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There will come a day, many years from now, when I'll look back on last night's dinner and wonder if it really happened. The 200 Plus Years of Charleston Cooking event at Hominy Grill was one of those intimate Holy City affairs where a collective of extraordinary personalities—legendary chefs, purveryors, writers, and appreciators—converge to create a sort of mythic moment, at least to this young writer. Last night it was to pay homage to the history that is Charleston's culinary tradition. How lucky to be a part of it.
Arriving solo (and quickly accepting a sweet cup of St. Cecilia's Punch) I'd been curios as to who would be my seat mates. Imagine my surprise when I found myself kitty corner to Atlanta magazine restaurant and food critic Bill Addison, a biscuit toss away from Nathalie Dupree, one seat down from Teresa Taylor of the Post & Courier, directly across from our own Charleston magazine contributor and food editor, Marion Sullivan, and shoulder to shoulder with Ted Lee. Best I keep my mouth shut and listen to these fonts of culinary knowledge, I thought to myself.
Each course from chefs Robert Stehling, Kevin Johnson, Chris Hastings, and Jimmy Hagood, began with an historical snapshot, courtesy of the Lee brothers, describing the plate's roots and preparation with entertaining and enlightening tidbits. Crab stuffed flouder with "slaw," Hominy hushpuppies, and lemon buerre blanc started the meal. It was described as a classic Charleston dish and one chef Robert Stehling had instructed the kitchen staff keep simple, the way it was meant to be served. Visiting wine pro, Tuck Beckstoffer of St. Helena, California paired it with a "75" Sauvignon blanc '10.
Petite Le Crueset cocottes delivered plate number two: guinea hen and herb dumplings. As Stehling told us, "I could have served you chicken, but you can get that here tomorrow." The tiny dish was devoured in just a few bites and as my seatmate Susan Johnson, wife of The Grocery's chef Johnson said, it reminded her of her grandmother's chicken and dumplings and how she and Kevin had spent many a go attempting to recreate the heirloom receipt. "We finally got it right and now that's one my boys favorite dishes," she explained. "Which is nice because it's like a part of my grandmother is being shared with them, whenever we make it." A testament to the heartwarming nostalgia a classic recipe can conjur.
The next dish, Rosebank shrimp purloo, required a debate. "What is the absolute correct way to spell it, purloo, purlieu, or pilau?" I asked Ted Lee. Let the record state that Mr. Lee deemed the spelling “purloo” accurate. I shall henceforth spell it as such in Charleston magazine and any letters to the contrary, dear readers, may be directed to Mr. Lee.
Chef Johnson's slow roasted leg of pork with greens, roasted seasonal vegetables and rice with red pea gravy arrived next and was a beautiful collection of Lowcountry flavors. As Jimmy Hagood explained, the rice used is a new strain of Charleston Gold, a descendant of our own Carolina Gold but with a touch of basmatti and a longer grain. According to Hagood the dinner was the first time the Charleston Gold had been served in a restaurant.
Diners grabbed extra helpings of the delicious upside-down cake with already in-season local strawberry-rhubarb. And then it was time for the most anticipated sip of the night, Pappy Van Winkle's Family Reserve 20-year bourbon. Shots were poured and a round of the applause was made for Julian Van Winkle who explained a bit about the bourbon making process—namely that it’s a long one!
Satiated and suddenly aware of the time, I looked down the table, grabbed a snapshot of the culinary collective and departed thinking on Shakespeare's Prospero. “Our revels now are ended. These our actors, as I foretold you, were all spirits, and are melted into air, into thin air.”
The voice of Quiana Parler rocking from the Bus Shed zoomed me back to reality walking into the After Hours party. Good Lord what a good time! Partygoers were dancing and singing and eating and imbibing. But I'd arrived so late, within moments it was time to depart yet again, this time headed to FIG for an after party whose reputation preceeded it.
Monsoon weather could not keep the merriment at bay. Throngs of F and B folks and friends of the festival wandered between an outdoor tent, the kitchen, and the bar at chef Mike Lata's award-winning restaurant. I only saw one overly enthusiastic attendee be carried out and the likes of Gabrielle Hamilton and George Mendes were seen to be having a good time. Someone named Tater bought me a drink. What more could I ask for?
Then, while I was deep in conversation with someone or another, my friend Lindsay looked down at the floor and found a piece of paper—a Hominy Grill 200 Plus Years of Charleston Cooking menu, with four signatures: Julain Van Winkle, Ted and Matt Lee, and Robert Stehling. "Did you drop this?" She asked. No, but I'd take it. A fantastic memento - such the stuff as dreams are made of.