On the shelf in my childhood kitchen, my mother had a cookbook, published by the local Junior League, called Some Like It South. I took it as a point of pride.
"Some" referred to me. I like it South. But in 2014's culinary world, what does that even mean? Does a chicken biscuit consumed in Haight-Ashbury qualify as "Southern"? What about a bed of Anson Mills grits accompanying a pork chop in a fine dining Brooklyn restaurant? Or on a more local scale, does a Vietnamese-style curry, prepared with produce grown on Wadmalaw Island and served in downtown Charleston, qualify in any way as "Southern"?
"Southern food is several things, but like all foods, there has to be a certain amount of place to it," says Louis Osteen, who opened Louis's Charleston Grill in 1989 and soon became a national mouthpiece for the gospel of Southern cuisine. By his thinking (never mind that he once opened a restaurant in Las Vegas), a Southern restaurant in New York is simply not authentic.
"There's no way it can be," he says. "It's more like 'Southern style.'"
"Place" can mean a lot of things: ingredients grown or harvested in the South, a dish with local roots, or simply the style in which something is prepared and served. Perhaps most importantly, it's tradition — a reflection of what people have been eating in a region for generations.
While Charleston's restaurant scene has grown, places that were once avant-garde purveyors of Southern fare (Hominy Grill, Slightly North of Broad) have become the old guard, keeping tradition alive. As revolutionary as Husk felt when it opened, with a daily-changing, all-South ingredient list scrawled across the wall, it's an approach that's quickly become common at neighborhood restaurants from James Island to Belle Hall. Teriyaki pig ears wrapped in Bibb lettuce have already become "traditional."
In the mid-1990s, the idea of serving grits, biscuits, or fried green tomatoes at an upscale restaurant had not gained acceptance in Charleston. Diners generally felt that a meal like tomato pie or fried chicken had its place at their grandmother's table, but not at a Saturday night out on the town.
"When people went out for a nice meal, they wanted pasta with vodka sauce — something kind of different than what they would make at home," recalls Robert Stehling, who opened Hominy Grill in 1996. "Now those diners are more comfortable being who they are. People today will plunk down good money for food served on paper plates or on a stick."
S.N.O.B.'s Frank Lee concurs: "In 1999, we were still coming off the coattails of 'fine dining has to be French or Italian,' but we were doing things like putting collard greens and field peas and grits and ham hocks on the menus of white table cloth restaurants. Along with Frank Stitt in Birmingham and Ben Barker in Durham, we were using the French technique to apply to Southern culture."
Lee recalls a ritzy mid-'90s event he catered with Osteen in Washington, D.C., as a turning point. "I did some elaborate dish that took me days to prepare. Louis did biscuits with barbecue in them and people went berserk and thought it was the greatest thing they'd ever seen."
Stehling credits Magnolia's as one of the first local restaurants to turn the tide, bringing Southern cuisine to the world of fine dining, specifically citing an egg roll with collard greens that pushed the boundaries of Southern food (and ultimately graced the cover of chef Donald Barickman's 2006 cookbook, Authentic Southern Cuisine). Even Hominy Grill had items like crab-fried rice on its early menus, next to comfort level-checking dishes like liver pudding and chicken gizzards.
"At that point, I don't think that people looked at Hominy as a fine-dining restaurant," Stehling concedes. "It took awhile for us to be seen as higher end."
A 2008 James Beard award for Best Chef: Southeast didn't hurt Stehling's cause, and now diners from around the country happily line up for helpings of sausage gravy-doused biscuits and fried chicken.
With popularity, however, comes pressure to stick to convention. Stehling admits that he's less likely to put a dish like fried rice on the menu today, given that Charleston now has its own gourmet Asian restaurants.
"There's less of a need to bring that in," he explains. "Now it's hard to change anything on the menu. I'm perfectly comfortable with what I'm doing — it's the right thing to be doing in the right place, so I don't have a problem with that."
Stehling continues, "Cooking has changed so much since I opened Hominy, and it's hard not to get sucked into what's happening and what's new. I'm interested in that, but I don't feel a need to put it on my menu. Most of the dishes here have proven themselves and have a very long pedigree that's rooted in the culture of this area. I love that, and it feels so good to do it."
Hominy Grill arguably serves more shrimp and grits than anywhere else in town (about 90 plates a day, Stehling estimates), and for good reason. If anyone — local or once-a-year visitor — arrived dreaming of bacon, mushrooms, and green onions with perfectly seared shrimp, only to discover that the dish had been removed or altered in any way, Hominy Grill's Yelp page would fall into full-on riot mode.
Such is the manner of firmly rooted Southern culture. When something works well, we don't want to see it change.
When New York bit into Southern food in the mid-2000s, with the launch of restaurants like Peels in Manhattan and Egg in Brooklyn — places that took an upscale approach to grits, deviled eggs, and pulled pork — Southern onlookers had to wonder if Yankee interest in their cuisine would stick around or eventually fizzle out.
Peels has since closed, but Egg and many others thrive. When a big sports game is on, every location of Brother Jimmy's BBQ in Manhattan — with University of North Carolina paraphernalia strewn across walls — fills to the seams. Of course, that's partially due to the huge number of transplants in New York.
In 2011, Egg owner George Weld predicted that opening a Southern food restaurant in New York would eventually be like opening an Italian spot (i.e. not big news). The market for country ham biscuits and sweet tea is certainly not drying up, because people will always want a taste of home. And when home is delicious, outsiders want to taste it, too.
