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Travels With a Geechee Girl

Where is Frogmore?

For years I’d been hearing Vertamae talk about her trips back home to the Sea Island region of South Carolina — particularly Frogmore, on St. Helena Island. Vertamae Grosvenor is a writer and one of the actresses in Julie Dash’s film Daughters of the Dust. But she is also a collector of tall tales, so any story she tells always has these wacky little twists like how there really is no Frogmore but people could always send a letter there and have it delivered. People on St. Helena Island still live in areas known by their old plantation names: Fripp, Wallace, Frogmore. That is to say, there is no downtown Frogmore, not even a village of Frogmore. A couple of years ago well-­heeled newcomers to the island decided they liked the name and had the govern­ment set up a Frogmore post office. Nev­er mind that the post office was not in Frogmore. (As we went to press it was announced that the post office was re­named St. Helena,)

Things are never what they seem in the Low Country and folks there will often just say “uh hmmm” when you ask a question because they know the answer may be too complicated for you. You being what some Gullah call a “fa come here.” And because things can get very compli­cated, without a sense of humor you will never find Frogmore, or anything else.

It’s like the Frogmore stew I read about in The New York Times — a wonderful­-sounding jambalaya of shrimp, corn, and sausage. Well, everybody makes a differ­ent stew, but if you ask them is it Frog­more stew you’ll get a “uh hmm” because that’s simpler than explaining. That’s why I went. I wanted to see what I might see, or not see — know what I mean?

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My first destination on the way to the Sea Islands was Charleston, where Vertamae invited me to a book party. What could be more Charlestonian than a party for two cookbook authors at a shop that car­ries only books about food? John Taylor, proprietor of Hoppin’ John’s, at 30 Pinckney Street across from the old open-air market, was throwing a party to celebrate the reissue of Vertamae’s Vi­bration Cooking, or the Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl and Bill Neal’s Southern Cooking. The food alone was worth the ride: Smithfield Ham and biscuits with homemade mustard, pickled okra, south­ern-style Irish soda bread, and Mexican watermelon. Verta informed me that the occasion was probably historic, no doubt Charleston’s first integrated book party. In any case, it was a fitting introduction to South Carolina, everyone at the party being at least an amateur culinary an­thropologist. They knew a lot about what I call “roots food,” dog bread, hoppin’ john, shad roe with hominy, bride’s bis­cuits, and cabbage pudding.

Several hours later the cooks sent me to a nouveau French eatery overlooking the market and the Confederacy muse­um. The food, arranged on ’50s floral upholstery tablecloths, looked like it was designed by a magazine stylist, but it was quite good. The owner, a portly white man with a David Mamet crew cut, asked me where I was headed on my Carolina visit. “The Low Country,” I answered, adding that I like to go to church when I come South, just to hear the music. He pointed to a burly young black man in the kitchen and advised me to go to his cook’s wife’s family’s church on St. John, and warned me that if I didn’t know what I was doing I wouldn’t see the real Gullah people.

“You have to know where to go. I sug­gest you go to Edisto.” It seemed he’d been raised by a woman from nearby Edisto Island. “Edisto is where I go and I can tell you they are not like the Gullah some will take you to meet.” What did he mean? “All I can tell you is they’re real, they’re just very very real.”

A preacher I know from the hill coun­try in South Carolina had already told me that everybody has “their” Gullah people, especially white folks, but I still couldn’t believe my ears, I told Verta about it and she laughed. “You know,” she said, “when I hear white folks say that I al­ways wonder how they got to be experts and I didn’t because you know I was raised by black folks too!”

Gullah folk have by now become part of the tourist promise in South Carolina, right along with house-and-garden tours and the ramparts of Fort Sumter. Gul­lahs, real or otherwise, are a society and culture that have always been remote and mysterious and, ever since the Civil War, threatened with extinction. I suppose it makes people feel better about slavery to be able to point to “real” Gullahs still surviving, but it’s a sign of how bad things really are.

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South Carolinians are kind of nutty, especially when it comes to antiquity. And they know people find them weird, so they have developed a self-deprecating humor as a kind of polite apology for their obsessions. Like the black woman in her seventies who told me how much Charleston had changed but laughed and said that that wasn’t really true because the most venerable women’s bridge club still judges members by who their grand­mother was.

Then there was my friend John Taylor, who implored me with a devilish grin to stay in Charleston one more night. “Oh, you have to see this,” he said, “you have to.” It was a concert of the Society for the Preservation of Spirituals, Taylor told me the society is a group of elderly whites who miss the strains of the old plantation songs, and so took to singing them them­selves. My God, I thought, they must be 115 years old. I didn’t go.

