Putting on the Gritz

Posted by on June 9, 2012 at 12:16 pm :: 2 Comments

You know that patriotic song that finishes with some line about the greatness of America from sea to shining sea? Well, Jason and I have witnessed firsthand the greatness of this country from one side of the continent to the other over the last month. Just a few weeks ago we were dipping our feet in the Pacific and last week we splashed into the Atlantic.

I had to travel to Charleston, South Carolina for a conference and good-natured Jason happily went with me to see a state neither of us had visited before. My seminar was just a two-day affair but we stayed a couple extra days to gluttonously savor the flavor of Charleston. Even though we’ve literally almost spent more time traveling the last month than we’ve spent at home, we couldn’t pass up an opportunity to explore some new territory.

The banks of the Cooper River were pocketed with swamp lands. Those marshes were surprisingly pretty.

The Nathaniel Russell House had ornate oval rooms and a three-story spiral staircase. I felt like I should start gossiping about Mr. Darcy in its hall.

Charleston is a quaint old town with a sophisticated Southern feel and a whole lot of humidity. Since I’ve been to the South many times I was not surprised by the thick wall of moisture that greeted us when we exited our airplane. Nor did the row of rocking chairs lined up in the airport for flight waiters to relax in astonish me. Jason was a little taken aback by both though. Ya ain’t in Kansas no more honey.

The Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge's diamond-shaped towers looked interesting from any angle.

The Morris Island Lighthouse lies 300 yards off the shore at the tip of Folly Beach. It made for a nice backdrop.

Charleston’s significant role in America’s past was apparent from both sides of its narrow topsy-turvy streets. Its avenues were lined with tightly-packed antique homes and worn cobblestones. Porches with wicker chairs and rockers invited the world to sit back and take a load off under roofs that had quietly seen the passing of generations and the making of nations.

The shrimp and grits at High Cotton were highly delicious. How can you go wrong with fried okra, sweet corn, and a garlic broth?

Slightly North of Broad or S.N.O.B. was one of my favorite restaurants out of the many fantastic we tried.

With my conference taking up most of our first couple days, the only sightseeing we really got around to those initial nights was viewing delicious food as it traveled from our plates to our mouths. Charleston, it turns out, is something of a hotspot for fine Southern cuisine, especially seafood. The city seemed eager to ease into relaxation quickly in the evenings so everything closed early, except restaurants. Most shops locked their doors at 5 but bistros welcomed guests up to 1 AM. Therefore, Jason and I were forced to spend our nights eating. What a trial. We had fried oysters, apricot glazed flounder, crab cakes, stuffed hush puppies, and sautéed snapper with basil puree. That was all very good but what I craved most, and ordered almost every single night, was shrimp and grits. Too much of a Yankee to know what grits is? Imagine something along the lines of polenta but creamier. Grits is a tasty complement to pretty much everything. (And yes, grits is singular.) It’s hard to find grits that is cooked right and impossible to find it at all here in Utah. Too bad, I would trade wobbly green Jell-O casseroles for grits any day of the week. Even Jason, a diehard grits skeptic, was converted by the flavorful dishes I ordered in Charleston, which he readily sampled but was too cynical to get himself.

The walls of Ft. Sumter, where they were still standing, were 5 feet thick. Originally this fortress was designed to fit 135 cannons but it never got fully loaded.

This huge live oak tree stretched 145 feet across. It rested on the banks of the Ashley River long before colonialists did.

Even with all the extra grits weight we were carrying around we still managed to waddle through a lot of Charleston. We visited the Nathaniel Russell House, an antebellum mansion that had been skillfully restored and reminded me of something out of a Jane Austen novel. We walked along the shoreline at various parks and meandered down Rainbow Row where the pastel color scheme of the historic houses brought to mind tropical flowers and inviting Caribbean waters. We toured Middleton Place, a renovated plantation along the Ashley River that had grounds so expansive it took us a few hours just to walk through them. The maze of paths at Middleton Place wound through countless pockets of earth hedged by walls of camellias, magnolias, and bamboo so thick it was easy to imagine that if you held still for long enough you too would sprout roots into the fertile soil. We took a ferry out to Ft. Sumter where the first momentous shots of the Civil War were fired. We also made it to Folly Beach and sorry Californians, this water was warmer than what we waded through a few weeks ago in Santa Monica.

Cypress Lake was really a swamp that bordered one side of Middleton Place.

Middleton Place had so many picturesque plants and ponds that you didn't know where to point your camera.

This tree looked lovely bowing a greeting to the pond lilies.

If history enthralls you, if enormous live oaks draped in weepy vines give you that peaceful insignificant feeling, if shrimp and grits entices you to keep cramming up to your uvula then Charleston just might be the perfect place for you to visit. It has all the charm of the Deep South plus the friendly natives speak what can easily be identified as English while they feed you until your eyes pop. Sign me up and roll me home!

2 Comments

  • Jenn says:

    I’m glad to hear you enjoyed your visit in the south! I agree, nothing quite like a big bowl of grits… Though I recommend eating it with cheese and a fried egg mixed in. Mmmmmmm. And are there people who are really more familiar with Polenta than Grits in the US? Just curious as I had never heard of Polenta until we visited Brazil. I enjoy both, of course. 🙂

  • Rachel says:

    Oddly enough polenta is more well-known in Utah. I’ve had it at several restaurants in Salt Lake City but I have yet to find a single place that serves grits, which is really too bad.

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