Friday, September 26, 2008

Eating the Low Country: Part 1

It all started with a perfectly good sandwich at the Sentient Bean in Savannah.

In fact, it was a great sandwich, part of the new wave of hearty, meatless concoctions warming in the panini presses of cafes all across America. I believe it was called "The Taste of Fall," pairing Georgia sweet potatoes with pecans and chèvre. The crust of the bread was so sharp that it could cut the roof of your mouth if you ate it at the wrong angle, while the interior was soft and fluffy. It was here that, with the help of the local A&E rag and free wireless, we planned the next day's eating.

I was in the Low Country for a show at the Beaufort campus of the University of South Carolina, located in the town of Bluffton. Of that area, Gullah restaurateur and cookbook author Jesse Edward Gantt Jr. writes:

"In the days before interstate I-95 made its way down the Atlantic Coast, travelers heading south the Carolinas, Georgia and Florida often drove along highway 17, along rambling roadways that connected hundreds of small towns and hamlets including the region that has become known as Gullah/Geechee country, home of one of the oldest living cultures in the United States."

We were lucky enough to be in Savannah for the Trustees Market, an excellent assembly of local growers and food producers with the occasional restaurant and soap maker thrown in, too. There I bought a loofah gourd to use as a sponge and sprout to grown my own next year, a pound of sweet potatoes, a hunk of gnarly looking backyard ginger, some citrus whose name I couldn't make out but which is supposedly like a cross between an orange and a lime, six excellent grilled jerk chicken wings, a hunk of Georgia made aged goat cheese with a washed, herb covered rind, and some killer muscadines and scuppernongs.

The following day ended up being an edible adventure that would take me back to that world before I-95 described by Gantt.

At 8am I rose from my hotel bed. At 9am I ate an apple and two rice cakes, part of my usual early Fall traveling provisions. Until the "Middle East Prolific" cucumber that I would have for dinner in the Savannah airport, that was the last thing I would eat that day that wasn't meaty and exciting.

At 10:30 I ate three cold fajitas with my bare hands from a styrofoam to-go container on my lap in the driver's seat of our rented Corolla. I didn't like it when I had it for dinner the night before at a fake ale house in a fake part of a fake town, and I liked it even less for breakfast.

At 11:30 I sat down to a steaming plate of shrimp and grits at the Squat and Gobble in Bluffton. As soon as I saw the pink, local shrimp lolling in a bath of spicy peppers and onions, I hated New England.

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