You Do What You Able
December 1, 2001
Charleston, South Carolina

Starting at Memphis and moving eastward, every other restaurant you see will pound you with some variant of “Authentic Southern Cooking” or, “The Finest Southern Cooking”. It’s in the windows, on the signs, on the menu, on the table top cards, on the uniforms, and drilled into the servers until, like brainwashed zombies, they chant the mantra over and over. The message is a relatively elegant way of saying “We Rock, They Suck, Stop Here.”

The disturbing part of this is that most of the food associated with this message, the soggy fried chicken, the liquid gruel called mashed potatoes, the vegetables sautéed until they are robbed of identity and flavor, is really, really, REALLY, bad. Nothing authentic or fine about it. I’ve had better Southern Cooking at truck stops in Oregon.

But I am persistent.

Charleston is an old town. The low country climate and land was perfect for cotton, rice, and indigo. The confluence of rivers and the natural harbor made it an ideal port and thus, an ideal trade center. The agriculture, labor intensive as it was, and the proximity to the West Indies early on, made it an obvious choice as a center for the slave trade. The money is so old in Charleston it has fossilized. And it got here on the strong backs and broken pride of an entire race.

The license plate motto for South Carolina is “Smiling Faces, Beautiful Places”. Its earthier sister Carolina to the north has the much more grounded, “First in Flight”. South Carolina might go for truth in advertising and openly embrace its Confederate, secessionist soul and go with “We Quit First”. Though I am charmed by the slow, mint julep ease of the South every time I am in it, I will never understand the revisionist romanticizing of slavery.

Nonetheless, I liked Charleston quite a bit.

Its narrow streets were built before the automobile and are, as a result, bad for driving…which makes them outstanding for walking. On the drive in toward the downtown commercial area, I motored past a side street no wider than a glorified alley. At the edge of the main drag a large hand drawn banner read, “Omelets and Barbecue, Shrimp & Grits”. Find that on an Interstate, I dare you.

Glancing down the alley as I went by the sign I saw a street fair in progress. I stumbled through Charleston’s baffling array of one way streets and odd turn lanes until I had made a wide and discontinuous loop and parked somewhere within walking distance to the street fair. Winding through a maze of narrow alleys reminiscent of New Orleans I followed the sound of a Zydeco band pumping out a Cajun version of “Justine”…and the amalgamated aroma of sweet and spicy on a number of different grills.

I felt like a rat working through a maze looking for the cheese. Dead end. Backtrack. Dead End. Backtrack. Turn, Zig. Zag. Somehow I found myself back on the street where I parked. I could have simply walked down that street to the light, turned left, and strolled a half block to where I had seen the banner. But where’s the glory of discovery in that? I went back down an alley that I swore I had already traversed. A little kid pushing holly and mistletoe accosted me. Two bucks for the mistletoe. His accent caught my attention. Something vaguely Jamaican about it. I told him I didn’t have anyone to hold the Mistletoe over. He smiled and drawled out in tones dripping Spanish Moss, “All the more reason to have it, suh. Don’t know who might you find need de mistletoe.” There was that Jamaican lilt again wrapped up in pure southern music. Weird.

I asked him how I should get out of the alley and reach the street fair. He told me to keep going in the direction I was headed and I’d run into it. Though I was certain I’d been down this dead end before, I gave it a shot. Sure enough, the cobblestone alley widened and there was a tributary leading out to the main part of the market. I was in the Artist Alley. Various artisans and craftspeople stood behind little card tables hawking their creations. The Charleston version impressed me with its complete absence of kitsch. These were real artists, all from a 20-30 mile radius.

I saw a grim faced black woman sitting stoic behind her table. The table was packed with a rainbow coalition of rag dolls of her making. Black, white, yellow, red, brown…all dressed the same anachronistic Reconstruction era fashion.

One in particular jumped out. It was easily the largest, standing about two feet tall. It was a smiling Aunt Jemimah all decked out in red, white, and blue with a little inscription in blue against the solid white apron. “God Bless America with the light of his love from above”. The doll held in its hands a little sign saying “September 11, 2001”. I asked her why she made it. She looked at me like I was from Mars.

“It’s the time we goin’ through, child.” Softly. Indignant. There was that weird accent again with some sounds all Charleston lazy tongued gentility, and some pure Caribbean Steel Drum.

She answered all the rest of my questions with nods or shakes of her head, along with the occasional dainty grunt of affirmation. No matter how I probed she would say nothing more about what prompted her than, “Troubled times, child. You do what you able.”

I guess you do.

I bought the doll. I’m a sucker for being called “child”. Works every time.

I wandered the main part of the fair. Local growers featured their produce, various restaurants cooked up some good old down home. Zydeco bounced down the narrow walled street. Everybody said hello. Everyone met eye contact with a direct look and a smile. I made it down to the end, by the banner that had beckoned me in. A block to my left was the glitzy main shopping district, all renovated faux Georgian style. To my right, the fringes of that district. Peeling paint and hand painted signs. Old black men sitting on a stoop, smoking and talking about how it was back when.

I went to my right.