Preservation at that level is a lot hard­er to come by in the Low Country. When you ask folks, for instance, what indigo looked like, and how it was produced, no one can tell you. I couldn’t find a soul who’d ever seen any, yet thousands of people in South Carolina, mostly slaves, once cultivated this member of the pea family that was used to make indigo blue dye. Much of the history of these Ameri­cans has blown off into the Atlantic wa­ters like this curious little Indian plant that wore out so many lives.

Yet the low-lying countryside south of Charleston seems to look very much like a young black woman described it in the 1860s. Charlotte L. Forten, a young abolitionist and teacher, came to South Carolina during the Civil War to teach blacks who had been freed by the Union capture of Port Royal and the Sea Islands. Forten lived on St. Helena and taught at the Penn School, which is still there near Frog­more. She visited the Frogmore and Fripp plantations just after the owners had fled the island. Forten was the first black teacher to come to the area, and her diary of the period became the first journal by an African-American woman ever published. She was enraptured by the lush vegetation of the Sea Islands, the casino berries, magnolia, jasmine, narcis­sus and daffodils, and the “solemn almost funereal” look of live oaks draped in moss.

To get to the islands today the road takes you through Beaufort, on Port Roy­al Island. From there you can cross bridges to Ladies Island, St. Helena, Par­ris Island, or even further south to Hilton Head Island, which is where Verta and I were going. Verta’s navigation style is pure Yamassee. “Yup, this looks like where we turn, lemme see, yeah, turn here. You know, the police in this area are known for terrorizing folks. Oh. You see this up here, the place I was born is back up in there.”

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Stopping at a roadside stand I thought I would get some homegrown peanuts. I was handed a soaking wet bag of soaking wet peanuts. Verta laughed. “Chile, ain’t you never had boiled peanuts?” I have now, and I’m here to tell you they taste like crunchy black-eyed peas.

We passed the village where Recon­struction congressman Robert Smalls was born a slave. Forten met him when he was running a little general store in the area and notes that he was giving it up to join the Union army. Once in Beaufort on Port Royal, we detoured through the one street “downtown.” Beaufort seems basi­cally unchanged from how it must have looked 30 or 40 or maybe 100 years ago as you drive along the waterfront and look at the old mansions, some quite decrepit. Signs placed by the Daughters of the Confederacy pay tribute to those lonely confederates defeated by the Union troops who captured the island. Forten ran into Harriet Tubman there. “The General,” as they called her even then, was running an eating house in down­town Beaufort.

After driving around some hairpin turns on roads that had ravines where there should have been shoulders, we crossed the Broad River in late after­noon. Frankly I hoped Hilton Head would come up before darkness did, be­cause the cypress swamps were very close by the road. A sharp burning smell blew through the windows and soon we came upon bonfires burning in a scrubby patch of trees. It was an odor I knew but it woke me up like a sudden change of sea­son. Some 20 black men were throwing heaps of wood on the fires, which had grown as tall as they were. They were clearing ground to build a baseball field for the kids. Sparks flew 20 feet into the air.

I was sort of wondering where we were and noted down the name of the Barn­well Clinic across the road so I could locate the spot again. We had already changed road numbers four times, and I felt a deep need for landmarks. On the blacktop road again, the edges of lush golf courses started to crop up, along with a few resort signs alerting us we were near Hilton Head, golf course to the world.

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Another bridge let us onto Hilton Head Island and a post office was our landmark. The turnoff for Spanish Wells was a donut shop, then we were back to “this looks like it.” Spanish Wells is “the 15 per cent,” I heard — the 15 per cent of Hilton Head that is not developed, or where the black folks live. Over shrimp and rice that tasted like cook-up from Trinidad, Verta and Emma Campbell, a teacher in Beaufort, told me a few reasons why so many folks have over the years come down to Beaufort from Washington, Philadelphia, and Harlem, looking for real folk.

Verta: In the ’30s you know, even now if you look in the back of the Amsterdam News, if you check those spiritualists it’ll say “just back from Beaufort, S.C.” I mean, that meant something … Out of state cars be coming here all the time.

Emma: Seriously, they come by here all the time.

Verta: Asking about him, yeah.

Emma: Asking for directions to get to Dr. Buzzard’s house.

“There’s Dr. Eagle, Dr. Crow, Dr. Buz­zard.” Verta was talking. “Then there was Dr. Stringleg. He was up there around Yamassee. This is a true story. My grandmother went to Dr. Stringleg when my father was on the chain gang. They called him Dr. Stringleg because he had a funny leg and he put a string on it.” She demonstrated how he walked by pull­ing his leg on the string. She saw I didn’t believe her even if I was laughing. “It’s true.” All Verta’s stories are true­ — mostly.

“OK. Dr. Eagle, Dr. Crow. You get your name from the animal from which you get your power. Dr. Buzzard got his name ’cause they say his magic was so-0-0-0 good, so powerful, he could make a pot boil without fire. He used to have the buzzards rowing his boat and a crow for the pilot. That’s how bad he was. And you could be on Hilton Head Island, see him get on a boat and go to St. Helena and when you got to St. Helena, Dr. Buz­zard was there to pull the boat in.”

