If you’ve been to the South and didn’t leave smelling like bourbon and barbecue, then you had best go back and do it right.
The scene of the last chapter of this most amazing year of travel and eating for me was set among the palmettos and live oaks of the Lowcountry. On 20,000-acres of conservancy land tracing the marshy shores of South Carolina is Palmetto Bluff Resort, a manicured reminder of the bucolic, bygone days of slow living. And there, for the fifth year, gathered a proud group of Southerners to celebrate and preserve their foodways at the Music To Your Mouth Festival.
Invited to attend, I strapped on my whiskey boots and headed down for a week of incredible hospitality and eating.
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In full disclosure, I was a guest at Palmetto Bluff. My trip was fully expensed, presumably in exchange for press.
Hesitant to accept the invitation, I made it clear that my attendance did not guarantee mention of the festival here. Nor would it require me to promote it in any way.
But, encouraged by the festival’s charitable focus – this year, ticket proceeds raised over $12,000 for Second Helpings, a local, nonprofit food distribution project – and reassured by its educational emphasis, backed by a respectable list of presenters that included John T. Edge, director of the Southern Foodways Alliance, and chefs Sean Brock (McCrady’s and Husk), Mike Lata (FIG), Chris Hastings (Hot and Hot Fish Club), Tory McPhail (Commander’s Palace), among many other important Southern chefs, I agreed.
Clearly, I found merit in what I experienced and saw, for I happily share it with you.
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It’s easy to dismiss food and wine festivals as commercialized parties, excuses to booze and binge.
Well, yes, there was plenty of that at Music To Your Mouth. For some, that might be the main attraction.
But, to me, the significance of regional food and wine festivals like this one is the context it gives to the constantly changing culinary world. At its best, this festival was a refreshingly intimate, week-long dialogue among chefs and people passionate about food and beverage; an exchange of ideas, a calibration of thought, an anchor for principles, and, most importantly, a moment to acknowledge and thank those who make our world a better, more sustainable place to eat.
As a Midwesterner, it was an edifying glimpse into the subculture of another region. Ever championing my own region’s chefs and cuisine and ever mindful of growing the culinary identity of the Midwest, I found the synergy at this event inspiring.
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At a symposium held in a cozy chapel on the resort’s property, Edge preached two lovely sermons on pork. One of them introduced us to Emile DeFelice, a hog farmer who owns Caw Caw Creek Farm in Edisto, South Carolina. His pigs are happy and healthy. The other, took us to Hemingway, South Carolina, to the barbecue pits of Scott’s Variety, where I stopped earlier this year on the way from Chilhowie to Charleston for vinegary pulled pork. Rodney Scott’s pigs are smoky and delicious. Afterward, the floor was opened to the congregation for questions and answers.
At a cooking demonstration, Jeremiah Langhorne, chef de cuisine at McCrady’s, taught us about terroir, introducing us to olive oil from Georgia, the first pressing in the South in well over a century, and Carolina rice infused with bay, which he made into a buttery and fragrant dish referred to as “Charleston Ice Cream.” He shaved waxy ribbons for us from a leg of pork, cured and hung in the attic at McCrady’s for two years. And he presented a rich shellfish stew full of plump, Capers Inlet Blade oysters that were harvested locally by a guy known as “Clammer Dave.” I’ve had those oysters at Husk, and I was happy to have them again here. I wished that there were more of these in-depth, intimate sessions in the kitchen.
On a two-hour tour, Jay Walea, one of Palmetto Bluff’s conservationists, took Alex Talbot of Ideas and Food and me to the extremities of the conservancy, teaching us about the local flora and fauna, and the methods that he and his crew employ to help preserve and strengthen the land, a dense forest of particularly sturdy growth, a natural “wind break” and shield to the inland.
He burns the vegetation in strips to create “edge” – where field meets forest – to enlarge the habitat for, and therefore increase the population of small furry animals, which, in turn, sustains larger numbers of big furry animals (I’m over-simplifying the model for brevity). He monitors and tracks wildlife to understand their needs and adaptive habits. And he hunts to control population when necessary. Waste not, want not: everything he falls goes to table.
