Here in South Florida, eternal spring is celebrated and enjoyed for most of the year.
For those in cold climates, the end of winter and the arrival of spring mark the beginning of gentler days filled with promise.
Many of our winter visitors and residents will be heading north to their homes and regularly stop in the lovely and historic city, Charleston, S. C.
For it is in that region that spring is celebrated with much panache, reverence and beauty.
The spectacular gardens welcome the gentle warming of the earth with azaleas, magnolias, gardenias, roses, camellias and the state’s aromatic flower, jasmine.
In the city known for its magnificent historic mansions and gardens, the hospitable Charlestonians open their homes and gardens during spring.
Throughout the Low Country the restored plantations are also opened, allowing a glimpse of a life during antebellum days.
These historic landmarks have allowed Charleston to progress into the 21st century while carefully preserving the past.
I lived in Charleston for several years and, although it has been a long time since my last visit, I cherish the influence the city and its residents had on my life.
My love of Southern food originated here and my appreciation of typical regional dishes came from Charleston cooks and dishes.
After living in New Jersey, arriving in Charleston resulted in a severe culture shock. The architecture of the stately homes took me back to pre-Civil War days, and the entire city represented a living history of a more genteel time.
But it was the food that awakened my imagination and inculcated in me an appreciation for the unique cuisine created by those courageous slaves, determined to preserve their culture. I lived with a family that had been in Charleston since the turn of the 20th century. The city is one of the few American cities that have achieved restoration without ruination and preservation without stagnation.
While many Southern cities grew and destroyed relics of the past, Charlestonians stubbornly clung to their roots and all they represented. And this included the traditional cuisine.
One of the most intriguing and interesting cuisines in this country originated in Charleston and the surrounding Low Country. Recipes originated with the Gullahs, the slaves brought to Charleston during the 18th century.
Many cooks stirred the pots, many contributing their own methods and the result is a bit of Creole, a modicum of French, lots of African influence and even a touch of English influence.
Brought up on Eastern European food, it took me no time at all to switch my allegiance. I still cannot resist eating and cooking such dishes as tomato purlieu (commonly known as red rice), grits enhanced by shrimp or cheese, hobatee (a mixture of minced or ground meat baked in a curry custard and served in custard cups), oysters and sweetbread in pastry shells, deviled crab, Huguenot Torte (a two-layer cake containing chopped pecans and apples and topped with either whipped cream or syllabub.) It is an adventure to shop for food in Charleston. Every Monday morning found me at the city’s public market for freshly caught blue crabs, just-picked vegetables and other local specialties.
But best of all are my memories of awakening on early mornings to the sound of melodious church bells and the cries of street vendors selling shrimp, crabs and oysters as they sang out in Gullah, a patois of English and African dialects; “Better belly bus’ dan goode bittle spile.”
“It is better for your belly to burst than for you to let good food spoil” The waters around Charleston produced tiny shrimp, so sweet and toothsome, especially freshly caught just before dawn and brought house to house by the fishermen-vendors. The shrimp were briefly steamed and served with grits that had been cooking for hours on the back of the stove.
The backwaters surrounding the city produce succulent blue crabs, and I hadn’t been in Charleston very long before Jessie, the major domo in the kitchen, took me on a sojourn into the countryside.
We came prepared with scraps of meat purloined from our neighborhood butcher.
Within minutes of throwing out the simple lines holding the meat, the crabs took the bait and we took the crabs. After an hour, we had a bushel basket of the critters. It took hours to steam, clean the crabs and more time cleaning the kitchen and disposing of the shells. Using a simple recipe, we produced a crab dinner worthy of an emperor’s table. But it was worth it. Jessie taught me several splendid crab recipes and I’m sharing my favorite with the hope that several ambitious cooks will prepare a feast.
Serves 4 to 6.
1 pound crabmeat
3 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley
½ small onion or 2 or 3 chopped green onions (scallions) 2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
1 tablespoon Worcester sauce
1 tablespoon water
1 cup mayonnaise (I suggest Hellman’s or homemade) ½ cup dry sherry (I have also used dry vermouth) Dash Tabasco Buttered fresh crumbs
1 Thoroughly combine all the ingredients and place in a well-buttered casserole.
2 Top with buttered bread crumbs, which have been made by adding crumbs to melted butter.
3 Bake in a preheated 350-degree oven for about 20 minutes or until light brown.
Doris Reynolds is the author of “When Peacocks Were Roasted and Mullet was Fried” and “Let’s Talk Food.” They are available for sale in the lobby of the Naples Daily News. Also available is a four-part DVD, “A Walk Down Memory Lane with Doris Reynolds.” Contact Doris Reynolds at firstname.lastname@example.org.