Back in the ’20s and ’30s, Dr. Buzzard was hounded by Sheriff McTeer. “He in­herited the job from his father,” said Verta. “Being sheriff runs in the family,” said Emma. Poor Mr. McTeer, it seems, grew up on a plantation and became in­trigued with the old black people who were root workers, particularly Dr. Buz­zard, whom he knew to be the greatest root worker. “He tried to get him,” said Verta. “He became obsessed with getting Dr. Buzzard. He wanted to put him in jail. He tried to use a law against pre­scribing people medicine orally.

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“So one time Sheriff McTeer had this guy who was a petty burglar in the sta­tion house and something fell out of his pocket. Now each root doctor got their little special gris-gris, you could tell. OK, the thing fell out and he recognized it as belonging to Dr. Buzzard. He said, ‘Buzzy give you that?’ and the guy said, ‘Yeah.’ He said, ‘I tell you what I’m a do. I’m a let you off but I’m a go get Buzzy and you got to tell me that Buzzy was the one to give it to you.’ The guy said all right. So they went and brought Dr. Buzzard back down there to the sheriff’s office and he said, ‘Now, I got this guy here and I’m gonna arrest you Buzzy, ’cause you gave him medicine orally.’ And he says to the guy, ‘Where did you get it?’ and the guy went to speak and start foaming at the mouth and passed out.

“Dr. Buzzard and them would go and chew roots in the court. That’s the thing. They’d be in the courtroom. People would pay money to have a root doctor sit and chew the root. And you would know this person is supposed to get 15 years and the judge would say ‘case dis­missed,’ not even knowing what he was doing, ‘six months,’ whatever. Sheriff McTeer tried to keep Dr. Buzzard from comin’ to court but he couldn’t prove nothin’, I mean, what could you prove?”

Dr. Buzzard became the wealthiest man on St. Helena and went down in Sea Island history, partly be­cause of his good friend Sam Doyle. Doyle, who lived all of his life on St. Helena and went to the Penn School, painted the island history. He died several years ago having become one of the best-known folk artists in the country. His work is still sold in New York, as well as in Frogmore, and he has been documented by a number of art historians. Sam Doyle painted Dr. Buzzard and other root doctors, friends like “Ramblin’ Rose” and “Miss Full Back” (she was full in the back), as well as historic events and supernatural occurrences.

“The paintings Sam Doyle did were a history of the island,” said Verta. “When you walked in his yard, that was his gal­lery, all the paintings were out. Like the ‘Hurricane of 1893.’ One of the first pic­tures you saw was a picture of a baby in a tree, under the Spanish moss. All that moss and a little baby. And the story was, after the hurricane people heard this baby crying and the baby was in the tree. And the descendents of that baby are on St. Helena’s. People said it was a miracle.”

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Emma told me about when some folks tried to sell “Miss Try Me” at an auction. “We went to it. Nobody would buy it. They were even embarrassed. See, he named his paintings for characters and people on the island. ‘Try Me’ was a lady with big hips like this and she used to walk around the island saying ‘try me.’ ”

“Plus,” said Verta, “he would paint a painting over. That used to upset the art dealers. ‘Cause he’d say, ‘Oh, I sold a lot of “Miss Try Me,”‘ and he’d do another one because his idea was to keep all the paintings so he could tell the history. There’d be a picture of Sherman, the undertaker — Sam said he was the first man to own a car on St. Helena.”

And he painted the local haints too, like Whooping Boy, said to be the spirit of a beheaded slave buried to protect treasure. “Not Whoopin, Woopin’, Woop­in’ boy!” Verta whoops. I still couldn’t say it. “No. Hoopin’. He’s on St. Helena. Sam Doyle heard him make the last whoop, he don’t come out no more, Mr. Doyle said, ‘since the automobile area.’ ”

Verta maintains that all this is part of an Africanness that may have preceded slavery in the region. That is, she likes to tell folk that the Gullah, who originally spoke a language they called Ngulla, were from Angola and that in prehistory — you know, when the continents were all at­tached — what is now South Carolina was joined to what is now Angola. Fascinat­ing, I thought. “But were there people around then?” Verta just shrugged her shoulders.

I checked this out and there’s just this one little problem. It seems that when the continents were attached what is now South Carolina was next to what is now Mauritania, which would mean the Gullahs originally spoke Berber or Tuareg or some such thing. Those Africans too make a beautiful blue dye. ■

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Bobwhite Gives You the Bird

According to the Sibley Field Guide to Birds, the bobwhite is a short, squat member of the quail family, native to the Southeastern United States. With feathers in muted shades of red, brown, and rufous, this understated creature’s most prominent feature is the male’s talent for endless self-promotion, incessantly chirping, “Bob white, bob white, bob white.”

