It's the end of the year, and that means it's time for a look backward and to offer some lofty prognostications of what the upcoming year has in store. When I look ahead to 2013, I immediately wonder about the future of Southern food in general and of Charleston dining in particular. There are dark clouds in the crystal ball for both.
I know this may seem out of left field, because so far Southern food has shown no signs of flagging. Pappy Van Winkle is more in demand than ever, with bottles fetching $250 a piece in Manhattan liquor stores and Eater publishing a map of restaurants and bars across America where Pappy-mad bourbon lovers can find a glass or two. Tickets for the Southern Foodways Alliance symposium sold out in less than 15 minutes after they went on sale, and the attendees included a significant contingent of New York media folks from titles like Bon Appetit, GQ, and Saveur.
Charleston continues to burn bright as the leading food city in the New Southern renaissance. One new culinary palace after another opened on upper King Street over the past 18 months, generating plenty of ink from the national food press. The Charleston Wine + Food Festival is bigger than ever before. Angel Postell, the festival's executive director, reports that they sold $100,000 more in tickets for the 2013 launch weekend than they did last year, and they had to add an additional night of "perfectly paired" dinners (dine-arounds at various local restaurants) just to meet the demand.
Sean Brock's celebrity rocket had plenty of fuel left in 2012, too. He appeared on TV, in magazines, and at special events as far afield as Brazil and Japan. When Magnus Nilsson, the Swedish wunderkind chef, came to town in November to cook a special dinner at McCrady's, it was both a stunning meal and a symbolic meeting of the two hottest culinary trends: the minimalist New Nordic cuisine, epitomized by Rene Redzepi's Noma and Nilsson's own Faviken, intersecting with Brock's New Southern/Lardcore style.
But here's the question: can Charleston continue to hold this position at the forefront of Southern dining? I sense that the center of gravity is shifting, and I predict that 2013 will witness the rise of Nashville, Tenn., as the South's premier culinary city.
Nashville has a lot working in its favor. Like Charleston, it has a unique character and civic identity, anchored by its history as the home of country music. It has rich local food traditions to draw on, too, like Tennessee country ham and bacon, as well as classic low-end restaurants like Prince's Hot Chicken Shack and Arnold's Country Kitchen.
Nashville has something else going for it that Charleston can't touch: celebrity power. Sure, we've got our Stephen Colbert and Bill Murray, but that hardly approaches Nashville's parade of country music superstars and, increasingly, non-countrified stars like Jack White, Sheryl Crow, and Nicole Kidman.
Nashville's rise has some definite links to Charleston's dining scene, and some of its most acclaimed restaurants are advancing the very pan-Southern cuisine that Charleston helped invent. Charleston Gold rice and Capers Blade oysters pop up regularly on Nashville menus. Tandy Wilson at City House cures his own meats and blasts chickens and veggies in a 750-degree wood-fired oven. Tyler Brown at the Capitol Grille has been growing his own heirloom produce for several years, and the restaurant has just bought a farm outside of town where they will grow corn and raise their own beef. Sound familiar, Mr. Brock?
For years Charleston has been attracting noted chefs from far-off cities like Houston and Washington, D.C. Nashville is starting to attract that kind of talent now, too. Its gravity is even drawing luminaries from Charleston. At the beginning of 2012, Nashville snagged former Charleston Grill executive chef Bob Waggoner, who now splits his time between the Lowcountry and Nashville, cooking at Watermark two weeks a month. This fall, the Neighborhood Dining Group announced to much media fanfare that they would be opening a Nashville version of Husk, and Sean Brock will be shuttling back and forth between South Carolina and Tennessee, too.
Stylistically, Nashville's cooking is not radically different from Charleston's — a mix of European-inspired modernist cuisine with the New Southern locavore thing. Sure, there's a bit more emphasis on mountain trout and country ham, but it's more a shift in attention, not culinary tastes, that's driving the trend.
Countless food journalists and culinary tourists have made multiple visits to the Holy City, and they need new vistas. The Music City is a promising change of venue. Style has a lot to do with it, too. Nashville's down-home image is right in line with the country's mood at large: honky tonks, PBR, country crooners, and cowboy boots. In its most recent issue, The Local Palate (which, perhaps not coincidentally, started as a Charleston-centric publication but has since expanded its scope to the South as a whole) described Nashville as, "one part good people, one part great food, finished with a dash of honky-tonk for that added burst of flavor." That's a combination that's sure to sell in 2013.