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But between the back-and-forth about sustainability and tradition, there was a lot of eating, drinking, and merrymaking.
Palmetto Bluff Resort is a village of houses and cottages, a community of communal golf carts and bicycles. It’s kind of like being on the set of “The Truman Show,” but with the added pleasure of having chefs deliver beer to your doorstep in the afternoon.
Considering the square footage of wrap-arounds, there was much porching to be had. And at night, there were house parties and mischief aplenty.
Sommeliers Clint Sloan (McCrady’s) and Jason Carlen (Spiaggia, formerly of Palmetto Bluff) dueled it out with wine pairings at a dinner cooked by Johannes Klapdohr, executive chef of Old Edwards Inn. The diners voted, Sloan won. The next night, chefs Chris Hastings and Mike Lata went head-to-head in a cook-off, pairing their foods to wines presented by Marc Perrin, the fifth generation winemaker of Chateau Beaucastel. The two chefs tied, leaving them to settle the matter over a shotgun of PBR. Only in the South. Lata chugged faster than Hastings.
There were grand tastings, one hosted on the banks of the May River on a chilly night. We grazed among the stands, huddling near one of the many open fires in between for warmth (we, the lucky, staked out a spot near Rodney Scott’s barrel furnace). There was a “biscuit bar” with a tasting of bacon and sausages (I especially loved the bacon glazed with brown sugar, allspice, cumin, and salt). There was a table of sides: collard greens, beans, rice, sweet potato gratin, and creamy macaroni and cheese. Rodney Scott served his pulled pork topped with crunchy rinds. And for dessert, a buffet of Southern sweets – candied apples, pie, sweet potato turnovers, and – as is a tradition every night at Palmetto Bluff – s’mores, which we roasted under the a tent of Spanish moss, nature’s own party streamers.
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On a stunning autumn afternoon, twenty chefs, and just as many vintners, gathered under a big top tent to share their food. On the main stage, the lovely Gail Simmons moderated cooking demos, while hundreds milled about in their colorful Southern stitches, eating and drinking.
Among my favorites was Ford Fry’s (JCT Kitchen) crab salad on buttery toast served over rich she crab froth, and Sean Brock’s Wagyu beef tartare with pickled ramps and puffed beef tendon “rinds.” I loved Mike Lata’s butter pea “pasta e fagiole” and Robert Stehling’s (Hominy Grill) sesame-crusted catfish with Geechee peanut sauce, grits and sautéed okra. Johannes Klapdohr’s cornbread-stuffed Brussels sprouts had me wanting seconds, and Bill Smith’s (Crook’s Corner) incredible banana pudding topped with an airy cloud of sugary meringue begged for thirds and fourths.
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For the final act, the Palmetto Bluff crew created a castaway vignette at Moreland Landing under a towering live oak hugged by the largest tree house I had ever seen. On that last night, we feasted on the treasures of a crab boil, ribs (venison,beef, pork, and alligator) and oysters, which were shoveled onto an enormous iron platform swung over an open fire and covered with a heavy, wet canvas to steam. And, as with all of the events during the Music To Your Mouth festival, there was great music, and even better company.
Afterwards, we all headed back to the s’more pits for a final roast, a sweet ending to a delicious week.
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How can you be a couple of hours’ drive from Charleston and not pass through for a few meals?
Knowing we’d be at the Music To Your Mouth Festival together, Alex and I planned a road trip, tacking on a couple of meals in the city.
Both early risers, we breakfasted with our new-found friends at Palmetto Bluff before heading up the coast for brunch at Hominy Grill. In the afternoon, we dropped by McCrady’s, where sous chef Daniel Heinze gave us a tour of the rambling, historic frame in which the restaurant resides, something I missed when I was last there in April. We climbed into the attic to see their aged meats, and onto the rooftop, where one of their green thumbs is raising a gorgeous garden of herbs. And, in passing the kitchen, we were both humbled to find our names chalked on the wall with an extensive menu attached, our dinner a few hours hence.
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Alex and I had both heard that chef Craig Deihl was knocking charcuterie out of the park at his restaurant Cypress. So, we caught up with him before heading to McCrady’s for dinner. He gave us a tour of his locker and assembled an impressive spread for us to taste: testa, headcheese, bresaola, ‘nduja and more. If you’re in Charleston, his aged meats really shouldn’t be missed.
