In the late spring of 2001, back in the days of innocence, before the complete rupture of innocence, really, I flew down to visit a friend of mine who was renting a house in Charleston, South Carolina. It was my first time in the real South. The weather was perfect and I felt carefree. My friend had tickets to several different performances at the Spoleto Festival (two weeks or more of jazz, opera, music of different kinds, dance), and we spent a lovely few days exploring the surrounding area and eating incredibly good food.
As varied and rich as the performing arts at Spoleto are, the food of Charleston is even more so. You know you’re in the South: grits, collards, spicy meats and sauces, no lack of fat. But the textures and seasonings are intricate, and the overall effect is as sophisticated as anything you’d find in Manhattan or San Francisco. I loved one particular restaurant, Magnolias, so much that I bought its cookbook. Several months later, a scant four weeks after 9/11, when many of my friends and family were feeling isolated and disconnected, I decided to have a dinner party—a different sort of dinner party. Larger than four couples at a sit-down dinner, I invited everyone I loved, liked, or cared about. I wanted to give them sustenance of the kind I had had in Charleston. It wasn’t a party, really, as much as a return to life. Almost everyone I invited—about two dozen people—showed up. We had all cried and cried; now we were in that state when there weren’t any tears left, for a while, anyway, and we were exhausted and hungry. Thirty-two days after that awful Tuesday, my kitchen was filled with people milling around, subdued, but happy to go through the motions of some sort of normality and be with other people. And they ate. Oh my God, did they eat. I made egg rolls stuffed with grilled chicken and collards, and little bits of tasso, a spicy pork product I ordered from a supplier in New Orleans. I made a peach chutney, a spicy mustard, and red pepper sauces to go with them.
I made spicy shrimp and sausage over grits with tasso gravy. I had ordered the grits from North Carolina—real grits that multiplied splendidly and outgrew the pot and were mounded on a huge platter soaking up the tasso gravy. And I made country cornbread, thick with bacon and sausage and red peppers and green and red onions and fresh corn right off the cob. I baked it in a fat, deep, cast-iron pot and burned myself getting it out of the oven. I didn’t care. It was superb. As I upended it onto a large, round platter, I could feel a surge of bodies around me, drawn by the heat and rich, deep color, and the sweet smell of cornbread right out of the oven. I wasn’t the only one with burned fingers. Hands reached for it as fast as I could cut it. I never even got to taste the egg rolls. As soon as a batch would come out of the fryer, they disappeared. Everyone was so hungry. Most of the food was consumed, but no one complained that they had eaten too much or were too full for peach cream pie. There was a golden light in my house that night. People came to eat and be with each other. No one drank too much, and everyone was grateful for the good food and companionship. It was the first time I felt, was submerged in, the utter power of literally nurturing impoverished souls. Read about Mary Traina.