- The Washington Times - Friday, April 15, 2005

WADMALAW ISLAND, S.C. — The fancy reds here are the glorious tomatoes that thrive in rural Wadmalaw, and the big whites are the shrimp scooped from the creek just minutes ago.

The bumps along the way from Charleston aren’t from cobblestones but from the oyster shells that cover South Carolina tracks that aren’t really driveways but don’t quite count as roads, either, even if they do have names.

Traveling down Bear’s Bluff Road, it doesn’t take long before the Holy City’s elegant boutiques, trendy restaurants and historic streets seem farther than 10 miles away.

Turn left just past Liberia Road, and the scenery changes. A creek runs along the drive, then turns and bubbles into the distance. The Spanish moss hangs so low it catches the car antenna, then releases it with a whisper. The air smells of the ocean, but there’s another smell too, rich and loamy.

The next curve in the road reveals why: Cut out of 11 acres of marine forest and protected by a deer-proof stockade fence sits a neat, well-tended vineyard.

MUSCADINE WINE

Founded in 2001 by Ann and Jim Irvin, Irvin-House Vineyards is one of just a handful of vineyards to produce wine from South Carolina’s native grape, the muscadine. Often called “scuppernogs” in these parts, muscadine grapes typically turn out a wine that’s traditionally treacle-sweet, aged in Mason jars and served over ice — lots of ice.

What’s different about these wines is that their fruitiness is fresher and less cloying, making them surprisingly good with traditional Southern foods such as smoky pork barbecue.

And why not? With names like Tara Gold, Magnolia and Palmetto and gorgeous labels painted by local artists, Irvin-House wines celebrate their Southern roots.

“I call this one my porch wine because I can sit on the porch and sip it for hours,” Mr. Irvin says with a smile as he pours a glass of Palmetto red. “We wanted to produce wine from muscadines because they’re local, but we also wanted to produce wine we enjoy drinking. We’ve done both.”

The Irvins aren’t the only ones excited about rediscovering traditional Southern foods and libations.

FOOD IN HISTORY

Amanda Dew Manning, a nutritionist and Southern food historian, has been working since 2003 to preserve South Carolina’s food heritage by offering walking — and eating — tours of Charleston.

“So much of our history in the South is related to food,” Miss Manning says. “Our regional cuisine is quite distinctive. For many visitors, coming to the Lowcountry is a chance to experience a world of new tastes. Hearing the background of those tastes enhances the experience.”

Miss Manning’s tours typically begin at a local farmers market, where the sights often include fresh peanuts bubbling in large caldrons of salted water, stacks of collard greens with leaves the size of platters and shrimp with the heads still attached — all the better for making stock. The tastes — of sweet-sour artichoke relish, salty country ham, spicy okra pickles, all made locally and usually from generations-old recipes — are brand-new to many of the tour’s participants.

Miss Manning hopes that by supporting interest in regional cuisine she also will help local farmers and producers continue to survive.

“In South Carolina, we are fortunate to have a wealth of family farms and family businesses producing exceptional foods,” she says. “We need to support them, or we will lose them. Our customers are interested in authenticity and connecting to a sense of place called South Carolina.

“Many of them have family or friends who farm and are already supporters of small growers and producers. They recognize that the number of people living and working on farms has been declining for years. When the family farmer is gone, what then?”

She’s not alone in her thinking. Charleston’s restaurants are getting into the picture, too, using what’s available nearby to re-create, reinvent and reinterpret classic Lowcountry dishes in the Southern style.

Just as bourbon-laced bread pudding, blackened snapper and other Cajun and Creole delights put New Orleans on the map as a food destination, Lowcountry specialties such as she-crab soup, benne-seed wafers and shrimp and grits are doing the same for Charleston.

HIGH COTTON

“There’s a lot more to Lowcountry cooking than shrimp and grits, although that’s a pretty terrific dish,” says Jason Scholz, who, as executive chef of High Cotton Maverick Bar & Grill on East Bay Street in Charleston, is responsible for giving classic favorites a modern twist.

“The biggest difference between Lowcountry cuisine and Creole is that here we don’t use roux (a cooked flour-and-fat mixture) as our thickener,” he says. “But we do share common roots in the African and European influences that appear in both cuisines.”

Rice perlau is one example. With roots in an African dish that came to America in the 19th century by way of slaves and slave traders, perlau is a soupy one-dish meal defined by rice that has been cooked in a seasoned broth with vegetables (often okra, which thickens the stew) and, usually, meat, fish or poultry. It is also called pilau and perloo, among other names, and is the basis for pilaf.

At High Cotton, Mr. Scholz’s earthy and comforting version is made with duck, which is stewed and then shredded into the rice. “South Carolinians eat a lot of game, so it made sense to incorporate that into this dish,” he says.

