Friday, November 16, 2012

The Charleston Chew

“A rolling stone gathers no moss. And gets to eat their way across the country.” That is a very famous quote, you guys. Word for word. And brother, have I been rolling. A couple of months ago I packed my car with snacks and underwear and set out upon the Great American Road Trip. The plan? Coast to Coast, Bite by Bite.

I Googled directions, and immediately made them irrelevant by dragging that “suggested” blue line up and down, based on where I wanted to eat. Google Maps was honest with me about how much time I would be adding to the trip by insisting upon going to Phoenix. Pipe down, Google Maps! I have been lusting after the Arizona pistachio pizza at Pizzeria Bianco for years, you can’t keep me from it! It would be equally ineffective, Google Maps, to try to keep me from adding fennel sausage on top, even though that added an estimated 6 minutes to the 8 day trip.

Google Maps, you resisted when I pulled that blue line down to go through Kerrville, Texas. But if I had listened to you, I would have missed a classic Texas small town square, and the puffy, sweet-dough kolaches that were the ultimate road food. In fact, I would have missed that sweet lady’s attempt to introduce me personally to the Lord, as I sat in my parked car outside the kolache joint eating the sausage-filled one that had been meant as a snack for later. “Later” meant 120 seconds later, apparently. 

She was so very nice, and when I handed her the card for my blog, she explained that our meeting was even more fortuitous than I thought, since she would be getting her first computer in a few days.

When my bank misses a decimal point and suddenly I have a gratuitous amount of unexplainable money, I will be going to Kerrville, Texas, and buying everyone a computer. And a round of sausage cheese kolaches. An old favorite and the new world, united right there on the steps of a small town southern courthouse.

Several orders of Texas Toast, many sweet teas, a flat tire in Louisiana, and a character-buildingly dicey Alabama hotel room later, I hit the East Coast hard. My first three thoughts were as follows:

I am not getting in my car for one week.

I can’t believe I had to return that John Grisham book-on-tape to Cracker Barrel before I heard the last 2 chapters.

I hope they have food trucks here.

Would I find the kind of innovative, layered, on-the fly mobile food culture here, that I had become addicted to in Los Angeles? Belly up amigos, as I present to you: CHARLESTON, South Carolina.

On a sticky-sweet southern heat day, I found my hungry heart’s salvation in the cool shadow of a Charleston Piggly Wiggly.

Though I tried to manage expectations, my hopes got high right away. I had done my research by then, and I knew I had some great options in front of me. Assembled before me was a biopsy of the Lowcountry cuisine that Charleston is famous for, and rightly so.

“Ok, this is a time for careful strategy and planning, not impulse.” I said to my mother, wrongly assuming she was still standing beside me, and not in line at the Auto-Bahn truck ordering shrimp spring rolls with peanut sauce.


A word on Charleston shrimp. Lowcountry shrimp is to that frozen grocery store shrimp ring that people seem to gravitate to around New Year’s Eve, as a scoop of whole grain Dijon mustard is to that disgusting stream of mustard water that shows up from a primary color generic bottle of “French” sandwich topping. No comparison.

Lowcountry shrimp tastes sweet and pure and marine, with a proper snap and chew, and not an ice crystal in sight. And when snuggled into a sheer stocking of wonton wrapper with crunchy vegetable bits and pieces, it is a locally sourced tastebud present.

Shrimp is delicious, and peanut sauce infinitely dippable, but I was in for the caloric long-haul. I had come thousands of miles for this, I wanted something I could only get here, a guilty pleasure composed of all of the salty buttered regional specialties that my yoga pants would raise an eyebrow at.

Give me a break, Yoga Pants! I’ll be good tomorrow. Plus you know what happens to He Who Guilt Trips Me…Google Maps can tell you allllll about that.

I gave my mouth the gift of THIS:

Actually, the Outta My Huevos truck gave it to me. A buttermilk biscuit, fitted with a sheet of Finchville Farms country ham, pimento cheese, and a side of Anson Mills grits with 3 year cheddar.

Days and ways in which eating this would be appropriate:
for breakfast before a day of building something with your hands; for dinner on a day that went completely totally wrong, or completely totally right; hungover weekend mornings after sleeping late; for lunch on a day which feels like it should be Friday, but is not. Also, if for any other reason not listed above, someone sets this in front of you DO IT. Crumbly tender biscuit, saline robust ham, and a melting mouthful of pimento cheese, the creamy culprit that pushes the whole thing into a new dimension of wonderful.

Anson Mills grits are always excellent, but the very sharp cheddar grated in cold shavings on the bottom and top, sandwiched them with the authentic flavor that cannot be gained by the addition of salt or sugar, but only by time and patience.

But what of the sweet tooth that haunts my days and repeatedly forces me into near-criminal acts of midnight snackery? The sweet tooth that has seen me give in to a heavy slab of glassined gas station lemon loaf, and administer a spoonful of maple syrup to myself as though it were medicine, what of that?

Diggity Doughnuts was there in my time of need. In a bright jewel of a cheery truck, these angels were making life rafts, cakey innertubes of organic satisfaction, frosted and glazed with unique flavors like chili cilantro, and topped with blueberries, or spicy sprinkles, or lemon.

For me, it was the Cookie Mintster and the Sin-Amen. Cookie Minster came dressed in a chocolate glaze and crushed cookies and studded with bright refreshing mint leaves. Sin-Amen let the egg and dairy-free doughnut be its naturally lovable self, but powder-puffed with sugar and Saigon Cinnamon before hitting the stage. The Diggity Doughnuts truck makes the case that organic really does taste better. You are tasting ingredients, not process or additive.

Rome was not built in a day, and Charleston cannot be eaten in a day. I have only begun this journey, and I am looking very forward to the rest of it. In fact, I must say that the food truck scene in Charleston, South Carolina rivals that of Los Angeles. I do not intend to start some sort of hip-hop food truck East Coast-West Coast rivalry here, because they are both very different and war is not the answer.

“Give me local shrimp and organic vegan doughnuts, or give me death.”

Famous quote, you guys. Word for word.


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