I was mildly hungry and looking for some food but mostly I sauntered down the boulevard taking in the odd mix of shops and restaurants. Here was a new and sleek pasta joint with a freshly redone shell. Next to it, an old appliance store filled with televisions and radios that dropped in from thirty years ago. An old classic looking movie house with a fading marquee declared playing times for Shallow Hal.

I was ambling aimlessly and got wrapped up in the drama across the street. A young yuppie couple was going to the mats over where they thought they had parked. They seemed to agree that they were within a block of where they had left the car but one wanted to go right and the other wanted to go left. Nobody fights that intensely over parking. I wondered who was cheating on whom and how long the other one had known about it.

From behind me a whisper of a voice said, “You don’t need to be watching all that mess. Come on in and take a meal with us, suh.”

I turned around to see a young black man holding open the door to Alice’s Gardens. Under the name it said “The Authentic Southern Cooking”. Oh, well, here we go again. At least the place looked authentic. Old paneling, hand painted menus on the wall above the cafeteria style serving area, and endearingly flawed homemade Christmas decorations lined the windows and banisters inside. I approached the counter and met Missy.

It is a cold hearted man who doesn’t fall just a little in love with Missy. She has a gleaming smile, high round cheeks, and a way of talking that makes you want to never go home. I don’t know what it is but I watched every guy who walked in that afternoon melt when she spoke. I told her I was there for the authentic Southern cooking but I didn’t know a thing about it so she needed to put it together for me. She laughed and grabbed a plate.

“The thing with Southern cooking is you need to know three hours later that you ate well. A little taste of spice should stick with you the rest of the day.” As she ladled up some fried chicken, homemade macaroni and cheese, red rice, okra soup, and cornbread she told me, “Now, you may not like all of this being a Yankee, but you give it a try and I think you’ll be alright with it.” She handed me my ridiculously heavy plate and a large glass of sweet ice tea.

Sheer heaven. The fried chicken was crisp on the outside and moist on the inside. The cornbread was flaky without being dry. The okra soup was a cultural revelation and the red rice had just a little burn of spice without hiding behind it. I’ve been addicted to drugs that were nowhere near as seductive as the macaroni and cheese.

While I ate a tall thin black man bussed tables and tidied up around me. As with nearly everyone I encountered in the south he was cordial, friendly and had an easy way of talking. Reggie had that same lilac drawl and island bounce to his rhythm that I’d heard earlier. I told him he sounded Jamaican and asked him where he was from.

“South Carolina, born and raised.”

I told him the accent was throwing me off.

“It’s Gullah, bruddah, yeah.”

“It’s what?”

“Gullah. Geechee,” he said laughing at me. “Sea Island, mon. Right here off de coast.”

There is a chain of islands running from roughly the middle of South Carolina down south into Georgia. The best known of the islands is Hilton Head. Almost as soon as European settlers began populating the islands, African slaves were brought in, first up from the West Indies and later directly from Africa. These slaves vastly outnumbered the white population. As a result of those numbers and the separation provided by the sea, an island culture came into existence that was part Deep South but retained far more of the culture of Africa and the Caribbean Islands than Low Country mainland slaves could. Magic, religion, language, agriculture all survived to a greater degree than elsewhere in the states. The dialect I had been hearing had traces of the South, Jamaica, and Africa all wrapped up in it.

Reggie sat with me awhile before the traffic in the place picked up. We talked about Charleston. He told me where to go to find the best music, “Jazz wit’ a little bit of South thrown in”. He said the best part about music is that it draws the best women, “whether you looking to find someone or just looking, it make the music sound all the better when the pretty ones dancing to it nearby.”

I asked Reggie what he thought of the Attacks.

“We got to get that man, we do.”

I asked him if he thought his life or the lives of the people of Charleston had been affected by it. I told him I hadn’t really seen any signs of it, that it seemed far away to the folks here.

“It ain’t far away. It just under control. You got to be angry, you see the people got killed and all the families. You got to be angry, you see the soldiers they going over there and know some won’t be coming back. You got to be angry, you hear about the people over there and how they suffer from the people in charge. You got to be angry. Here’s the trick of it. You got to treat the anger like a faucet. You got to turn it off when it time to live a little and turn it back on when you got to. You don’t learn to control that feeling, mon, you gon’ to drown in the indignation.”

Indignation comes out like a slow, sad waltz.

“If you and me be angry right now, how we gon’ sit here talking ‘bout music and food and women and all the good things?”

To everything, there is a season…

I told him I was afraid of not being angry…afraid I’d forget. For the only time in our conversation his face clouded.

“No, no, no. You got to be angry for the ones got killed. But you got to laugh for them. You got to dance for them. You got to love for them ‘cause they gone now and it up to us to do it for them. When it time, we gon’ to revenge for them an’ it gon’ to go hard on him that done this. But we got to not only remember them wit’ da hate, now. We got to remember them wit’ da good, too.”

He sat back, the cloud still over his face. Slowly, it faded and gave way to a broad smile. He said, “Tell me I don’ tell you true. I say this…the talkin’ and laughin’ and friendliness we having just now. We do it for them. For the ones gone now. How ‘bout we decide this time we just had is for them?”

You do what you able.

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