After spending three days in both Atlanta and then Asheville, North Carolina, the third stop on our tour of the Southeast late last Spring had us taking in the Southern charm and pervasive historic flavor of Charleston. The city, which played a key role in both the Revolutionary and Civil Wars was founded in 1670 – oldest in South Carolina and now is the fastest growing in the state.
The venerable Fort Sumter, scene of the opening shots of the Civil War on April 12, 1861, still guards the entrance to Charleston Harbor, and the National Park Service sponsored boat ride out and tour was a highlight.
The next four years, in spite of Union artillery attacks including one ten-day continuous bombardment, it stayed in Confederate hands until General Sherman’s march forced its evacuation. The Union flag was raised again in 1865.
(Note – in July 2015)
“The U.S. National Park Service ordered all flags except the U.S. flag to be taken down at the Fort Sumter National Monument in Charleston Harbor. The banners that were removed are not the traditional Confederate flag that’s most typically displayed by individuals…….
Instead, the flags taken down were the less frequently seen national banners of the Confederacy.” (USA Today 7/29/15)
Charleston is a city of tourism and commerce – its port is part of the fourth largest container seaport on the East Coast. Charming historic houses surrounding beautiful Waterfront Park overlook Charleston Harbor and offer views of Fort Sumter and the Ravenel Bridge. And an outstanding array of restaurants, bars and museums and the open-air Charleston Market reflect the current role of tourism on the city’s economy.
We signed up for a Free Tours by Foot – strongly recommended and repeated with equally good results in Savannah – our next stop. The 90-minute tours, facilitated by young guides with encyclopedic knowledge of the history and culture of the cities are well worth the tip at the conclusion.
We learned that South Carolina was the first Confederate state to secede – leading the South in defense of the rights of slaveholders and was quickly followed within six weeks by five other states.
And the role of religion in Charleston – labeled by some as “The Holy City” – is apparent by the number of churches still thriving. We attended church at the First (Scots) Presbyterian Church, founded in 1731.
While the charm of the South is evident throughout the city, the lingering effects of the conflict at the root of the War Between the States still lingers – we felt it in Charleston and later in Savannah.
The museums and tour guides do a good job addressing the terrible treatment of Black people during the Civil War era. Current events such as the controversy over the Confederate flag and the July 17, 2015 murder of nine citizens at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church – the oldest church of that denomination in the South, only eleven weeks after we attended First Scots Presbyterian Church on April 26th – attest to the reality of deep and lingering racial and cultural issues. No words can capture the tragedy of that event.
Charleston Museum – founded in 1773 and commonly regarded as “America’s First Museum” was a compelling exhibition, capturing the record of slavery and the War’s terrible toll. The visits were an emotional perience.
Perhaps this quote by President Woodrow Wilson – a man who cherished his own southern roots, best captures the sentiment:
“I yield to no one precedence in love for the South, but because I love the South, I rejoice in the failure of the Confederacy. We cannot conceal from ourselves the fact that slavery was enervating our Southern society and exhausting Southern society.”
The call of Southern fried chicken beckoned and we dined our first night at the Hominy Grill, where our waitress, KJ, was the epitome of Southern charm. Their James Beard Award-winning chef lived up to his reputation with my fried chicken and the others in our party feasted on shrimp and grits and she-crab soup.
The historic Blind Tiger Pub was a great place for a night cap. This pub, “built in 1803, is a safe bet when you’re in the mood to enjoy a cold beer in a cozy indoor tavern atmosphere or hidden garden courtyard patio.
The Blind Tiger’s shady brick courtyard has ties to certain illegal operations and Prohibition era secrecy at the turn of the century.” (www.10best.com Charleston Travel Guide)
After visiting Fort Sumter the next day, we toured the open-air Charleston Market and then met friends from Oregon who were also in Charleston at the South End Brewery and Smokehouse – in another historic Charleston building
“A three-story atrium houses large copper and stainless steel brew tanks in which we brew eight craft beers…….The building has a long, interesting history since 1880 that continues on. Southend Brewery has a haunted past, featured on many local ghost tours as one of Charleston’s most haunted places.” (Southend Brewery website)
Still not having my fill of southern fried chicken, I imbibed again that night at the Low Country Bistro – although this time I had waffles with my chicken dinner – the best of the trip especially when you consider that the entrée was garnished with a big slab of pecan (“pacaan” the first “a” is long) butter.