And Bobwhite is also the moniker of the city’s latest attempt to re-create a real Southern-style diner, the kind you still find in places like Edisto, South Carolina, and McDonough, Georgia, where the so-called New Southern Cooking—unfrying the cuisine’s standards and piling on nouvelle ingredients—has had little impact. Bobwhite Lunch and Supper Counter is the full name, an attempt to completely describe a rather unusual operation. The barely decorated room does indeed include a lunch counter, in addition to raised tables and some shelf seating in windows overlooking Avenue C. But, unlike a real Southern lunch counter, there’s no waitress calling you “Honey” and refilling your coffee cup. Rather, you order at a computer station up front, the items are relayed to the kitchen, and the chef himself is likely to deliver the food to your table.

The bill of fare is mercifully short, and most of the food memorably good. It allowed me, for the first time in a while, to actually eat everything on the menu, some things twice. In fact, there are only two real entrées: fried chicken and fried catfish. The first consists of a half-bird cut in three pieces, dredged in flour, and cooked in the traditional Southern manner. No buttermilk batter and no brining—which often gives hipster fried chicken the texture of marshmallows—though Bobwhite’s bird has been marinated in sweet tea, a whimsical touch that adds a slight sweetness but little else.

Even more commendable is the catfish. With plenty of cornmeal in the crust, each fillet crackles like the sound of a car fender crumpling on a brick wall. The flesh tastes engagingly like the mud in the bottom of a clear-running stream. Is the fish wild-caught? Probably not, but that flavor is still there. Both dinners ($11.50 and $12, respectively) come with sides: in the first case with a salad and an exemplary, though none too large, biscuit; in the second, with potato salad and cole slaw, which the menu calls remoulade, but tastes more like pink tartar sauce.

But that’s not the end of the road, menu-wise. That thoroughfare narrows and goes further into the forest with a long list of sandwiches ($6 to $9.50), which are entirely within the canon of a Southern diner, yet never permitted to dominate the menu in this way. What is Bobwhite’s ploy? To wimp out on a real menu, or to make you eat sandwiches for dinner? It might be the latter, because these bread-bounded assemblages are made to seem like small celebrations, served with zippy down-home relishes, and certainly curtailing the number of calories you’d be getting in the usual dinner pig-out. Thanks Bobwhite. Also salubriously, a feed at Bobwhite doesn’t require you to sit still for two or three hours.

The chicken breast sandwich (fried, grilled, or roasted) comes with a side salad on a round roll heaped with sweet pickles, while the catfish (fried or grilled) arrives with the same salad and a zesty remoulade, providing an additional flavor wallop. The best sandwich, though, is made with a boneless pork chop heaped with the sweet and mustardy relish called chowchow, a real Southern staple. Naturally, there’s a pimento cheese sandwich, deploying sharp cheddar instead of American or Velveeta—which might be a mistake.

There are extra sides for sale, too, including a rarely available Brunswick stew—usually the staple of Low Country barbecues—made with chicken instead of pork, but entirely satisfactory nonetheless. Another departure from the lunch counter mode is a short list of great Italian wines by the glass and a couple of good beers. Yes, you are allowed to have a drink with your dinner sandwich. But the real reason for eating a sandwich might be so you can implore your waistline to let you order dessert, of which two are available.

Served in a mason jar, the banana pudding tastes fine but is a little gritty. The so-called pecan-pie bread pudding ($4) might be the menu’s greatest triumph, a boxcar of cakey pudding rife with nuts and sluiced with a salty caramel sauce. You’ll wolf down the first serving, then pray your Southern grandma, risen from the grave, calls from the kitchen to offer you another. Happy Halloween!

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Pan

Like sonic Serotonin, Pan opens your receptors to make everything a little bit less depressing. Major-key instrumental anthems surge and accrete and draw you into a feel-good state not unlike their pals in Fang Island and Explosions in the Sky. The South Carolina quartet recently followed up their gauntlet-hurling 2011 EP “Post Rock Is Not Dead” with These Are the Things I Love and I Want to Share Them With You. Thanks, guys!

Sat., Sept. 15, 6:30 p.m., 2012

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What To Eat at Big Apple Barbecue Block Party: Scott’s Bar-B-Que From Hemingway, SC

Rodney Scott’s pulled pork, at Scott’s Pit Cook Bar-B-Que in Hemingway, SC

When I was in South Carolina last October, I did what I always do when finding myself in a barbecue state – drive crazily from place to place sampling every kind of ‘cue I could get my hands on. My companion was the The Palmetto State Glove Box Guide to Bar-B-Que (1997), an out-of-print paen to a once-great barbecue state.

Go inside for the best South Carolina ‘cue — or simply go to the Big Apple Barbecue Block Party this weekend in Madison Square.

