Here in South Carolina, we have an unwritten "Bill of Rights" that guarantees the culinary contentment of citizens and visitors:
1. You have a right to enjoy heaps of sugar in your iced tea.
2. You have a right to sop gravy with cornbread, biscuits or both.
3. You have a right to douse your greens in pepper sauce.
4. You have the right to eat fried chicken with your fingers (and lick 'em, too).
But perhaps the most important is this one, as it technically encompasses all of the above:
5. You have a right to a home-cooked supper, an entitlement routinely enjoyed in diners and cafes known as “meat-and-threes.”
When it comes to getting a good square meal, Southern-style, head to the nearest meat-and-three for the next best thing to Grandma’s house. These bustling establishments are hallmarks of Southern food culture and often identified by a full parking lot and menus brimming with meats and veggies. Pick the meat entree of your choice, then select three sides. Plates are traditionally rounded out with cornbread and biscuits, and a drink, usually sweet tea. Desserts such as banana pudding, peach cobbler, homemade pies and cakes can be added on for those who save room, or sometimes are just listed as a vegetable (yes, that's right).
Some meat-and-threes are set up cafeteria-style, with patrons lining up to have plates filled from a steam table, while others offer full table service. Aside from secret recipes for squash casserole, fried chicken and such, the meat-and-three concept is pretty consistent, offering casual, inexpensive dining and plenty of Southern favorites from which to build your idea of a perfect homestyle meal.
For example, on a recent day at The Kitchen, a popular meat-and-three in Florence, customers could choose from fried or barbecued chicken, chicken and dumplings, baked ham, turkey, meatloaf and pork chops, with 10 sides to complement, including lip-smackers such as collards, black-eyed peas, lima beans, green beans, rice and gravy, yams, cabbage, macaroni-and-cheese and cornbread. You'll find a similar lineup at crowd-pleasers such as the Blue Top Grill in Graniteville and the Lizard's Thicket chain of eateries. If that don’t make you hungry, you might just be from outer space.
The late food historian John Egerton theorized that the meat-and-three concept is likely an interpretation of old-timey blue plate specials popular in the early 1900s. These meals were so named as they were served on divided Blue Willow china. While you shouldn’t expect pretty plates when you go to a meat-and-three, do expect food so tasty you’ll want to lick the plainest plate clean.
There’s one more essential aspect of meat-and-threes that bears mentioning. Because most of these humble establishments are mom-and-pop operations, there’s an authentic family feel to this uniquely Southern dining experience. The cooks in the kitchen are executing time-honored recipes just the way their parents or grandparents taught them. The wait staff knows most customers by name, and when they say they’re glad you came, believe them. And that smile on the owner’s face? It’s because you cleaned your plate.
When you take a table at a meat-and-three, you’re sitting down in the community’s dining room, the place where regulars – be they the shop owner from down the street, the mayor or workers on their lunch break – show up faithfully for a daily helping of nourishment, camaraderie and the latest news. And if you’re from somewhere else, well, chances are good you won’t feel that way by the time you walk out the door.