By Katherine Bielawa Stamper
“Are any of the vegetables vegetarian?” my sister asked.
What might seem an odd question in New England can be a highly appropriate inquiry in the American South.
Our server smiled. She’d heard this question before. “The collard greens are cooked with meat,” she said.
The menu at Jestine’s Kitchen in Charleston, South Carolina is soulful and sweet. It touts “traditional veggies, seafood and fried chicken.” As vegetarians, we knew the pickings would be slim. We were determined to sample traditional Southern cuisine, however peripherally.
“Have you tried fried green tomatoes?” my sister, who now lives in the South, asked. “You really should since you’re here.”
I guess it was time to taste an assortment of fried vegetables along with corn fritters and a glass of Sweet Tea.
We passed over plates of Fried Oyster Po’ Boy, Fried Shrimp Po’ Boy and Pecan Fried Whiting, rounding out our selection with grilled cheese sandwiches, cole slaw and fried okra. We shared a slice of Coca Cola Chocolate Cake for dessert. It tasted more sweet than chocolaty.
For the record: I never eat like this. Fried food sits like a cannonball in my stomach. Sugary drinks rarely find their way into our home. I simply embraced the “When in Rome…” mantra. I’d only be there for three days. How much arterial damage was possible?
Charleston, founded in 1670 as Charles Towne, inhabits a small peninsula jutting out into the Atlantic. My sister, whose company serves high-end construction, has an established client base in this beautiful southern city.
During our visit, we embraced a slower, easier gait, feeling the full weight of thick and sticky heat. Whenever possible, we aimed for shade beneath towering tulip and palmetto trees.
We passed exquisite homes offering a cornucopia of architectural styles: Georgian, Federal, Greek Revival, Italianate, Victorian and Regency. Beveled glass, expansive porches spilling out towards sidewalks, marble columns and bricked piazzas framed by flowers dazzled as we passed. Intricate wrought iron in black, shimmering filigree served up eye candy for those with an appetite for architecture.
Charleston is small in scale and entirely walkable. Steeples pierce the skyline overlooking the sea with nary a skyscraper in sight. We wandered through churches and churchyards reading old gravestones. Episcopal, Roman Catholic, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Methodist, Baptist, Unitarian Universalist and even Hugenot houses of worship were among the featured faiths. Charleston is also home to a long-established Jewish community. Churches provided a quiet, cooling oasis when we needed a break from the noise and heat of the street. We spied plaques memorializing congregants who served in “the Confederate War,” better known up North as the Civil War. I noted a lone Confederate flag adorning a grave.
The Old Slave Mart Museum on Chalmers Street was housed in a former showroom from which slaves were sold. Over 12 million slaves were brought to our shores by European and American traders. Charleston served as a significant port of entry. Although the importation of slaves was officially ended in 1808, smaller scale smuggling operations continued in the decades leading to the Civil War.
Upon arrival, slaves who survived the dangerous Atlantic crossing were housed in jail-like structures called barracoons. Shackles were removed to facilitate healing of cuts and bruises. Food rations increased and exercise was introduced to regain muscle. Slave traders oiled the bodies of and plucked gray hairs from their “product” to enhance appearance and disguise age. Physically appealing slaves commanded higher prices.
Slaves were presented on the selling block and forced to walk, jump and hop for prospective buyers in a dehumanizing, exploitative dance. This human cargo was categorized as “extra man,” “number 1 man,” “second rate,” and “fair or ordinary man.” Women and children were sold, too, splitting families like bushels of corn.
Some slaves intentionally feigned mental illness or self-mutilated to thwart a sale. Slaves were prohibited from learning to read and write. Thank goodness Frederick Douglass was among those who defied their masters, preserving their stories of enslavement for posterity.
Visiting this small yet beautiful sliver of the American South reminds me that we all—New England included—have aspects of our history for which we are proud and aspects for which we are not proud. Preserving our past informs our understanding of today.