have surely left college with at least 50 extra pounds of weight due to all the incredible food in the city. We then headed back to East Bay street where my mother picked up a painting of the city at an art gallery we'd passed as a memory of Charleston, and I stopped in an antiques shop called Curiosity Vintage where I found a lovely silver shell-shaped Tiffany dish for my own memory of Charleston. On the drive out of the city, we also swung around The Battery for a peek out across the water at Fort Sumter (of Civil War fame) and to better see the big mansion houses that we spotted on our carriage tour.
Before getting back on the highway, we stopped for one more amazing meal at The Tattooed Moose just at the end of Meeting Street. I'd gotten a recommendation from my brother-in-law who raved about their sandwiches. I could tell my mother wasn't impressed by the bar/diner interior, but after getting our orders, she was just as impressed as I was. She ordered the Lowcountry Cuban with ham, slow smoked pork, swiss cheese, sweet and spicy green tomato pickles, and brown mustard on a buttered roll. I went for their Mike's Famous Duck Club with duck confit, applewood smoked bacon, and hickory smoked cheddar topped with garlic aioli, lettuce, tomato, and red onion on sweet Hawaiian bread. The sandwich was hot, messy, and deliciously juicy. To share between us we got a basket of duck fat fries served with their garlic aioli. I LOVE french fries, and I'm pretty sure that duck fat fries must be my favorite food on the planet. Best of all, I got my fill of American craft beer there thanks to their impressive beer list, including the local Holy City Iron Brew APA and the Bell's Two Hearted Ale (though it was a close toss-up between that and the Lagunitas Little Sumpin' Sumpin' Ale).
All-in-all, Charleston has stamped itself into my memory as one of the great food capitals of the American South, and I'm eager to return again just for the food! That said, I know there are other great sites to see both in and outside of the city, though three days was a pretty good amount of time for a short visit.
How about you? Have you been to Charleston? What were your favorite bites and sites? Leave your impressions in the comments below.