Friday, March 30, 2012

Springtime in Charleston

Though I am Georgian through and through, I admit Charleston's beauty in springtime is stiff competition for our dear city of Savannah.  Wandering the streets of the peninsula city, spring's vibrant colors and delightful scents accost us at every turn.  Of course, this spring has been pristine all over the South. Seeing azaleas in full glory always excites this southern girl, but I actually gasp as we walk by a tree dripping with three shades of cherry blossoms over a massive azalea bush abloom with lavender flowers.  Now, I don't know which combination I like better: cherry trees and azalea bushes or live oaks and palmettos.  The great thing about "the Holy City" in springtime is I don't have to choose.

For years, there has been a very lady-like fight going on between the sister-cities of Savannah and Charleston with each claiming to be the epitome of southern grace and charm.  Growing up, my parents took us kids to Savannah each April to witness spring "as God intended," according to my mother.  Savannah always welcomed us North Georgia folk as the sort of poor relations they must endure once a year.  I didn't care; I was just happy to claim Savannah as part of my heritage.  I impressed my teachers in school answering the history questions, Who founded the Georgia Colony? (James Oglethorpe) In what year? (1733) What indian chief befriended him? (Chief Tomochichi), faster than a Savannahian could pour you a drink, as a point of pride.  Since buying a vacation rental in South Carolina, I admit I snubbed Charleston out of loyalty to Savannah.  Not once in five years have we visited Charleston.

However, I am proud to say that I, like a fine wine, have matured this year and have already enjoyed Charleston's vistas three times and can't wait to return.

Our first family field trip to Charleston was purely for educational purposes so I had a good excuse for traversing into enemy territory.  We went to see where the Civil War began: Fort Sumter.  If you'd missed that earlier post, please read about it here.   Suffice it to say, we enjoyed that first brief visit.

On our second family field trip, we decided to learn the city by walking and eating.  Parking our car on the street near the College of Charleston campus, we walked over to King Street for window shopping while we acclimated.  I felt like we were in an outdoor mall.  The street offered the major brands like Pottery Barn, Williams Sonoma, Abercrombie and Fitch, and Tommy Bahama, and smaller, local varieties for gourmet honey and women's clothing.  Crossing over one street landed us on Meeting Street. Here, our stomaches spotted Hyman's Seafood famous for its po'boy sandwiches and she-crab soup.  We also passed a renown home-cooking spot called Jestine's.  But we were saving those for another day...

Strolling through the historic City Market, which spans four blocks from Meeting Street to E. Bay Street, proved educational and fun.  Built on land donated by Charles Pinckney in 1788 for the express purpose of a public market, the City Market has been in constant operation (through hurricanes and wars) since 1807.  Throughout its history, the market has offered everything from fine jewelry to fresh fish.  Today, ladies demonstrating sweetgrass basket weaving, potters hocking their handmade wares, and tasting booths set up with samples of southern delicacies introduced us to new products.  Our favorite find was dried okra chips which tasted like fried okra in a bag, but less greasy.

Our walking tour continued down East Bay Street passing the Old Exchange Building and Rainbow Row.  The beauty of these buildings paled beside the glory of the spring blossoms.  With our children's dogs barking and stomaches growling, we turned on Broad Street and returned to the car.  We would save the Battery for another day.

We ended our visit with lupper at Martha Lou's Kitchen.  Located about a mile north of Historic Charleston, Martha Lou's serves southern soul food at its best.  We discovered the tiny shack on an episode of Andrew Zimmern's Bizarre Foods America.  Turns out Martha Lou's Kitchen is Sean Brock's (head chef at Husk and McCrady's - both award winning restaurants) favorite restaurant.  Instead of spending hundreds at either of those critically acclaimed locations, we decided to spend just a few bucks at the source of his inspiration.  We were not disappointed.  Dining on huge chicken breasts fried to order, long simmered lima beans with ham, and melt in your mouth collard greens, our whole family ate in blissful silence, pausing only to wash it all down with church-lady sweet tea.  We had the privilege to meet the quiet, but proud Martha Lou who at age 81 is still frying the chicken herself.  She shared stories of her life raising eight kids and cooking for thousands over thirty years in the restaurant business.  Though our hearts may be less healthy after our meal, our soul has never been better fed.

Bless your hearts, Charleston ladies, for opening our eyes, hearts and minds to your beauty.  Hope to see y'all again real soon!

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