I say once-great, because most of the dozen or so places I tried to visit on a day-long drive through rural areas were long-closed. It seems that the barbecue joints had been replaced by fried-chicken concessions, which are apparently much cheaper to operate as far as raw materials go. And the barbecues that were still open were mainly just big buffets with the smoked meat occupying no more than one percent of the surface area. And the meat didn’t taste very smoky, either, since most pits had been converted from wood to gas or electricity.

Back in Charleston I found myself in the company of the famous Lee Brothers, and I asked them what the best barbecue in the state was. I also contacted my friend Robb Walsh, a Texas barbecue expert who also carefully watches barbecue all over the country. The answer was the same: Scott’s Pit Cook B.B.Q. in Hemingway, SC.

The place was a couple hours north of Charleston, but I jumped in my car right away and sailed up there, through swamps and beach communities, past thick groves of cypress and ash. Hemingway isn’t near the shore, but in a farming area inland about 20 miles. The town (population 500) is economically challenged, though there is some pig- and horse-farming in the area, and a little light industry.

Pitmaster Rodney Scott (right) with a barbecue enthusiast who’d driven three hours from Raleigh, NC to sample Scott’s ‘cue.

Next: more pictures from Hemingway, SC

The ordering window at Scott’s

Scott’s is in a ramshackle country store just a few blocks west of the downtown crossroads. There’s an ordering window, a collection of groceries on shelves, and a seating area with three or four tables. A hand-lettered sign over the window advertises what is available that day, including whole pigs for take-away catering. A crew of very polite and gracious rural ladies prepares and packages your order.

Presiding over all is Rodney Scott, a youngish guy who believes that wood and long-smoking is the key to great barbecue. In despite of the decay of the state’s barbecue scene, he perseveres as if it were the last century. He is one of barbecue’s great heroes, and he will have a booth at this weekend’s Big Apple Barbecue Block Party. His life’s work is not to be missed.

In Hemingway, I had the pulled pork, picked from the whole hog and moistened with a vinegary sauce with some barbecue tidbits floating around in it. Extra sauce comes on the side. In this respect, his ‘cue harkens to the old-fashioned style of North Carolina barbecue.

The vinegary sauce

Next: More on Scott’s Bar-B-Que

For high rollers: the $6 ribeye sandwich

My pulled-pork sandwich was probably the best thing I ate in the entire state on that trip, though I did have some spectacular fried chicken, too. I also ordered a steak sandwich, served on two pieces of white bread. It was good, too, but I bet Scott’s not bringing that to Madison Square this weekend.

Stop by and try Rodney Scott’s ‘cue.

Yams for sale on the front porch of Scott’s

What you’re supposed to wash the barbecue down with

View of Hemingway, SC

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Needtobreathe

Something like the midpoint between Kings of Leon and the Civil Wars, these South Carolina folk-rock dudes spent much of last year opening arena shows for Taylor Swift. Now they’re out on their own, trying to turn famous-friend buzz into a real-deal fanbase.

Thu., April 19, 7 p.m., 2012

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South Carolina Barbecue: A Few Thoughts

Like the sign says, Dukes Bar-B-Q in Walterboro, South Carolina. The pig on the front lawn isn’t real, but the people are.

In two trips to South Carolina in the last decade, I’ve spent much of my time crisscrossing the state and looking at the barbecue there. Yes, sometimes just looking at it.

Mustard-based sauces are still king in the corner of South Carolina we traversed.

That’s because I maintain a strict definition of barbecue. First and foremost, it must be based on hardwood, or, in a second-best scenario, charcoal. In other words, the meat — whether it be pork, beef, mutton, or chicken — must be imbued with smoke that comes from wood, giving it a serious pink smoke ring, and a savor that only smoldering wood can confer.

Carolina ‘cue is one of the country’s greatest barbecue traditions, an important part of a list that includes the BBQ styles of Texas, Memphis, Kansas City, and Kentucky. It’s based on whole pigs smoked long in the pit (originally, a real pit, later an aboveground smoker), and then shredded, or “pulled,” and doused with a vinegar-based sauce, primarily in North Carolina. In South Carolina, there’s an equally marvelous tradition of mustard-based sauces. Where did these come from? Well, while the mustard that Central Texans put on their hamburgers is undoubtedly of German origin, I believe the derivation of the South Carolina barbecue sauce is probably French.

The whole pig concept is an interesting one. The pigs tend to be small (around 150 pounds in many cases), but even so, the smoke only penetrates the outer layers, so there are masses of pork inside that don’t get very smoky. Of course, pulling the pork means that the gradient of smokiness is well-distributed, though at some places it seems like the smokiest parts on the outside (sometimes called “brown” or “Mister Brown”) are withheld.

