BEFORE CHARLESTON BECAME A TRAMPLED TOURIST HOTSPOT, with repeat appearances on Best Places to Live lists and the local chefs in all the magazines, it was a pretty insular place.
And according to my friend Mary Tutterow, who has lived in Charleston all her life, there wasn’t even a restaurant culture until the 1980s. “There were three restaurants in Charleston as recently as when I was a child, if you don't count Hardee's or Bessinger's BBQ,” she told me, in a piece I wrote for the Chicago Tribune, back in 2006.
Charlestonians lived off the land and cooked at home long after other regions were happily homogenized and well before “farm to table” became a cliché.
Did you buy your speckled butter beans at Deenie's stand in the market? She had some good ones today. Was your red meat from Mr. Burgage? Were the tomatoes and corn from a Wadmalaw Island stand? Did your daddy catch the shrimp this morning in the creek? Are those Mr. Huck's boiled peanuts? He has the best. That’s the way Mary described it to me, in her best imitation of old-timers.
But in an effort revive its economy, which was floundering badly, the city launched a hard-press campaign advertising Charleston as the country’s “best kept secret.”
It worked. Charleston soon became a Disneyfied version of itself. Architectural treasures, long-unpainted and in woeful disrepair, were snapped up by outsiders with plenty of money to spend. A restaurant culture blossomed.
And so did a kind of reverse white flight: the population, which had been about two-thirds black is now almost three quarters white.
And about those “best kept secrets”: in food’s national landscape, they remained hidden and uncelebrated.
Which brings me to Hanna Raskin, a Michigander who came to Charleston in 2013, after a wide-ranging career in food journalism, to become the food editor and chief critic for the Post and Courier.
It would be wrong to say that others hadn’t written about the rich culinary world beyond the Charleston Peninsula. But Raskin, a trained food historian, made it part of her full-time job. She applied old-school reporting chops to the culture and history of the region’s food, traveling beyond the polished vision visitors’ bureaus tend to push on the world.
Rather than offering just quick hits to feed the internet beast, Raskin came out of the gate upon her arrival in 2013 by scorching the beloved but touristy Jestine’s Kitchen, followed by an assortment of reporting that seemed to touch on practically every aspect of the area: An invaluable exit-by-exit guide to eating along Highway 26; an exposé of a restaurant that was serving $2 frozen pizzas for $18; a fascinating report on the waning of traditional South Carolina liver hash in the Low Country barbecue world; the food traditions of tent camp meetings; the diversity of the buffet tables at the Central Mosque of Charleston during the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Fitr; a community’s goodbye to a beloved oyster shucker; South Carolina prison-system food; and an investigation of the history of a glorious tradition: bars that give away bushels of free steamed crabs to drinking patrons.
The last three stories garnered Raskin the James Beard Foundation’s 2017 medal for Impact Journalism.
But it has to be said that Raskin’s work has always been more about garnering attention for true “best kept secrets” than for herself: the overlooked, the under-reported, the disenfranchised. And now, she is on the move again, having recently launched an even more ambitious role for herself.
I’m happy to say she has joined my crowd on Substack, with a new newsletter, The Food Section, where she has big plans to apply her old-school reporting chops to the entire South. You should sign up.
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I talked to Raskin recently by Zoom, and not just because I wanted a salad (which, of course, I got), but to ask her what in the world she was thinking, leaving a secure journalism job for . . . independent journalism.
“I really agonized about this decision. I believe in newspapers,” said Raskin, whose extremely loyal readership, curiously enough, overlapped with the paper’s sports page readers. “I’ve always said that the great thing about Charleston is people here eat out like a big city and read the paper like a small town. They all read the paper. So that's hard to give up.”
So why did she?
“I knew that if I stayed there, I would never have any more in the way of reach or resources. That was the number one reason. For instance, at one point I wanted to apply for a fellowship of some kind and was told I couldn't do that because the paper couldn't lose me for any amount of time. It became very clear to me that there was not going to be any real opportunity for growth.”
So now Raskin will grow her beat on her own. It’s an ambitious project, even a daunting one.
“Having been in a small, local market for so long, I’m very accustomed to being able to get on my bike and go talk to whomever it is I’m writing about, or to go check out whatever building is burning down, God forbid. So—to work an entire region and try and cultivate sources at a distance, yeah, it’s a little overwhelming,” she told me.
But she has plans to get help, by expanding beyond a single voice—meaning her own—too.
“I want this to be bigger than me, me, me. That’s not what this is about. I want it to serve as a platform for independent and rigorous food journalism across the South,” she said.
