Coming in from the Cold in Charleston
“Covered and chunked, or diced and peppered?” This Southern argot for hash browns dished out by the waitress at a roadside diner near Charleston left me perplexed.
My girlfriend, Jenny, and I decided to escape the creeping New England cold by heading south on a road trip that would combine the travel ingredients we like best: a sprinkling of history, a heaping portion of outdoor adventure, and plenty of food.
Charleston seemed a good pick. Until, that is, our (fortunately patient) waitress started to frown at the puzzled look on my face. “Not from around here?” she quipped, then added with a quick smile, “It isn’t all that hard to decide: everyone in the South prefers their hash browns covered and chunked.”
With that, she took my order, or rather ordered for me – the start of many new experiences on our first sojourn below the Mason Dixon line.
We headed off with stomachs packed full of these great tasting hash browns (think crisp, shredded potatoes covered diced ham and tangy melted cheese), and in desperate need to burn off the carb-induced energy boost.
When we saw the wooden sign for the Middleton Equestrian Center, a stable located in the Low Country some fourteen miles from downtown Charleston, we decided to make a stop. We mounted up for a trail ride that brought us alongside the historic Middleton Place. Jenny, who grew up with horses in the small town we both hail from in Maine, took the lead.
As we rambled past what looked like ancient oak trees that dot the plantation, it felt like we had somehow time-warped back to the 19th century. We rode past ancient rice fields and historical outbuildings, and clopped through marshland along the Ashley River, where we spied a healthy population of alligators sunbathing at the water’s edge.
With midday temperatures climbing into the 70s (the equivalent of a hot summer’s day back home in Maine), we decided that the beach ought to be the next stop on our impromptu itinerary.
Sullivan’s Island delivered the perfect afternoon. Located across the harbor from downtown Charleston (near Fort Sumter), the beach proved a quiet escape, with working shrimp boats dotting the water and the fresh salt air filling our lungs as we walked barefoot along the sand.
As the sun sank into clouds of crimson and auburn, our stomachs began to growl. For our next culinary outing, we decided to survey the locals, and we were told again and again of a little spot called the Glass Onion. When someone told us it was where “the local chefs eat,” we knew we had our place. It was clear when we got there it was our kind of restaurant – forget all that fussy fine dining stuff, just give me good food and ambiance.
The Glass Onion’s menu includes Southern classics like fresh, wild-caught Carolina shrimp served atop a bed of smoky bacon, beet greens, and creamy grits, but we opted for their flagship fried chicken. We were lucky they had an extra serving on hand (the dish is so popular that the restaurant normally requires patrons to order 24 hours in advance), and discovered a culinary contradiction of the best kind: a delightfully crunchy outside paired with spoon-slicing tenderness within.
With most of our college friends already talking about traveling to spring break parties in a few months, returning to sample more of Charleston’s charm sounds a lot nicer to us. And this time, I’ll know exactly what to say the next time a waitress asks, “Covered and chunked, or diced and peppered?”