And Sam, our waiter, also earned accolades by recommending a White Thai Beer from Westbrook Brewing in Mt. Pleasant South Carolina:
“Instead of the traditional coriander and orange peel spicing regimen, we add fresh lemongrass, ginger root, and a dash of Sorachi Ace hops. The result is a wonderfully refreshing ale with notes of lemon candy, citrus fruit, and a slight spiciness from the ginger.” (Westbrook Brewing website)
Waffles – Permit me to jump ahead to our last day on the trip because the culinary topic above is a great segue to a Southern (and for that matter East Coast) institution – Waffle Houses!
On the early morning drive from Savannah (see my next post) to Atlanta International, we decided we were both hungry and had to have at least one Waffle House experience – that being along the freeway in Metter, Georgia – a city of around 4,100 residents just off I-16 and sixty-three miles from Savannah. It’s the county seat of Candler County…..
The Waffle House chain was started in 1955 and now comprises more than 2,100 restaurants – it served its one billionth waffle on September 8, 2015 in Atlanta. (Unfortunately, the closest one to Portland is in Colorado.) Having made a regular routine of biscuits and gravy with irregular exercise during the twelve-day trip, I chose one of the traditional options off the “Breakfast Favorites” menu as did the others.
And our waitress, a young woman of about 20 from Metter, named Wanda Mae, made us realize why we would miss the almost uniform friendliness and charm we experienced in our interaction with Southerners we met.
As background, Beerchaser Spouse, Janet, is a confirmed Starbucks Latte drinker. At stops like this, she usually takes sips out of my mug, which she did and the following dialogue ensued:
Janet: “That coffee is really good and strong, Wanda Mae. I think I will also have a cup.”
Wanda Mae: “Well, my mamma always said that it’s not coffee unless it’s strong enough to crawl down your throat!”
We (Jeff and Susan Nopper, our companions) ate at many wonderful bistros in the South, but our breakfast at the WH was memorable. The menu stated that waffles were only 410 calories – considerably less than our standard of biscuits and gravy during the trip, so Jeff and I attacked our waffles, eggs (over easy) and hash browns with the fervor of a an SEC middle linebacker blitzing a Big Twelve quarterback.
The Waffle House experience came at the time that Hillary Clinton was being excoriated in her campaign for waffling and Mike Huckabee was promoting his book on Southern living – God, Guns, Grits and Gravy and that culinary integration with politics was about the extent of our conversation on the affairs of state on this trip.
Back to Charleston: We visited a few other restaurants and bars in Charleston which because of space constraints, are described very briefly below:
The Gin Joint – we just popped into this place because it looked interesting and had a great sign – affirmed by various reviews including these excerpts from Charleston Magazine:
“…..can now be called the original vestige of numerous Charleston establishments dedicated to the far-reaching influence of cocktail culture and its potential longevity as a culinary trend.” (2/14)
Trip Advisor 1/28/15 – “They make the best crafted cocktails in South Carolina. Best drink menu in SC guides you to ‘choose your own adventure in a cocktail. Visitors choose their favorite adjectives from a list, and the bartenders work their magic. Go for it!”
The Charleston Beer Exchange – It seems appropriate to end this post with a something positive about beer and this establishment – in another historic Charleston building, has been around for seven-one half years. It draws rave reviews for its 900-1,000 different brews in stock and its creativity in sponsoring tastings and other events.
“You cannot overstate the importance of the owners of this place to the awesome Charleston beer culture. Charleston was a beer wasteland before CBX and Coast brewing changed everything. This place is not only the best beer store in “Chucktown”, they are also a part of Charleston history.” Trip Advisor – 5/5/15
And of course, how can we ignore the excerpt from the review below by a transplanted Portlander:
As we’ve recently relocated to Charleston from Beervana (that is, Portland, Oregon), we needed a great source for our growler habit. We patronize many of the local breweries, but this is our go-to source for beer from outside Charleston (they also have Charleston beers at competitive prices) Trip Advisor – 2/25/15
Charleston was a wonderful stop on the trip, however, my favorite city was across a state line, but only a little over 100 miles south by I-95 – Savannah.