American Road trip, Arthur Ravenel Jr, Ashley River, Brian Moore, Bridge, cannon, Civil War, Confederate, Cooper River, Food, JG Farrell Award, Myrtle Beach, Novel, Poogan's Porch, road trip, Slavery, Slaves, South Carolina, the Battery, The Elliott House Inn, Writing, Yankee
Life in the Lowcountry.
I had just about resigned my taste buds to overly sweet or very salty food and my American journey to rainy weather, the sound of motorbikes screaming to be put out of their misery and the vision of a never-ending highway when I loaded up the car and programmed the GPS for ‘get me the hell out of here’.
Now, I know I didn’t see Myrtle Beach at its best, well, weather-wise anyway, but in a journey that had, up to that point, been full of wonder and awe, Myrtle Beach sucked all the joy out of my American road trip.
With the rain still falling, I left the motel at 7am. An hour later, the clouds began to clear and I could just make out the blue South Carolinian sky that I had been promised. The landscape changed from grey seashore to green pines and live oaks lining the roadside and when I stopped to get breakfast there was an aroma of sea salt mixed with pine and sage.
The clouds disappeared as I continued my journey south and, with all the highway signs and the GPS pointing the way to Charleston, suddenly life wasn’t so bad after all.
Charleston was to be the highlight of my trip – promises of southern charm, a rich historical legacy, great food and really nice accommodation fueled my journey at this point and, boy, I wasn’t disappointed.
All I can say is thank goodness for Charleston.
From the moment I arrived, taking the Arthur Ravenel Jr. Bridge across the Cooper River on to the peninsula and arriving at The Elliot House Inn, I could tell that this is a very special city.
Tucked away, within walking distance of the ‘Battery’ which is at the tip of the peninsula, Elliott House is perfectly positioned for those who like to explore the city on foot. At the Battery, I paused looking out on Charleston Bay where the Ashley and Cooper rivers meet before they join and head off out into the Atlantic. And there, still standing like a sentry in the bay, I got my first sight of just one of the main reasons that my journey to Charleston was so important.
On the horizon, about three miles from where I stood, was Fort Sumter.
This is where the first shots were fired and the Civil War began. This fort in the middle of the bay saw the first acts that tore a country apart. Some 600,000 deaths later and the Union flag was raised once more in Charleston Bay.
Fort Sumter would have to wait until the morning. Right now, as the warm breeze made me feel alive again, I needed to sample some of that southern cuisine I’d heard so much about.
The city is packed with restaurants but the good people at Elliott House had recommended a very special eatery just a couple of doors down the road from the inn.
Husk was voted one of the best new restaurants in the USA when it first opened a few years ago and it was there that I hoped to redeem my faith in American cuisine.
At Husk they have a simple policy: ‘If it doesn’t come from the South, it’s not coming through the door’. James Beard Award-Winning Chef Sean Brock’s menu changes almost everyday and that was just what I was looking for.
I naively ambled up the steps, through the doors and asked to make a reservation for one for dinner later that evening.
‘I’m sorry,’ said the receptionist in a lovely southern drawl, ‘reservations are closed for the rest of the week.’
Time for the Irish brogue and a bit of charm, I thought.
‘Oh, that is disappointing,’ I said. ‘I’ve come all this way and had heard such good things about Husk. Is there any way I could eat here before I leave?’ I asked.
‘Well, let me see,’ the southern belle said, looking through her reservations book.
‘You could put your name on the waiting list for our balcony, but you would need to be here at 5.30pm tomorrow evening. After that it is first come, first served and I can’t confirm at what time, if at all, we could seat you.’
‘Perfect,’ I said, ‘that’s what I’ll do then.’
As I headed off out into the Charleston evening, I knew that at least I could sit at the very impressive bar in Husk tomorrow evening, soak up the atmosphere and enjoy one or two Mint Juleps, perhaps.
Then, I just went next door to another restaurant, Poogan’s Porch, where I got my first taste of good southern cuisine: a fried oyster salad and some southern fried chicken with all the fixins. And it proved to be an excellent introduction to fine food in the Holy City.
Oh, in case you think I’ve gone mad – to a lot of people back home the Holy City is somewhere else entirely – Charleston is known (locally anyway) as the Holy City because of its many churches; there seems to be one conveniently located on almost every street.
The next morning, my mission was to see Fort Sumter. I made my way to the quayside where I would take the boat out to the little rocky island in the bay.
On the trip out to the fort, I got my first view of the city from the water. Back on the peninsula, the narrow tree-lined streets have survived wars, floods and earthquakes. Charleston was once the richest city in the US and it retains that antebellum charm that I imagined made it a real southern city.
From the water, looking back towards the city, you see the beautiful houses that line the quayside along the Battery and the docks that once exported the bountiful produce from the great plantations of South Carolina: cotton, indigo and rice or ‘Carolina Gold’ as it was called. The plantations along the Ashley and Cooper rivers, with their thousands of slaves, fed the merchants of Charleston who in turn sent these goods to Northern factories and mills or across the Atlantic to the textile mills of England and France.
This is another legacy of the city, a city that grew rich on the labour of thousands of enslaved people. This history is still evident today with echoes of the past everywhere to be seen: the big houses, the ornate gardens and parks, and the slave market, all standing as a reminder of a Charleston from a different time and a different world.
As I made my way out to Fort Sumter, I began to imagine the scene when the first shot was fired on that April morning back in 1861. That morning, over 150 years ago, on the Battery where I stood yesterday, there would have been hundreds of people cheering as the shot and shell smashed into the walls of the fort three miles away.
The ladies of Charleston arrived in their carriages, parasols waving as they encouraged the men to stand and fight for southern rights and freedom.
For Southern rights, hurrah!
Hurrah for the Bonnie Blue Flag that bears a single star.’
With this, South Carolina proclaimed that it was willing to fight and to die to preserve its way of life and the southern cause.
At the fort, which was only abandoned as a military facility after the Second World War, I saw for the first time the flags of the United States of America (USA) and the Confederate States of America (CSA) flying together. Sumter is now the responsibility of the National Parks Service and, like all the battlefields, it is maintained and preserved for future generations.
As I stood on the highest point at Fort Sumter and looked back towards Charleston in the hazy distance, I could just make out the Battery. While, as the name ‘the Battery’ suggests, there were guns placed along the length of the water front at this point in 1861, these guns did not take part in the bombardment. The range was too great.
I took my notes and listened to the rangers explain the events that took place here back in 1861 but I have to admit that my mind was on all things ‘eatable’ and my evening ahead at Husk.
As the ferry left the dock and headed back toward Charleston, I knew that my journey had formed a life of its own; from now on, my story and my Confederate would lead the way.
But first it was time to get something to eat.