The lower level of smokiness at Carolina barbecues, and lack of cheap hardwood, has meant that many of the establishments have converted to using gas or electricity and no wood at all. Which is why, when I approach a place I might potentially eat at, I go around the back and see if there’s any evidence of wood or charcoal. At N.C. places like Wilber’s in Goldsboro, or Allen & Son in Chapel Hill, wood splinters, logs, and ash are everywhere, and the smell of smoke perfumes the air. Hence, the nose is also a good guide as to whether you want to try a place or not.

The actual ‘cue at Dukes in Walterboro occupies only one of over two dozen tubs.

Fried entities now constitute a major portion of the southeast South Carolina barbecue buffet, this one in Walterboro.

Anyway, after spending a day dashing between the barbecues of Charleston (some better than so-so, all offering traditional mustard sauce, but having a lot more ketchup-based sauces), I “lit out for the territories,” as Huck might say. The object of my curiosity was the region between Charleston and Augusta, Georgia. On paper, at least, there were dozens upon dozens of places in the area. That paper, by the way, was a 1997 paperback publication called The Palmetto State Glove Box Guide to Bar-B-Que published by BBQ Digest. I supplemented that with more recent info on Yelp and other consumer websites, which turned out to be good for listings, but clueless when it came to culinary analysis.

The landscape I traversed with friend and fellow critic Melissa McCart was one of scrub pine forest interspersed with cotton fields and the occasional soybean acreage. Towns were well-spaced and of Victorian vintage, often arrayed along the railroad tracks, and with alliterating names like Branchville, Bamberg, Blackville, Denmark, and Barnwell. Almost all had towering cotton gins, but only one appeared to be still operating. The cotton was just ripening, and vast fields of puffy bolls on rust-brown stalks delighted the eye. In some fields, crews of Mexican laborers were seen working the fields. In Blackville, we drove by a frame general store with a rickety front porch. Guys sitting on the porch craned their necks as our car went by, like a picture taken by Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, or Russell Lee in the 1930s.

Each town is listed as having from one to four barbecues; half the places we drove by were either permanently closed or seemingly disappeared from the face of the earth. The most heartrending example was Tommy Rose Barbecue in Bamberg, of which this promising description was written in the 1997 guide: “For 20 years Tommy and Rose Hutto have cooked barbecue. They’ve owned this place for three. Tommy built it complete with a custom pit he uses to mesquite smoke his hams and shoulders before serving them with mustard and ketchup based sauces. They’re located right on the highway and Tommy says people drive by and smell that meat cooking and you’re lucky to find a seat.”

Of the places we spotted still operating, nearly all were from the Dukes chain — a loosely held franchise that traces its roots to a famed pitmaster of the late 19th century. The franchise mounts a half-dozen barbecues in this area, and a half-dozen in the coastal lowlands. We sampled the one in Walterboro, a pleasant-enough place with a life-size statue of a large pig on the front lawn, and two capacious dining rooms, one with a wild-boar head mounted on the wall. The establishment unapologetically uses gas in the barbecue pits, of which there were two around back.

The salad component of the buffet line at Dukes.

The Dukes in Bamberg was a lot like the Dukes in Walterboro, but with different signage. Like many barbecues in the Carolinas, it’s open only on weekends.

Inside, as is the practice in this sort of barbecue, we found a long buffet of hot and cold items. There were hush puppies, fried okra, Jell-O salads with baby marshmallows, good fried chicken, canned peaches, oily-tasting mac and cheese, mayo coleslaw, broad beans and other canned vegetables, and a single tray of pulled-pork ‘cue. There were over two dozen offerings in all, plus trays of such desserts as vanilla wafer banana pudding and canned-fruit cobbler. Next to the pork was a tray of deep fried cracklin’s (pig skin), and in a notable anomaly, there was also a tray of freshly cooked potato chips, which were one of the best things in the place. The roughly pulled pork had a nice porky flavor, but almost no detectable smoke. It was good anyway. Loaves of white bread were on every table, and two big bins on the steam table held two mustard sauces — one hot and sweet, one just sweet.

When we reached Bamberg, South Carolina, we found another Dukes. It had quite a different sign, making us think it might be unrelated. We were on the way inside, when we paused to look in the window and … we saw a nearly identical buffet as the one we’d just eaten at Walterboro. Instead of gorging there, two blocks south on North Main Street we consoled ourselves with a “chicken snack,” consisting of two dark-meat pieces, potatoes, gravy, and a roll at a crossroads place called Little Howie’s Burger and Chic. The bird was absolutely superb, crisp of its lightly dusted skin, and juicy as all get-out. I never hope to have chicken quite that good again. The place occupied a wooden building fronted with pine planking. No seating, just carryout.

By the time we saw another Dukes in Blackville, we knew enough to keep on driving. We’d called ahead to Edwards Bar-B-Que in Martin, and BMW in Williston, and learned that both were closed, by using a cell phone when one of the few reception hot spots appeared.

Sadly, the only barbecue to use hardwood in the area was permanently closed — Tommy Rose, just west of Bamberg.