“Ultimately, I would love for it to be a true food-journalism organization so that there are people who are covering each of the major cities the way I cover Charleston, with people keeping an eye on everything that's happening in between,” she added. “And more of an opportunity to cover rural areas. Boy, I mean, you talk about what gets overlooked.”
And just FYI: Raskin’s coverage of Charleston, even though it's a sophisticated city, is often largely about the surrounding communities—and it really takes you outside of that New York-Chicago-L.A. mindset.
Which I (me, me, me!) find especially exciting as a former rural southerner: the idea of real reporting on the entire region, not just its cities.
It’s an exciting time for independent journalism, and Raskin is embracing it. “In my dream scenario, we’ll be able to do the food coverage that needs to be done—about the South. Definitely about the South; that’s not changing.”
But another aspect of Raskin’s vision that I find particularly thrilling: rather than clickbait and low-nutrition meals for the internet beast, she’ll continue to embrace “old-school” reporting, a term I used to describe her work with trepidation—because it sounds almost pejorative these days.
“No, I think old-school really is the word for it. I don't think there's anything wrong with the way good journalism has to be practiced. Really, the only thing new about what I'm doing is that it's an email newsletter,” she said.
Here’s what Raskin says you can expect for now, though: “On Mondays, a longer piece. “It could be an investigative report, it could be an opinion column, it could be a restaurant review—a feature or profile. That's once a week. And then it's bunch of quicker hits in the middle of the week; Wednesday will be recurring columns.”
And I’m also glad to hear that even though Raskin promises The Food Section “won’t be about me, me, me,” it will reflect her personality through her interests. “If I go to a small town, I want to go to the little biscuit shop, I want to go to the little museum. That's how I have come to know the South,” she says.
When we got to the give-me-a-salad part of the conversation, Raskin and I agreed that a classic Southern salad is whatever ingredient you’re hungry for, like tomatoes, plus mayonnaise. “I think about what shows up at the family reunions or whatever is a potato salad, macaroni salad, shrimp salad. We have the tea rooms they do here where they serve egg salad,” she said.
And then she gave me a salad that embraced that idea but also incorporated Raskin’s interests and approach to the South: a seafood salad specific to the Gullah community, that is also a long-overlooked dish in that culinary canon. You can download and read her terrific story here And I’ve also included the recipe below.
You’ll note in Raskin’s story that Charlestonians are FANATICAL about their shrimp. Having lived there and picked it up fresh at the dock, I understand why. However! I don’t have access to that, so I bought some great lump crabmeat (people often use sea legs for this recipe) to make up for it. It cost me nine million dollars and was worth every penny. I should also point out that I did not cook my hardboiled eggs or my noodles for 20 minutes, as instructed, and I also cooked them separately, also in defiance of the recipe. I recommend adding the juice of half a lemon and a pinch of cayenne pepper, as well as salt to this recipe; I made the dressing separately and then tossed with the pasta and seafood. I regret that I did not have any Palmetto Blend. I have ordered some.
*RECIPE: Seafood Salad from “Charleston’s Gullah Recipes,” by Darren Campbell
Serves a LOT
4 cups water
1 pound noodles (I used shells, as recommended in Raskin’s piece)
1 pound shrimp, peeled and deveined
½ pound crab meat
1 stalk celery, diced
¼ cup sweet relish
3 scallions, sliced or chopped
1 tablespoon Palmetto Blend, or ½ tablespoon salt and ½ tablespoon pepper
½ cup mayonnaise
1 tablespoon mustard
2 tablespoons Thousand Island dressing
Heat water in a medium saucepan over high heat. Add eggs and noodles. Cook for 20 minutes, or until noodles are tender. Drain. Separate eggs from noodles, and place noodles in freezer for 15 minutes to cool.
Place the shrimp in a small saucepan. Add water to cover. Season water with Palmetto Blend or salt and pepper, if desired. Poach over medium-heat for 10 minutes, or until shrimp are pink. (NOTE FROM EMILY: this took me about 3 minutes; be careful not to overcook your shrimp). While shrimp are cooking, peel eggs and chop. Drain water from shrimp.
Mix chilled noodles with eggs, shrimp and remaining ingredients. Stir to combine. Let cool and serve.
BEFORE YOU GO!
Here’s a quick look at a new vintage book in the Department of Salad Library, The Congressional Club Cook Book: Favorite National and International Recipes. The introductory pages feature a Virginia Slims cigarette ad, photos of various First Lady inaugural ballgowns (worn by mannequins), and a foreword by Patricia Nixon. I’m obsessed with the Nixons. So I bought it. We’ll be taking a closer look at the salad section in a future issue.
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