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Charleston's Southern Hospitality

Charleston’s historic Queen Street.

Photo: Peter Frank Edwards

It wasn’t the crackly, meltingly delicious fried pork skins, nor the gamy pork rillettes, that made us cry uncle before we’d even finished our first round of cocktails at Husk, a new restaurant in Charleston’s historic district just blocks from the house where we grew up. And it certainly wasn’t the sampler plate of country-cured hams from four Southern states: pink, paper-thin folds fanned out like swatches of translucent silk. No. It was the small crock of pork butter—salted butter whipped with rendered pork fat, for slathering over bacon-studded corn bread—that just may have been a shade overmuch hog.

Granted, that pig in the pork butter was impressive, with lineage tracing back to the wild, rangy Ossabaw brought to the Lowcountry by Spanish settlers almost 600 years ago, and which Husk’s chef, Sean Brock, sources from a farm north of Charleston. Brock himself grew up in the coal country of Virginia, did time in kitchens in Richmond and Nashville, and strode into town four years ago with a culinary futurist’s toolbox—the agar-agar, the methylcellulose, the sous vide circulators—to bring some contemporary sizzle to the staid, white-tablecloth McCrady’s. But in Charleston, the past tends to work its spell on even the most forward-thinking newcomers, and soon Brock was poring over South Carolina planters’ journals from the 18th century and feathering old Charleston receipt books (cookbooks, to the rest of the world) with Post-its. He tracked down heirloom seeds for varieties of field peas and sesame that hadn’t been cultivated in South Carolina since before the Civil War. He didn’t abandon the hydrocolloids altogether; in fact, his avant-garde cooking at McCrady’s earned him a James Beard Award for Best Chef in the Southeast last year. But with Husk, a subdued series of rooms in a meticulously restored 19th-century house on Queen Street, Brock is doing Southern cooking that’s lofty but connected to this place physically and intellectually, reaching back to the past to find a new way forward. And if his culinary revival has a tendency toward obsessiveness (five piggy plates on a single appetizer menu), we say: so much the better.

Overexuberance on the plate is a sin this city can withstand; the hyperinflated real estate market of the last boom, however, threatened to snap the thrilling tension between past and present that is so much a part of our hometown’s soul. Concrete bunkers of condos rose in the marshes on the fringes of Charleston harbor, young families fled the expensive historic downtown for the suburbs, and beloved independent businesses were elbowed aside on King Street, the main commercial avenue, by national chains. Good-bye, Max’s Men’s Store; hello, Apple Store!

What a difference a downturn makes. People who live in and love Charleston have now had the opportunity to reflect and to focus on what elements are truly unique and worth preserving. There is a particularly tenacious young palmetto tree around the corner from our house, a flash of tropical spikiness peeking out from the narrow crawl space between two clapboard houses, that seems to suggest one answer. For at least four years, the landlords have deliberately tolerated this charming green incursion as an asset, rather than a liability, to the property. Tenacity, fecundity, charming oddity—all these are bankable qualities in today’s Charleston.

As writers, we kept busy the past decade shuttling back and forth between Charleston and New York City, a mode that permits plenty of reflection about the two cities but not a great deal of meaningful life experience in either place. We’ve since settled into a long, uninterrupted stretch in Charleston to research and develop the recipes for our next cookbook. What surprised us in the first few months, along with the sheer electricity of Husk’s opening, was the youthful energy coursing through all the city’s creative communities, galvanizing the music and art scenes as well. For both visitors and residents, this salty ol’ town has never been more vibrant, or more rewarding a place to be.

As David Maybank, a scion of one the city’s most prominent families, explained to us at a recent oyster roast, “Despite the recession, Charleston’s gotten bigger; there’s simply more to it. All the old, familiar stuff we grew up with—the eccentricities—are still here, but there’s more.”

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