Monday, April 7, 2014

Art and Food in the Deep South: Doin' the Charleston Shuffle

It has been my good fortune to have visited Savannah on a number of occasions, but I've never made it to the much ballyhooed Charleston with its rich cultural history. Fort Sumter squats in the middle of the bay, its claim to fame being the location of the first shot of the American Civil War in April 1861, 153 years ago later this week, and one of my favorite Civil War Cards when I was a kid.

Located on the Atlantic Coast about 100 miles north of Savannah, there seemed plenty evidence of idyllic Southern charm in this once vibrant cultural center, the oldest and second largest city of South Carolina.

The city has garnered high marks for its history, architecture and distinguished restaurants. According to Wikipedia, Charleston has received a large number of accolades, including "America's Most Friendly [City]" by Travel + Leisure in 2011 and in 2013 by Condé Nast Traveler, and also "the most polite and hospitable city in America" by Southern Living magazine.

Since we'd just been in Savannah, I was unable to perceive a distinctly warmer degree of friendliness, but I'm sure the local citizenry is pleased to have such accolades flung their way. The other description that stuck with me is, "If you like Savannah, Charleston is 10X what Savannah is."

Being our first visit here, we failed to really plan anything beyond a cursory walk amongst the historic buildings, graveyards and cobblestone lanes of this city on the sea. History buffs might have been immediately drawn to the fort, which is probably to be a target for our next pass. Naturally I felt drawn to pass through Gallery Row in the arts district as we meandered about the central corridors of town.

The Gibbes Museum.
It all passed too fast, and it seemed that everything we stopped to see had closed five minutes before. Seriously. We arrived at The Confederate Museum at 3:35 and The Gibbes Museum at 5:01. No harm done, really. We just kept walking, and seeing, and resting on one of the abundant city benches, and walking some more.

The endpoint of our journey was a relatively new restaurant called Husk, the offspring of award-winning chef Sean Brock of McCrady’s and the Neighborhood Dining Group. By coincidence we ate lunch next door to McCrady's. Brock's gained much publicity for his "low country cuisine." The three-year-old restaurant had atmospere for sure, and though the menu stimulated our taste buds, our praise of the dinner fare was not universally shared in our trio of explorers. My sides seemed dry and tasteless, and my mother's chicken was, in her opinion, ordinary. (Not what you expect from an expensive eatery.)

I mean no disrespect here. My snapper was wonderful and my son's cultivated palette found his meal quite sumptuous.

A variation of Canal Park's Art Dock?
Years ago I heard a defense of the pre-Civil War Southern lifestyle that went like this: "The North knows how to make money, the South knows how to spend it." Slavery aside, the appeal of "Southern Charm" was its connection to the European appreciation of aesthetics and manners, a worldview that strikes me now as being more akin to Epicureanism and even hedonism than Biblical. (Remember, this is the Bible Belt.)

As for the art in Charleston, well, they certainly have much there for people to see. At the corner of Broad Street and East Bay there's a street sign that reads, "Gallery Row." I poked in and out of each and came away convinced that there's probably a local art scene everywhere, but especially in places where there' history and beauty.

Much of what I personally saw seemed aimed at the tourist trade for whom this city is a Destination with a capital D. But if you peel back the surface a bit there was definitely plenty of evidence that some interesting work is taking place here and there. The Gibbes made the most notable impression as a place to follow and return to.... were one in the habit of being in the vicinity.

Meantime, life goes on all around you. Embrace it.

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