Charleston, South Carolina — a town of fine homes and fine cuisine imprinted by the people who lived there.
I learned its history unfold in the most delicious way possible: through food.
I’ve promoted the idea of taking a good food tour when you first arrive to a city more than once. Now I’ll reiterate: find a good food tour that will show you what the town you’re in is all about. A good food tour will share the rich history of the area; the cultures that shaped who settled there, how they lived, and how they ate. In many tours, you’ll walk from one establishment to another and hear about some of the architecture, or the chefs and their inspiration. You can tell a lot about a town through its food.
Here’s what I learned about Charleston on a food tour unlike any other I’ve experienced.
The Historic Charleston Supper Club Tour
There isn’t any walking on Charleston Culinary Tour’s “Historic Charleston Supper Club Tour.” Instead, the food and the stories come to you as you dine in an historic dining room.
Four courses are served to guests while tales of Charleston’s history unfolds. A costumed tour guide/host shared stories such as the fact that these recipes, or “receipts” as they were called, were the culmination of much food and historical research conducted by our host, Mike, who happily combined these two passions to create the Historic Charleston Supper Club Tour.
Course #1 – Colonial Period
The first course could have been a meal in itself. Mike brought out pork chops cooked with shallots and mustard and a side dish of asparagus cooked with capers and butters. Mustard was a common ingredient in dishes during colonial times. The pork was delicious, as was the asparagus. I realized right away that I would need to pace myself because these “four courses” were all mini meals in themselves depending on how much you took from the family-style platters.
Course #2 – Antebellum Times
Mike warned us that our next course might be flavors unfamiliar to us. He served Beef a la Mode from a receipt he found from the kitchen of Sarah Rutledge. This was not “a la mode” as in “served with ice cream.” No. This was beef “a la mode” (“of the current style”) cooked with nutmeg and mace. Different, no? But quite tasty! Mike explained that nutmeg and mace (which come from the same plant) were often used to flavor the meat in case the meat was starting to become a little “off.” Our meat wasn’t, of course, but without refrigeration back in the 18th and 19th centuries, people had to use what they had.
The side dish Mike served with the beef was a big hit: a sort of chunky mashed potato dish that was heavily laden with sour cream and butter. Again, butter and sour cream could not be refrigerated, so once it was made, colonists needed to eat it up. Several of my dinner companions asked for the “receipt” for the potatoes. Who doesn’t love potatoes with sour cream and butter?
Course #3 – Reconstruction & Beyond
Course #3 took us into dishes influenced by the West Africans who’d been brought to the lowcountry. The Gullah people taught the English inhabitants about southern delicacies like Carolina gold rice, which was so distinct from other rice that the Emperor of China even requested it. European rice doesn’t stick together, but Carolina gold rice does, and it was with this ingredient that Mike served us Shrimp Pilau (colloquially pronounced as “perlu”).
This heady seafood dish was something like a Spanish paella, with rice, shrimp, tomatoes, and seasoning. Our group loved it so much that I didn’t have time to get a picture before most of the shrimp had already been picked out. None of us could resist this dish.
Course #4 – Dessert!
We were all full. But we were about to be enticed to find a little more room in our bellies for at least ONE of the four desserts Mike brought out. (Truth be told, we all found room for all four. 🙂 )
We whet our appetites with homemade sassafras candies. I’ve always liked sassafras; it reminds me of root beer. We also had pieces of butterscotch and bites of benne brittle. Benne seeds are similar to sesame seeds. The name Benne comes from the Bantu people of West Africa is still commonly found in the Gullah cuisine of the Low Country- Charleston South Carolina Area.
Then, who could resist this Charlotte Russe?
A Charlotte Russe is the Russian name for a trifle-like dish of ladyfingers, heavy whipped cream, and seasonal fruit. South Carolina peaches topped ours and we all moaned our delight for this fresh summer dessert.
But there was more! Croquembouche. Little bite-sized French pastry puffs filled with cream and then shaped into a tower, then drizzled with caramel.
None of could resist trying one — or two, or three — of these. They were scrumptious!
A Food Tour Unlike Any Other
By the end of the meal, I was both grateful and dismayed that this hadn’t been a walking tour because I was stuffed! But what was wonderful about this unique approach is that we got to sit comfortably around a table and meet and converse with our dinner companions throughout the evening. Since we were inside, we didn’t have to worry about the sweltering humidity that can make Charleston so uncomfortable. And we didn’t have to strain to hear Mike tell us all his interesting historical facts as he shared each course. It truly felt like being invited into an historical home for supper and we all enjoyed every minute.
Mike’s Historic Charleston Supper Club Tour combined the best of both worlds: historical information and delicious food. Mike’s enthusiasm for both shined through in every dish. But if you go, don’t expect that you will enjoy the exact dishes that we did. Mike has culled hundreds of receipts from historical files and serves what is in season and available — just as those cooks from each period did.
Just know that you’re going to love it… and leave with a full belly.
Have you ever experienced historically-accurate food on your travels?