Eating Our Way Through.... Charleston, S.C.

The highs and lows of a culinary tour through Low Country.

I got on the plane with one thing on my mind.  My palms were sweaty with anticipation, my heart quickened.  The small plane lifted off the ground and shot upward with a burst of speed, making it even harder to breathe.  With every ounce of my body, I wished the flight would be over quickly.  Touching down could not come soon enough.

I had some whole hog to eat.

We landed at Charleston international Airport at about 11:45 a.m. on Friday afternoon. Allowing for 20 minutes to pick up the rental car, I figured we could be at Sweatman’s BBQ by one o’clock, which would be perfect timing to catch the all-you-can-eat lunch buffet. And don’t think that the arrival time was coincidental or was a function of work schedules or anything silly like that. Sweatman’s is only open on Fridays and Saturdays, and there was no way that I was going to miss the opportunity to check out this place while down in S.C.

It was a sunny day in Holly Hill, South Carolina, when we arrived at Sweatman’s in our sky blue Hyundai (I always travel in style). The converted country house stood in front of a small cooking facility, the smell of smoked wood permeated the air. We walked inside, paid the nominal $12 entry fee (everything is relative for New Yorkers) and made our way to the smörgåsbord of pig parts. There were ribs of all types and sizes, pulled shoulder meat, and of course, the “parts is parts” tomato-based classic, South Carolina pork hash. On the side were pickles, homemade slaw, white rice, and plenty of white bread. 

The meat was tender and lightly smoky, filled with juices that you can only get from whole hog barbecue.  The mustard-based barbecue sauce added a sweet touch to the meat, with a slight tang to liven up the fatty pork.  I filled up my plate more than a few times, but I was careful to leave room for dessert: freshly made banana pudding.  Seriously, how can you not love banana pudding with vanilla wafers and slices of bananas, all for 65 cents?

Heading back into the town of Charleston, starry-eyed from the excessive amounts of pork in our bellies, I thought ahead to the Southern classics that we would be enjoying in the days that followed: succulent fried chicken at Virginia’s on King, cheesy shrimp n’ grits and chocolate pudding at Hominy Grill, locally-grown fare at FIG, classic Carolina cooking at Magnolia’s, Sweet Tea vodka at Firefly distillery, pralines, a low-country cooking class at Charleston Cooks!, sweet treats from the Charleston chapter of Baked, and maybe a good old-fashioned tornado, for good measure.

Just to name a few.

And none of them disappointed, including the tornado. 

The sophisticated offerings at Fig (Food is Good) provided an updated twist on Southern ingredients.  We noshed on polenta (locally grown, of course) with morels, asparagus, and a poached egg, spring garlic soup with sweet lump crab meat, crispy pork trotter with a fried pullet egg, and veal sweetbread agnolotti. 

Taking our turn in the kitchen, we learned how to make pan-fried chicken and biscuits with gravy at Charleston Cooks!, also putting together fried okra and succotash on the side. 

I impressed even myself when eating pan-fried chicken livers, grilled meatloaf, and macaroni and cheese at Magnolia’s, after having wolfed down my fair share of freshly made potato chips with melted tangy blue cheese.

And how could we forget the fried green tomato BLT at Hominy Grill?  Crispy, perfectly battered and fried green tomatoes paired with smoky bacon, sandwiched between the halves of a fluffy hamburger bun, did not disappoint. Some other highlights were the pimento cheese and pickled hard-boiled eggs, followed by creamy shrimp n’ grits with bacon. All of this paired with a refreshing sweet tea vodka Arnold Palmer. And then we devoured the chocolate pudding, which was more like a cup of chocolate ganache than any pudding I’ve ever had.

Fried chicken?  When in Charleston, most definitely, “yes, please.”  Take me back to Virginia’s on King. This is what fried chicken is supposed to be. We might have some great places up here in New York, but you can’t beat locals at their own game. After ordering two orders for brunch, I couldn’t help but stare longingly at every order that came out of the kitchen, each one more enticing than the last. After what felt like an eternity, our plates arrived. The chicken was perfectly fried, with a crisp exterior surrounding perfectly seasoned juicy meat. With braised collards and mashed potatoes on the side, the budding Southerner deep within my Yankee soul was satisfied fully.

On the plane ride back, I closed my eyes and sat back in my seat, fully relaxed and with only one thought in my head: Charleston is a heck of a food town.