Benne Oil Admitted to Ark of Taste

benneoilBenne oil, the South’s second-favorite choice for frying until the late 19th century, has been granted a place aboard Slow Food’s Ark of Taste.

The international program seeks to protect and draw attention to foods which are tasty, regionally-important and endangered. Other South Carolina products already admitted to the virtual Ark include Bradford watermelon and Carolina Gold rice.

The nomination form, submitted by the state’s Slow Food regional governor, claims benne “was grown in all great Carolina kitchen gardens, in particular in the forbidden subsistence gardens of African slaves.” Benne oil was commercially produced beginning in the early 1800s; its flavor impressed Thomas Jefferson, but its success was stemmed by the introduction of refined cottonseed oil, a flavorless and economical repurposing of cotton industry waste. Continue reading

Putting a Lowcountry Spin on Dessert Plates

pastryChocolate, the fallback dessert ingredient for many young chefs, doesn’t fare well in the Lowcountry. “It’s hot down here,” Kelly Wilson, an instructor at Trident Tech’s Culinary Institute of Charleston, this week explained during an American Culinary Federation regional conference session dedicated to regional pastry.

“In terms of climate, that dictates what you can make and what you can store,” Wilson said.

But Wilson urged her audience to think beyond chocolate for other reasons, too: While chocolate has a long central American history (and shorter European history), a bevy of other ingredients are more closely tied to the Native American, African, British and French cultures that are reflected in traditional Charleston foodways. Chefs who reflexively localize their savories sometimes forget about fortified wine, black walnuts, rice, sweet potatoes and coconuts when planning last courses, Wilson suggested. Continue reading

How Far Do Chillie Bears Roam?

chillie“The secret to Chillie Bears is you have to work with them,” says the clerk at Seafood Alley, one of the last local joints to still offer the frozen treat. Seafood Alley sometimes deviates from the traditional recipe (which calls for nothing but Kool-Aid) and freezes pineapple juice, but the rules are the same.

“You have to use your teeth,” the clerk explains.

Chillie Bears’ secrets don’t end there, though. The history and reach of the iced snack — and the underground economy surrounding it — are largely undocumented.

“Every neighborhood had a lady who sold them,” says Brandon Myers, the 31-year old owner of Seafood Alley. Although he describes himself as “out of the loop,” he suspects the practice has dwindled away since he was a boy. “Charleston has changed so much.” Continue reading

Shrimp and Grits Takes Trip Through a Texas Deep Fryer

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When the State Fair of Texas starts this Sunday, the long list of deep-fried concessions will include a lowcountry dish making its Dallas debut.

Allan Weiss of Weiss Enterprises worked with a consulting company to develop deep-fried shrimp and grits, which the fair’s publicity department describes as “homemade grits…made with a blend of fresh herbs, cheese, and Cajun shrimp, coated in a secret batter and deep fried.”

“As far as shrimp and grits go, I like the way it tastes and so forth,” says Weiss, who could only spare a minute of phone time in the week leading up to the fair, the largest annual exposition in North America. Continue reading