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. Its
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. Ive 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
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
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 Charlestons 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 wheres 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 didnt 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. Dont know who might you find need de mistletoe.
There was that Jamaican lilt again wrapped up in pure southern music.
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
Id run into it. Though I was certain Id 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.
Its 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
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. Im 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 dont
need to be watching all that mess. Come on in and take a meal with
I turned around to see a young black man holding open the door
to Alices 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 doesnt 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 dont
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 didnt 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 youll 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. Ive been addicted
to drugs that were nowhere near as seductive as the macaroni and
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 Id 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.
Its Gullah, bruddah, yeah.
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
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 hadnt really
seen any signs of it, that it seemed far away to the folks here.
It aint 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 wont 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. Heres 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
dont 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
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
You do what you able.