Little Howie’s in Bamberg turns out some amazing fried chicken — has poultry permanently replaced pork in the popular diet in this part of South Carolina?

Here’s what Little Howie’s chicken snack looks like.

Next we went down to Barnwell, a good-size town at the confluence of several highways, and a place that seemed to have once had a couple of textile mills, now derelict. King’s Barbeque — a place that also served ribs, had a pair of vinegar-based sauces, and used charcoal for smoke — was missing from its foundation, but further up the road, across from the Walmart, we spied Hogg Heaven. Once again, a buffet line with the usual, including some very good fried chicken, some not-very-good finely pulled pork that had a vinegar sauce and a cat-foody taste, but some pretty good ribs that had been long in the gas cooker, if not in the smoker.

Evening was approaching, so we headed back to Charleston. On the way we speculated: Who was murdering the barbecues of southeast South Carolina? And why had Dukes triumphed, while independent operators had fizzled? Could it be that using wood or charcoal had become economically infeasible?

It was clear enough that there were plenty of fried-chicken places of relatively recent vintage. Could it be that the price of pork had driven restaurateurs to chicken instead? In a down economy, it was obvious that the buffet at Dukes, with prices set at $10 or $11 for all you can eat, and a full range of locally popular dishes, was a model that appealed to cotton-country diners.

Or could it be that, once the wood smoke was subtracted through use of gas-fired pits, the barbecue was no longer all that appealing, and the public gradually abandoned it?

A plate from the buffet at Hogg Heaven in Barnwell

Part 2 Next Week: Barbecues in Charleston and Northward

Take a look at our coverage of Texas barbecues.

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LOOKING RUFF

Stone Soup Theatre Arts is hosting a beauty pageant that we can all feel good about. Rest assured, there won’t be any wild-party-girl-in-need-of-rehab headlines or criminal allegations of sabotage (i.e., pepper-sprayed makeup or costumes), nor can we expect serious verbal gaffes of Miss South Carolinian Teen USA proportions (as in “the Iraq—everywhere like such as”). But make no mistake: There will be bitches to contend with. After all, it’s the Third Annual Barking Beauty Pageant. The evening will be filled with active wear, glamour wear, and talent competitions, along with industry judges and a colorful pair of hosts— national-pageant moderator Leslie Hughes and her Yorkshire terrier, SalliSue. So come on out and watch man’s best friend exude a bit more civility and class than those challenged Trump beauties.

Sun., April 27, 6 p.m., 2008

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Alito and His Coaches

WASHINGTON, D.C.–In the first hours of Samuel Alito’s Senate confirmation hearings on Monday, Judiciary Committee member Lindsey Graham, the Republican senator from South Carolina, may very well have irreparably compromised himself.

At the hearing, Graham told Alito, nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court, that he had already decided in Alito’s favor. “I don’t know what kind of vote you’re going to get, but you’ll make it through. It’s possible you could talk me out of voting for you, but I doubt it. So I won’t even try to challenge you along those lines.”

That certainly ought to be the case. Graham is one of a group of Republicans who have been coaching Alito behind the scenes. The Wall Street Journal‘s Washington Wire reported before the hearings began:

“On Thursday, Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, one of the ‘gang of 14’ who sits on Judiciary, joined a so-called moot court session at the White House.”

The coaching session for Alito has raised a few eyebrows.

“Coaching a judicial nominee behind-the-scenes is not the proper role for a Judiciary Committee member who must subsequently sit in judgment on that nominee,” writes Think Progress, a project of the American Progress Action Fund. “It could be a violation of the ethical duties of a senator.”

Writing about the Alito situation, Think Progress cites Senate Rule 37 in the Senate Ethics Manual. The rule says: “No Member, officer, or employee shall engage in any outside business or professional activity or employment for compensation which is inconsistent or in conflict with the conscientious performance of official duties.”

Think Progress further cites the ethics manual, saying that language has been interpreted as prohibiting “compensated employment or uncompensated positions on boards, commissions, or advisory councils where such service could create a conflict with an individual’s Senate duties due to appropriation, oversight, authorization, or legislative jurisdiction as a result of Senate duties.”

If this is true, how can Graham make an impartial decision about Alito based on what he learns at the Alito hearings? Graham has already made up his mind.

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Gullah Gullah Island

Pinkie-size shrimp caught in South Carolina waters—where tides wash around dozens of barrier islands that are mainly marsh, palmetto, and scrub oak—enliven the stunning Gullah dish “swimpen graby.” I first encountered it at Belle’s, a small sunny café in Beaufort that, like most island cafés, serves only breakfast and lunch. Its shrimp and gravy looks like a giant fried egg with the colors reversed: a corona of coarse yellow grits spreads across the plate, while shrimp cooked with bacon and onions holds down the white center. Though the rest of the menu is principally Deep South and low-country cooking, there are other faithful Gullah recipes on the menu, including okra soup and Frogmore stew.