And then to McCrady’s for another epic meal. There, Alex and I were ambushed at the end of dinner by a drunken diner from another table with a blogger bone to pick. I unwittingly unleashed her on poor Alex, who patiently endured her diatribe, a strange episode his wife Aki thoughtfully recapped on their blog. (For the record, I didn’t skeddadle. But I do owe Alex one for taking the bullet for what I later realized was surely intended for me.)
Lunch at Husk is just about the only way I can imagine ending such a grand week of eating on a high note. Lucky for me, Jeremiah Langhorne had the day off, so he and his girlfriend joined me on the porch under that magnificent magnolia tree on Queen Street for crispy pig ears in lettuce wraps, wet ribs, oatmeal and buttermilk pie, and much, much more. Afterward, Brock toted up his advance copy of Tatroux’s “Notes From A Kitchen” book, which had just arrived in the mail that day, and we flipped through it. It’s a two-volume compendium of notes, thoughts, and recipes from ten contemporary, American chefs, including Brock, Johnny Iuzzini, George Mendes, Zach Palaccio, Michael Laiskonis, and Neal Fraser. It’s gorgeous, and I can’t wait to get my copy.
Before leaving for the airport, Sean and Jeremiah walked me around the corner to Billy Reid, where I did a little Southern shopping. Mr. Edge, this one’s for you.
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I couldn’t have asked for a lovelier ending to the most amazing year of my life.
Even as I type, a load of laundry hums, washing away the bourbon and smoke. I did it right. And, I’m a little sad to see it go.
For all of my photos from Music To Your Mouth, CLICK HERE.
I’ve quite a few people to thank for this incredible trip, many of whom were lucky enough to be born Southern, by the grace of God: Alex Talbot, for being one of the most thoughtful travel companions I’ve ever had – may this be the first of many adventures together; Courtney Hampson, Jeremy Walton, and the entire staff at Palmetto Bluff, for your tireless work and humbling hospitality; Sean Brock, Jeremiah Langhorne, Daniel Heinze, and the crew at McCrady’s and Husk for killing me with kindness and amazing food; Gail Simmons and Jeremy Abrams for the smiles and s’mores; Craig Deihl for your amazing charcuterie; Tory McPhail for the beer delivery and oyster shooters; Rodney Scott and Jim N’ Nick’s for your barbecue and your furnaces on a cold night; Jason Carlen for being a great host – next time, we open that Quintarelli; John T. Edge, for inspiring me; Jay Walea, for your passion and your conservancy; Julia Rutledge, Sarah Smith, and the rest of the ladies at Coastal Living for your porching party and for being my pajama partners in crime; Tim Zielenbach for your amazing photography – I can’t wait to see your shots from the week; and last, but certainly not least, the Sisters Trouble, Melany Mullens and Michelle Charak, for shufflin’ along with me and putting up with my Jacksonian do.
Photos: The glow from the oyster roast at Moreland Landing, Palmeto Bluff, South Carolina; Moreland Landing at dusk, Palmeto Bluff, South Carolina; Rodney Scott and Jim N’ Nick’s BBQ smoking whole hogs into the night, Palmetto Bluff, South Carolina; John T. Edge getting a whiff of ham at a cooking demonstration by Jeremiah Langhorne; open fire to keep warm at night, Palmetto Bluff, South Carolina; Sean Brock shows Gail Simmons a puffed beef tendon “rind,” Palmetto Bluff, South Carolina; oyster roast at Moreland Landing, Palmetto Bluff, South Carolina; the chalkboard in the kitchen at McCrady’s, Charleston, South Carolina; charcuterie at Cypress, Charleston, South Carolina; and the s’more pits at Palmetto Bluff, South Carolina.
3 replies on “travel: southern, by the grace of god…”
We definitly have to go to this region. Fabulous photos and skillful
Writing bas usual.
Glad you met Emile (Ms. DeFelice, as you addressed him on Twitter to me). :)
He’s one of my favorite people. Be sure to check out the Joe York video on him – “Ride That Pig to Glory”