Charleston's image has always had a touch of old elegance and, let's be honest, a little elite snootiness, too — the sophisticated yet casual style of inherited wealth and the troubling echoes of the plantation era. Nashville doesn't have any of that baggage. Instead, they've got the legacy of the Grand Ole Opry, Loretta Lynn, and Johnny Cash. They've got young chefs with disorderly beards or bushy handlebar mustaches and those mesh-netted ballcaps straight out of B.J. and the Bear. At the City House, the cocktails are named after the staff's dogs.
You can almost feel in this whole movement a desperate craving for salt-of-the-earth authenticity: drinking cheap American beer in cans, growing your own corn, stripping away the formal trappings and focusing on elemental food. (All the formal trappings, that is, except the prices, for you'll still pay 22 bucks for your fried catfish and close to 40 for a "duo of lamb.")
I predict this down-to-earth, no-frills aesthetic will play well in 2013, as formality continues to wane in the culture at large and we slouch toward Gomorrah in cheap trucker hats and complicated facial hair.
If it does manage to steal the mantle away from Charleston, though, the odds are good that the Music City will serve as the last capital of the New Southern culinary era. By definition, the fashion must wane at some point as diners shift their attention to the next new thing. What are the sure signs of a trend cooling? One has to be that people start writing newspaper pieces wondering whether the trend is cooling. (Don't blame me: if I didn't do it, someone else would!)
Southern food is by no means dead. Chicago just got the Carriage House, a Lowcountry-themed restaurant whose chef, Mark Steuer, hails from Charleston and is an alum of the old Brett's on James Island. The coverage from the local ABC affiliate highlights the newness of the trend: "With Southern cuisine more popular than ever around the country these days, it hasn't fully penetrated Chicago just yet."
If Southern food is just getting started in the Windy City, it hasn't come anywhere close to Lincoln, Neb. Yet.
But, at some point — and I suspect that point isn't far off — it will cease to be at the leading edge and will become more mainstream, and then it will eventually become passe. Pimento cheese, Pappy Van Winkle, shrimp and grits, country ham, sorghum, strange parts of the pig: at some point, Yankees are going to get fatigued with it all and start seeking out something different.
Perhaps we saw a touch of this when Alan Richman gave Husk the finger in GQ, arguing that a great restaurant "isn't about what comes in the back door; it's about what goes out the kitchen door." He won't be the last. When those beatniks in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, realize that the folks in Nebraska are baking Benton's bacon into their iron-skillet cornbread, it'll be time for something new. No one wants to be mistaken for a Nebraskan.
And that brings us back to Charleston. I'm certainly not hoping this is going to happen anytime soon, but one must wonder about the possible after-effects if the fires of fashion — both for Southern cooking in general and for the Lowcountry's specific version of it — begin to cool. We've had a lot of big-ticket restaurants open their doors in the past two years, and still more are on the way. If the fire slacks off just a bit — say five percent — what will that do to the restaurant scene?
I don't foresee a dire calamity, but I do predict that a number of players — both established and new — are going to have a rough time of it in the coming year, and I bet that will lead to a lot of soul searching and wondering, "what's next?"
In fact, I think we're already seeing one counter-reaction to the "lardcore" trend right here in Charleston, and it takes the form of nostalgia for a lost era of style and class. The kitchen at Stars, Nathan Thurston's new King Street venture, is dominated by a big wood-fired grill, and that's a hallmark of the full-on New Southern lardcore era. But from its stylish Art Deco sign to the "1930s Grill Room," the decor at Stars is a throwback to an older mode of dining. The Ordinary, the much-awaited new venture from Mike Lata and Adam Nemirov of FIG fame, is predicated on recreating the classic oyster bar with today's "terroir" sensibility. The Alley is reviving the almost-lost tradition of the bowling alley, complete with a retro video game arcade and, of course, "reimagined" snack food.
I think we're going to see a lot more of this kind of thing over the upcoming year, with chefs and restaurateurs reaching back somewhere into the past — specifically into that era between the 1920s and the pre-hippie 1960s — and starting to "reimagine" the concepts, much like they have in the cocktail realm.
Will Charleston and Southern food prove me wrong and continue to rocket ever higher in 2013? I certainly hope so. But I'm not about to plunk down any money on the proposition.