High Cotton’s dedication to regional cooking isn’t limited to tastes: Mr. Scholz has a commitment to using as many local and seasonal ingredients as he can.

He says that reaching producers individually is time-consuming, particularly because each one offers just a handful of items, but he believes the result is worth it.

“The dishes taste better; we’re supporting local businesses; and visitors get the chance to really savor the Lowcountry. It really makes sense all the way around,” he says.

Around the corner at Anson, another destination for innovative preparations of classic Southern offerings, chef Kevin Johnson grinds grits in-house from local heirloom corn varieties.

Grinding grits in a restaurant? “We’re grinding enough for each night, not pound after pound,” manager Phil Pettus says. “It doesn’t take a tremendous amount of time, and the flavor is awesome.”

That’s for sure. With a taste and texture that’s more like creamed corn than the sticky white mass that often passes for grits, Anson grits are the perfect foil for — what else — Mr. Johnson’s classic shrimp-and-grits interpretation, which includes bits of ham and a spicy cream gravy.

Even the Sanctuary, a luxurious 255-room seaside resort on Kiawah Island that opened in August, is working to make inroads with local suppliers. At the Ocean Room, the resort’s fine-dining restaurant, chef Chris Brandt is venturing out, too.

“We are looking to source out locally as much as we can,” he says. “Our menu takes its inspiration from the ocean right outside and the local flavors of the region.”

EARLYLEADER

Many people credit chef and author Louis Osteen for leading the charge. His Charleston restaurant, Louis’s Charleston Grill, was, in the 1980s, one of the first restaurants to take family dishes and dress them up for company.

Even then, Mr. Osteen was an early proponent of using as many local ingredients as he could get. “It makes sound sense,” he says. “Businesswise and tastewise.”

At his Pawleys Island venue, the aptly named Louis’s at Pawleys, Mr. Osteen continues the practice with produce from around the state. He covers beef filets with creamy blue cheese made at Clemson University, melts goat cheese from just outside his hometown of Anderson onto sweet red peppers and tops fried quail from Sumter with sweet-onion gravy. The grits are organic and are ground fresh in Columbia. He is excited about finding a source for sweet peppers who lives just down the road.

Mr. Osteen is known for his decidedly gourmet treatments of standbys. His grilled trout, for instance, is stuffed with a traditional mixture of bacon and crab, but it takes on a whole new taste with the addition of capers.

Yet for Mr. Osteen, Sunday dinners are closest to his heart. “We pan-fry chicken and serve it with green beans like my mama made — pan gravy and squash casserole. It’s a good old Southern meal.

“It’s about time we revert back,” Mr. Osteen says. “There are a lot of good Southern recipes out there, and when they’re made with ingredients at their pristine best, it’s a win-win.”

As the region’s own foods gain a following, the farmers who grow and raise them may begin to see more demand. Already, South Carolina quail and grits are served at restaurants in New York City, and many of South Carolina’s specialty food producers have carved out a special niche for themselves in the marketplace, selling products through gourmet establishments such as the Michigan-based food emporium Zingerman’s and New York landmark Dean & DeLuca.

Ask Jim and Ann Irvin. Since starting their Irvin-House wine label a year ago, they’re selling wine throughout South Carolina in grocery stores, specialty markets and wine shops and on the winery’s Web site ( www.charlestonwine.com).

An increase in interest in agri-tourism has made the winery a stop for visitors to the area, many of whom bring a picnic to enjoy with a bottle of muscadine under one of the gnarled live oak trees that shade the large yard.

Back at High Cotton, Mr. Scholz is putting the finishing touches on the evening’s special, local rabbit two ways (the legs were braised in a Madiera-infused stock while the loin was barbecued and then shredded into a traditional rice-and okra-laced gumbo) served over organic grits from Anson Mills, a producer up the road in Columbia. Collard greens are an optional side.

“We had fun with that one,” Mr. Scholz says. “Traditional doesn’t have to mean boring.”

Lowcountry lowdown

• Irvin-House Vineyard and Winery, 6775 Bears Bluff Road, Wadmalaw Island, S.C.; 843/559-6867 or visit www.charlestonwine.com.

• High Cotton Maverick Bar & Grill, 199 East Bay St., Charleston, S.C.; 843/724-3815 or visit www.high-cotton.net.

• Amanda Dew Manning, 843/723-3366 or visit www.carolinafoodpros.com.

• Anson, 12 Anson St., Charleston, S.C.; 843/577-0551 or visit www.ansonrestaurant.com.

• Louis’s at Pawleys, 10880 Ocean Highway, Pawleys Island, S.C.; 843/237-8757 or visit www.louisatpawleys.com.

• The Sanctuary at Kiawah Island, 1 Sanctuary Beach Drive, Kiawah Island, S.C.; 877/683-1234 or visit www.thesanctuary.com.

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