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Archive for June, 2010

Charleston Cafe

I tried to eat here

I planned my first meal in the sophisticated and deliriously historic city of Charleston long before my plane ever touched down. Breakfast at the old Diana’s Cafe (now simply called Toast). I checked fried green tomatoes and grits off the list of required Southern cuisine. And everything was really nice. But maybe it was a little too nice. 

So later that day I asked some Charlestonians where I could go for something a little more, um, authentic. They sent me to the Fat Hen where I got collard greens checked off the list, and thought about getting my wife a souvenir shirt. Then I visualized offering her a shirt that said “Fat Hen” and decided to stay married instead. Now this was a great little restaurant, but it was still too nice for me. 

Next was Hominy Grill, a pretty fabulous cafe fashioned out of an old barber shop. Hominy gets it right not so much in the main course, but in the little things.  The boiled peanuts, the cucumbers, the potato salad that has never seen mustard or mayonnaise. But with so many New York Times accolades framed on the wall, you know this place is just too nice to be authentic. 

So I tried she-crab soup at Shem Creek. I saw the name of the soup and had to ask what it meant. In Washington, we catch leggy Dungeness crabs but are required to throw the females back into the sea. South Carolina is not so particular. I discovered that she-crab soup is more than just soup made from a female crab. You get both the mother and her unborn children. It’s delicious, yes, but most certainly it is not very nice. 

So I asked a new Charlestonian friend to point me to a really, really authentic experience. A place that locals would love but people from the New York Times would never find. I reached for just the right adjective to describe what I was looking for.  I grabbed the wrong one. 

Armed with a street address and my iPhone’s mapping technology, I set off for the ultimate Southern cuisine. And yet the cafe did not seem to exist. The phone number was disconnected. I couldn’t find a sign anywhere with the right name. And after circling around a few times, I came to the realization that everything was leading me to a strange, unseemly hulk of a building. There were no cars parked outside, or at least no functioning cars. The doors were caged in to fend off criminals. An Open sign glowed warmly over a locked door. I know it was locked because I tried to open it. I tried to eat there. Fortunately the door would not open. When I told someone the next day of where I was trying to eat, she said, “People don’t go there for the food. They go there for drugs.” 

So for my last meal in Charleston I found myself at Jestine’s. Unabashedly recognized by the New York Times. I got okra gumbo and sweet tea checked off my list. You can have fried pork, fried fish, fried oysters, and of course fried chicken. A note at the bottom of the menu reads almost sadly: “If you are a vegetarian, we do try to help.”  There is fried okra, after all.

I watched as a line of tourists grew outside. The locals in their Sunday best had managed to beat the crowd for tables inside and kept advising the newly arrived to go stand in the 94 degree heat and wait their turn. I sipped my sweet tea and was relieved to find myself in a place that was really nice. And that was perfect.

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The road to Bessemer

Our first defeat appeared miles from the base of Mount Phelps, where a heavy gate blocked vehicle access to the Sunday Creek Bridge. A smaller sign imported from urban projects added, No Pedestrians. And above them both, someone had spray painted ominously: Night Watchman on Duty.

We looked at our USGS map to estimate the number of miles ahead. Imagined a night watchman chasing after us with his long flashlight as we emerged sweaty and exhausted from the wrong side of his gate. We decided to turn around and go after Bessemer Mountain instead, even if it meant more miles and more bushwhacking in what was now heavy rain.

Our second defeat appeared miles from the base of Bessemer Mountain. This gate had five separate locks and seven bullet holes for punctuation. Back at the USGS map, we decided to turn around and go after Quartz Mountain. The rain increased.

Our third road-blocking gate came a few miles from the base of Quartz Mountain. This time we were determined to press on. Outside the gate, someone had parked a Jeep with an oversized platform tied to the roof, and a tent lashed on top of the platform. An aluminum ladder led up to a hatch in the platform. One could hardly find a stranger spectacle in the wilderness.

Or so I thought. Rain pouring down, packs on our shoulders, Quartz waiting  in the distance, we were just passing the Jeep with its askewed tent on top when the whole thing began to rock back and forth violently. And moan. It was a force of nature. We did not bother knocking.

In our succession of obscure peak attempts, we ended up targeting the most obscure and least attempted of them all. Climbers don’t avoid Quartz. It just never occurs to people that it ought to be climbed. The summit is not particularly high. The terrain is an endless nuisance. But sometimes, you find yourself with a third choice. We sloshed up shallow streams and crossed roiling rapids. We spent hours swimming our way through tall wild roses that mixed our blood with the relentless rain. We didn’t use our ice axes in snow. We used them as machetes.

But eventually we broke through the brush and above the cliffs and made it to nice chunky boulders and snow and a clear path to the summit. At last. So we sat down in the rain, ate a soggy lunch, and turned around. Sometimes you just need to prove you can make it if you want to.

Descending steep, loose terrain, my climbing partner uncovered a Pacific giant salamander. This one was a good 12 inches long and fat, fat, fat. So I pleaded, Wait for me to get there so I can take his picture! A giant salamander in daylight is better than any summit. But now the monster lost its footing and turned over and over in a fast barrel roll down the steep terrain. My partner lowered himself another 10 feet and located the dizzy salamander. I began to plead once more, Wait, but then I lost my own footing and plunged down head over heels, landing with my left boot precisely where the giant salamander should be.

But under my boot, I found only rotten wood and deep inches of loam. The fat and slow salamander was giantly missing.

Back down through the roses, across the rapids and past the now-still Jeep, we turned at last for home, with a stop in Fall City for beer and burgers. The Sunday Creek Bridge is scheduled to open later this month, so Phelps awaits. Bessemer is sure to be climbed as well, even if we have to bike eight miles in to the base. And I’m guessing the salamander on Quartz is still a bit dizzy. Still recovering from being turned around.

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