So what does that mean for Charleston? For now, stalwarts like Martha Lou's Kitchen and Bertha's Kitchen stick with well-worn Southern soul food, without any adaptations or concessions to modern times. Likewise, it's up to purveyors like Stehling and Lee to keep tradition alive, even after they helped carry those traditions to a full-service, sit-down dining room nearly two decades ago.
"There's a clear mission statement (at Hominy Grill) with clear 'do's' and 'don'ts'," says Stehling, recalling how when he opened he was determined not to serve the same shrimp and grits recipe as his previous employer, Crook's Corner in Chapel Hill. "For three years, I tried different versions, which were all good, but I kept coming back to one I knew. It hits the right note."
Today, the continued demand for Stehling's shrimp and grits is a testament to that.
"You can brush the trends onto Southern food, and it's great that young chefs are so interested in exploring all the facets of it, but in the long run, here we are," says Stehling. "The food industry fetishizes it all so quickly. Thirty years ago it was pork chops and fried chicken, and now it's bourbon and pickled pigs feet and smoked pimento cheese."
At S.N.O.B., Lee bucks expectations by not marketing himself as a Southern-centric chef. "I don't want to be known as a Southern restaurant," he claims. "I want to be known as a really good restaurant that uses Southern ingredients."
It's impossible not to get hungry talking to Robert Stehling on the phone, as phrases like "smoked pimento cheese" roll off his tongue in regular conversation. And whether styles evolve or hold steady, a quieter revolution is happening behind the bowls of butter beans and pickled okra at tables across Charleston.
In 1999, restaurant culture was still deeply entrenched in the era of one-stop shopping, a model that persists at corporate chain restaurants where a single delivery truck brings everything needed to fill the menu. The tomatoes in a tomato pie might have been born in California or Brazil, before finding their way into a 'Southern' dish.
Today, it's far more likely that our favorite Southern foods — at least those served in restaurants making the effort to source locally — are truly Southern in origin.
"The menus haven't changed very much, but we have a lot more available to us in local animal husbandry and produce farmers," says Lee. "Oddly enough, it's the wild caught seafood that's getting harder and harder to get."
Osteen's "place" reference includes the indigenous food supply — fish, shellfish, and local vegetables, in the Lowcountry's case.
"These ingredients make up the basis of our Southern food, and it's a different set of things where I grew up in Anderson (in upstate S.C.)," Osteen explains. "The piedmont has different crops, different seasons, and different mindsets, but collectively it's all essentially food from the South."
Osteen offers she-crab soup as an example of an indigenous Southern food born in Charleston, yet points out that everything has its roots elsewhere (the dish was derived from a traditional English cream soup, including the sherry, but flavored with local crabs).
Likewise, local restaurant publicist and former Charleston Food + Wine Festival executive director Angel Postell counts places like Bowen's Island among the most authentic Southern establishments in town.
"You're right there on the water, and you can see where your meal comes from," says Postell. "It's not meat-and-three, but seafood is so much a part of our Southern cuisine."
Somewhere within the national hype around Southern food, a line began to divide "seafood" and "Southern cuisine," where the latter referred to country fried steak, mayonnaise, and corn bread. In an informal Facebook survey of over 100 people (most from Charleston) asked to offer their first thoughts when they heard 'Southern food,' answers ranged from 'butter' to 'fried' to 'chicken bog,' but not one person offered up 'shrimp' or 'oysters.' Further evidence of a shift to pan-Southern cuisine.
Yet, what meal in Charleston is more authentically Southern than a bushel of oysters fresh from the creek or a handful of shrimp bought off the dock at Crosby's on Folly Road? But if the menu at a Shem Creek restaurant looks the same as a dish at Bowen's Island, yet it utilizes Asian shrimp, does it then cease to be Southern?
If a local oyster finds its way into an oyster pie at Thanksgiving dinner, no one would argue the dish's distinct Southern appeal. But if the same bivalves find their way onto a plate at Xiao Bao Biscuit, is the dish in any way Southern?
These are questions with evolving answers, as Charleston's restaurant scene enters a new era of inclusive internationalism. As that appetizing evolution occurs, we may also be reminded of the value of the restaurants that hold steady and true to tradition. Charleston diners are spoiled by the constant stream of new restaurants opening, and it's easy to take for granted the stalwarts who tirelessly keep the traditions alive that put us on the food map in the first place.
Up in Pawley's Island, Louis Osteen currently spends his days making and selling his signature pimento cheese at the farmers market, which he considers the most iconic Southern food. When he describes its place in our culture, he might as well be describing the entire echelon of Southern staples.
"It's going to be there when you born and it's going to be there when you die," he proclaims. "Somebody will bring it to your house when you're born, and somebody will bring it to your funeral. It'll be there when you finish high school, it's going to be there when you have kids, it's going to be there every celebration day."
In introducing her 2012 book, Mastering the Art of Southern Cooking, Charleston-based chef and author Nathalie Dupree states simply, "Southern cooking is the Mother Cuisine of America."
For Lee, he argues that the stories behind Southern foods are what's spawned the local food movement across the country, as other regions realize that their food traditions are worth preserving, as well.
"The South has a leg up on most of the nation, because we actually have a personality," says Lee. "The South isn't a trend, and this isn't going away."