Gullah is the name used by escaped and freed black slaves who remained in the barrier islands of South Carolina after the Civil War. Many had worked on rice plantations, and they retained their love of rice and knowledge of how to cultivate it, by draining swampland, planting seeds, and reflooding the land in a controlled manner, using tools and methods developed in Africa. Their presence in the Carolinas was the result of “slave shopping” along the windward coast of West Africa, whereby slave owners sought slaves who had the technical knowledge of how to grow rice. Indeed, Gullah probably refers to the Gola, a tribe that continues to inhabit coastal areas of Sierra Leone and Liberia today.

Across the bridge from Beaufort lies St. Helena, another barrier island that sits flat on the horizon. Though encroaching development has grabbed the most attractive seaside plots, the center of the island remains a maze of dirt roads, broken-down trailers, and wooden shacks, many in small communities called settlements that resemble West African villages in layout. In the center of the island, the sole town is known as Four Corners to the Gullah, Frogmore to outsiders. At Johnson Creek Restaurant and Tavern, next to a marina on the eastern edge of the island, I had my first taste of Frogmore stew. It featured shrimp cooked with bell peppers, onions, potatoes, and smoked pork sausage in the manner of a New England boiled dinner. The flavor, though, was entirely Gullah.

I recently spent six days driving the back roads and barrier islands between Hilton Head and Georgetown, South Carolina. Leisure residential development, resulting in nightmares like Hilton Head, is rapidly diminishing the Gullah presence in these islands, and I went to take a last look at a culture in danger of extinction. My best culinary glimpse came on Edisto Island, away from the sprawling summer homes of city folk. There, at Main’s Market, a ramshackle country store, tourist shop, and garden center, I encountered an amazing buffet. The simple food was vegetable intensive, and mainly grown locally. Little was fried. I enjoyed a dish called tomato pie, involving sliced tomatoes stuffed with local herbs and topped with bread crumbs, and a marvelous gumbo—not the seafood and sausage stew we associate with New Orleans but a fundamental soup of okra, tomatoes, and corn that preserves the okra pods intact.

Not surprisingly, the gumbo reminded me of something I’d eaten in a Ghanaian restaurant just the week before.

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Hammer of the Goddess

You’re hip to packaging. So what do you expect from a bunch of white rock guys with guitars and such who call their band Isis? Big hair, right? Maybe portentous lyrics about tombs and moonlight, or even proper Egyptian liturgy, like the death-metal chants of the South Carolinian band Nile. But though Isis do play doom metal, of a sort, they are Bostonians with a hardcore background and a sleek design sense and not a lot of hair—guys you’d expect to play alt-metal under a name like Rivet or Lugnut or Cable, which was the name of the alternately lumbering and lacerating bassist Jeff Caxide’s old band. Sabbath, it must be said, does loom large over their mournful riffs. But on the new Panopticon, the follow-up to 2002’s breakthrough Oceanic, Isis make it clear, as if it weren’t already, that they are totally 21st-century guys, with informed worries about technology and cover art devoid of gothic tracery or corpsepaint cartoons.

Unlike the nu-metal brats, though, Isis know that staying true to the essential economy of hardcore does not mean you can’t go for the Big Picture, either in expansive sound, absurd song length (average here is eight minutes), or ambitious thematic concept. (Check out that Foucault quotation!) All you need to “keep it real” is to make sure some things stay spare. So Isis balance their sweep with almost tediously restrained drums and frontman Aaron Turner’s average singing voice, so infrequent or buried in the mix that it effectively renders Panopticon an instrumental record.

Isis deserve their name, in other words, because they have achieved a genuinely epic sound, not by aping Scandinavian black metal, but by melting down their own peculiar influences—including, most importantly, the dread commotions of their pals Neurosis—into a modern American hammer of the gods. That said, Isis is a goddess, the “Divine Mother” Turner sang about on 2001’s experimental but basically uninteresting SGNL>05 EP. Why this invocation of the queen of heaven? Because while the band’s riffs are sludgerific, their greatness now turns as much on the softer stuff: layered, pensive, and sometimes downright pretty passages whose mellowness is not, in that tried-and-true metal formula, simply a palette cleanser for monster chords.

“In Fiction,” “Syndic Calls,” and “Wills Dissolve”—the latter laced with electronic chittering that would feel at home on Kid A—all open with slow, vaguely psychedelic space-outs that normal bands put in the middle of their long songs. These probing interplays, which sometimes build and sometimes drift, recall the glacial indie-pluckings of Bedhead or the less atonal drones of Sonic Youth, although it’s fair to say they sometimes sound like Pink Floyd too. But if you want to make an epic soundscape big enough to swallow up the listener, you can do worse than meddle with your metal.