East of the Cooper River, north of town, there are two venerable restaurants doing business in strip malls. But don’t let the plain exteriors fool you. Alain Saley’s flounder in brown butter sauce has been dazzling Charlestonians since his first restaurant opened downtown, 20 years ago, and he’s still doing it right at Coco’s Café, in Mount Pleasant. No one in town cooks fish better, or more simply, than Patti and Buddy Thomas, of the Long Island Café, on the Isle of Palms (Long Island is its original name). And Patti’s bread pudding is one of the Lowcountry’s most delicious desserts.
But if you want to eat like a true sandlapper (as South Carolinians are called), you’ll have to cook like one. The best way to do that is to rent a beach house, as I do each year; gather ingredients at the farmers markets, roadside stands, and fishmongers; and cook up some of our great shrimp and crabs, our oysters and greens, our tomatoes and sweet potatoes yourself.
Leeward to the barrier islands are docks where shrimpers and fishermen sell their catch. For 20 years I’ve done business with the Crosbys, who, in addition to their wholesale seafood business, run Crosby’s Fish & Shrimp from their dock off Folly Beach. They also own Crosby’s Seafood, a market on the Ashley River that’s open seven days a week . Both sell stone-ground grits and an assortment of locally produced foods such as she-crab soup, chowchow, piccalilli (green tomato relish), and pickled okra.
The Lowcountry shrimp season runs from spring through fall, but Eddie Corley, of Southern Shrimp, drives to Georgia and Florida once a week throughout the year to buy fresh, heads-on shrimp right off the docks. He sells the shrimp from his travel trailer out on U.S. Highway 17 about 15 miles south of Charleston. Sandlappers use the heads to make a stock that is the basis of soups, pilafs, gumbos, and the sauce served with shrimp and grits.
The Saturday morning Charleston Farmers Market provides a haven for a dozen or so vendors, such as Celeste and George Albers, whom I consider vital to the preservation of Lowcountry foodways. They sell eggs, beets, potatoes, greens, ground-corn products, and shrimp in season. Dan and Karen Kennerty, of Kennerty Farms, sell peppers, eggplants, and greens. Pete and Caroline Madsen, of Pete’s Herbs, offer potted plants and herbs that they grow on their farm on John’s Island.
At Fields’ Farms , Robert and Joseph Fields, their sister Juanita Fields Pinckney, and her husband, Alonzo Pinckney, have melons and corn, green peanuts for boiling, scuppernongs and muscadines (the area’s native American grapes), onions and squash. I often buy tomatoes from Juanita, who has cooked for 12 years at another brother’s corner store, Doug’s Seafood, in the still-thriving Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Dis trict, west of Upper King Street, and who sets up a farm stand on James Island on Saturdays. Robert sells on Folly Beach, and another sister, Anna White, sells on River Road on John’s Island. Doug’s is my source for live crabs. On Mondays, Juanita stuffs the crab shells with her deviled crab mixture, and freezes the individual crabs for sale. Tuesday through Friday, she fries fish and sells take-out plates with shrimp fried rice. One of my typical summertime meals at home might consist of a couple of Juanita’s deviled crabs, some of Robert’s okra lightly steamed, and a good serving of Joseph’s black-eyed peas over rice with a side of local Kieffer pear relish. For dessert I go to Wali’s Fish Supreme, down the street from Doug’s, for one of their bean pies, a favorite among Charleston Muslims. Ms. Wali also offers fried chicken and fish and Lowcountry standards red rice, hoppin’ John, and chicken pilaf—dine-in or take-out.
Paul Cercone, at Normandy Farm Artisan Bakery, in the Historic District, makes the greatest breads—crusty, European-style loaves made with slow-rising yeast doughs. At Ambrosia, west of the Ashley River, Wade Sexton’s layer cakes jammed with seasonal fruit are legendary. And the Olde Colony Bakery produced Charleston’s famous benne (sesame seed) wafers for 50 years on King Street, and moved two years ago to a larger space in Mount Pleasant. Owners Peter and Sheila Rix produce more than 500 pounds of the crisp cookies each day.
At The Vegetable Bin, on the eastern edge of the peninsula, beside the docks, Cary Toole stocks Lowcountry ingredients you can’t find anywhere else: young South Carolina chickens for frying, smoked and salted herring, sugarcane, souse and hogshead cheese, crowder peas and sieva beans, smoked ham hocks and “butt’s meat” (hog jowl), and “soup bunches.” I add these bundles of mixed greens, turnip roots, potatoes, carrots, onion, celery, and herbs to a beef shank to make a classic Lowcountry vegetable soup.
A few small grocers have endured; the most well known is Burbage’s Self Service Grocery, north of the tony South of Broad addresses. Two generations of the family have worked in the shop, which offers custom butchering and homemade soups—okra, split pea, squash, potato, black bean, and chicken with rice—among the staples. Big Al Burbage’s pimiento cheese (a spread of grated sharp Cheddar, roasted peppers, and mayonnaise) is redolent of the requisite hint of onion. He also sells some of the tastiest locally made food products, such as Normandy’s bread and goat cheese from Split Creek Farm, in the up-country.
Whether I’m dining out or at home on Friday night, I like to drop by Debbie Marlowe’s Wine Shop, at the City Marina (or her newer Wine Shop, in Mount Pleasant), for her casual wine tastings. In the 15 years that I’ve known Debbie, she’s never once steered me wrong on a wine. Charleston has been one of the country’s most important ports for more than 300 years, and its love affair with wine is one thing that hasn’t changed a bit. I can’t think of a better reason to live here.