Much as I wish our oldest daughter Rowan lived closer so we could see her more often, I’m really loving the chance to explore Charleston on our periodic short visits here.
I was bushed Friday night after our 13-hour drive, but we went for a short late night walk along Folly Beach after dinner and some pretty cool live music at Rita’s Seaside Grille. This is clearly the “happening” beach scene for anyone who doesn’t feel like driving two hours north to Hilton Head or the same distance south to Myrtle Beach. It was fun to check it out, but we all prefer the more laid back beach on Sullivan’s Island, and that’s where we wound up on Saturday.
It was too chilly for swimming, but there is so much to explore on this tiny sliver of land along the north edge of Charleston Harbor: Blackbeard and Edgar Allan Poe have walked this shoreline, and key battles were fought here in both the Revolutionary and Civil wars. We didn’t visit any specific sites in 3 miles of ramblings along the beach Saturday, other than a stop at Poe’s Tavern, but it was fun to think about.
“Did you know what Blackbeard wanted in exchange for his hostages?” said Colleen, who’d been reading up on local history. “A chest full of medicines.” Apparently Yellow Fever was a big problem around here back in those days.
On Sunday we trekked 5 miles through downtown Charleston, starting in Battery Park and winding up in the French Quarter.
“You know the British Navy suffered its first defeat here in more than a century?” asked Colleen.
I did not. Looking out from the cannon-equipped barrier wall you can see Fort Sumter, where the Civil War began, along with Fort Moultrie across the Harbor and Pinkney’s Castle, kind of a junior varsity fort, in the middle. The USS Yorktown, a World War II aircraft carrier, provided part of the background scenery as we watched dolphins play and a helicopter water rescue drill.
All of the houses along the Battery are beautiful, but even more so when you realize all the history that’s transpired there. The Edmonston-Alston House, for instance, was where the Confederate General who gave the order that launched the Civil War watched the cannons fire on Fort Sumter. General Robert E. Lee also once spent the night there.
From there we walked through the French Quarter, theoretically searching for “the pink house,” which was built around 1700 and is the oldest house in the city. But really we were just gawking at all the cool architecture before vanishing inside the City Market, a three-block artisan’s market.
We wound up at Jestine’s, a classic southern eatery named after a local legend who lived another three years after the Atlanta Braves wrote to congratulate her on her 109th birthday in 1994. Jestine Matthews’ mother was a Native American and her father was the sharecropping son of a freed slave. She came to Charleston from the low country around the turn of the century and eventually wound up cooking for a prominent local couple. Their granddaughter named the restaurant after the woman who provided tasty homestyle cooking and a warm, welcoming atmosphere “for generations of friends and family.”
Rowan and I both ordered the pecan-crusted whiting, which literally hung off my plate. I got the Southern-style green beans and the broccoli casserole. Colleen ordered what she thought was a grilled cheese but turned out to be a sandwich spread with about an inch of pimento cheese, which is a big deal around here. Cassie and Rowan’s friend Jessica got the fried chicken, which was apparently ever bit as good as advertised.
But what we were looking forward to sampling was a slice of real Southern pecan pie, along with Jestine’s famous Coca-Cola cake. The waitress talked us into trying the coconut cream pie as well, and the girls wanted something fruity, so we got an apple-blackberry cobbler.
By that point, we almost had as many desserts as diners. But I wanted to preserve the conceit that we were merely “tasting,” and each one was so incredible nobody wanted to commit to just one. We passed the dishes around the table until they were gone.
It’s amazing to me that the best pecan pie I’ve ever tasted is merely an afterthought at Jestine’s, which is better known for its Coca-Cola cake and coconut cream pie. But I can see why that is. Pecan pie is served everywhere down here, while this cake is something special – an old fashioned chocolate cake that the girls said reminded them of Grandma Linda’s sheet cake, only thicker, gooier and richer. The coconut cream pie was awesome as well, but I don’t have a lot to compare it to.
It would’ve been cool to meet Jestine, who died the year after the restaurant opened in 1996. But I’m glad her food lives on, as just one small piece of what makes Charleston unique.