Have you ever considered how meaningful a meal can be? From the farmers and growing techniques that cultivate the ingredients, to the origins and stories behind the recipes, to the memories that are shared and remembered with the particular taste or smell of a dish, food has power. It has a way of bringing people together, even across time, in a way that nothing else can. And it’s also a major motivator for travel.
If you’re like me, when you visit a new city or town, you probably find yourself researching the best restaurants in advance to plan your days around dining experiences that will offer a true taste of wherever you’re exploring. In many ways, food is the best storyteller for a destination. In South Carolina, when one thinks of a foodie destination, Charleston probably comes to mind.
For eight years in a row, Charleston has been named the No. 1 city in the United States by Travel + Leisure readers, and with five eateries listed in the top 25 restaurants in the country by TripAdvisor, obviously, food is a major contributor to travelers’ love of the Holy City.
My first fine dining experience in Charleston was memorable in a lot of ways. I thoroughly enjoyed my plate of gnocchi and the ambiance of the restaurant, but will never forget running to the bathroom to cry from embarrassment after I accidentally shattered an entire glass of Champagne all over the table. No guests were harmed in the experience, and the waiter was beyond gracious to me, but I’ve never quite shaken the anxiety that looms whenever glassware is plentiful in a table setting. However, I can happily confirm that I’ve yet to have a similar incident since, and still love eating in Charleston restaurants when the opportunity arises.
To really understand why Charleston’s dining scene is so spectacular, I wanted to speak to an expert. So, I traveled down to the Culinary Institute of Charleston to cook something up with 2020 South Carolina Chef Ambassador Kevin Mitchell. The South Carolina Chef Ambassador Program is a partnership that seeks to show how chefs and restaurants connect agriculture and tourism. Kevin and his fellow chefs educate and inspire by showcasing incredible local ingredients and flavors unique to the Palmetto State, both in their restaurants and at various events throughout the year.
As a strong proponent for the preservation of Southern ingredients, and having earned a reputation for expertise on the historical significance of African American cuisine, it was no surprise that when asked why Charleston was such a culinary Mecca, Chef Kevin talked about the available ingredients and the history of the individuals whose culture and labor laid the foundation for the cuisine that is so lauded on South Carolina menus today. Popular coastal dishes like shrimp and grits, Frogmore stew, perloo or chicken bog all have roots steeped in traditions forged by enslaved Africans who worked with what ingredients were available to them.
Another such dish is Hoppin’ John, which Chef Kevin kindly showed me how to make. At every step, beginning with a ham hock broth base with Carolina Gold Rice, followed by a filling of fresh vegetables and peas and finished with a dash of benne seed oil, the chef schooled me on the depth of flavors that can only be achieved through these fresh, local ingredients. He also explained the principles of “no waste” the original makers lived by, including demonstrating how to properly cut a bell pepper and adding in chopped portions of ham hock at the end rather than simply tossing them after they flavored the broth.
The final product spoke for itself, mostly because I could barely get a word out as I eagerly dug into the dish we (mostly Chef Kevin) prepared. Y’all, I have literally had dreams about that Hoppin’ John since we cooked it. While it’s traditionally a New Year’s dish for good luck, it’s the kind of meal you'll want to make year-round!
I’m so grateful to live in a state with such an incredible culinary scene. With so many fresh ingredients to work with, classic recipes to cook and celebrated restaurants to try, there’s always something new to EAT in South Carolina! I hope you’ll let our food tell more of our story and maybe even discover your next most memorable meal in the Palmetto State.
Filming for this show was done in part prior to Covid-19 and SCPRT recommends following local guidelines for social distancing and your personal protection. Some of the activities depicted in the “Go For It’ series might be affected, or even unavailable, due to Covid-19. Please check with the local provider or attraction for the latest schedules and hours of operation.