By Peg Moore

When Josiah Quincy visited Charleston in 1773, he feasted on turtle at the home of Thomas Lynch and “a prodigious fine pudding of rice flour” at the home of Thomas Smith. He admired the “handsome spacious room” of the Charleston Library Society and a concert sponsored by the St. Cecilia Society (“a Frenchman just arrived, played a first fiddle and solo better than any I ever had heard.”) His journal recorded the grandeur of the Miles Brewton house (inspired by Palladio’s Villa Conaro). Quincy described his dinner at a “most elegant table” as having “the richest wine I ever tasted.”

 

From its earliest days Charleston has been renowned for living graciously and for the excellence of food in private homes. Our sizeable French population influenced the importance of eating leisurely with family and friends, inspiring the three o’clock dinner tradition.

Today there is concern in France that current culinary trends are threatening social bonds and diminishing French dining traditions — those traditions have been recognized by UNESCO as part of the “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.”

The same culinary diet trends are diminishing the pleasure of dining in Charleston, too.

Food as poison or medicine?

Selective Eating is a collection of academic essays published in French and soon to be published in English. It points out those fashionable diets, such as veganism and vegetarianism, are at odds with French dining traditions.

Intense media attention identifies foods as being either good or bad for us — medicine or poison. Does that sound yummy? Some foods, like butter and eggs, may appear on both lists at different times. Confusion and stress about food is replacing the classic tradition of judging food by it deliciousness.

French children are brought up to try everything. The French know less about nutrition and spend more time eating than Americans and yet obesity is not the problem in France that it is here.

Social psychologist Estelle Masson writes that, “Eating does not have the sole purpose of nourishing the biological body but also and above all of nourishing the social bond.”

A New Yorker cartoon recently illustrated two women talking with the caption, “I began my vegetarianism for health reasons, then it became a moral choice and now it’s just to annoy people.”

Whatever happened to food being delicious?

‘Eat up. You’ll be happier’

An opinion piece in The New York Times by Pamela Druckerman agrees with the concerns of “Selective Eating.” She points out that the French focus on the pleasures of food, but Americans often see food as an individual journey of self-discovery. Druckerman confesses that when she moved to Paris, her French hosts were baffled by her avoidance of carbohydrates and meat — “Selective eating may not lead us to our best selves.” She has learned to relax and enjoy everything.

When shown chocolate cake in a survey, a French person associated it with celebration and pleasure. Americans saw it as calories and guilt. Stress about food interferes with savoring its deliciousness. Karen Le Billon, who wrote “French Kids Eat Everything,” theorizes about how it is that the French seem to be able to have their cake and eat it too. She suggests that the “pleasure principle” plays a role in explaining why the French are able to consume dairy and meat produces in large quantities and yet have lower rates of heart disease than Americans.

In Charleston, locavorism and the renaissance of heirloom foods in the hands of so many talented chefs has made our cuisine more delicious than ever. Let’s enjoy it.        

Savor French classics

Reviewers in New York are cheering about the current revival in bistros, hailing it as a “new age of culinary opulence.” Le Baratin in Greenwich Village is the latest. Restaurateur Keith McNally owns the popular Balthazar and Minetta Tavern. His recently opened Cherche Midi restaurant is said to be the “toughest reservation.”

Charleston foodies have welcomed Chez Nous and Brasserie Gigi. Chez Nous may be tiny, but it is attracting huge raves for its deliciousness. Chef Jill Mathias is a veteran of fine dining restaurants in Martha’s Vineyard and Charleston’s Carolinas. Chez Nous serves lunch and dinner. The menu, which changes daily, is focused on southern French.

Julia Child used to say you could judge a restaurant by the quality of their roast chicken. Word is out about the roast chicken at Brasserie Gigi. There are regulars who order it every time. Other delicious options include the moules and frites, salade nicoise and fish meuniere.

The tried and true 39 Rue de Jean continues to be a local favorite, providing some of the best mussels, excellent salmon béarnaise and an irresistible truffle potato soup.

Deliciousness at non-French restaurants

Jason Stanhope of FIG certainly deserves the Beard award as Best Chef Southeast. My most recent meal at FIG featured a perfect soft-shelled crab, which was pure deliciousness and adorned only with butter and lemon. Chef Jason has a sure hand in keeping tastes pure — and delicious! The pasta was also memorable, as were several dishes with asparagus and a black bass served with a raisin-caper jus, polenta and sprouting broccoli.

The Park Café is not to be missed. Joanne Milkereit is one of many recommending the vegetable plate. The daily fish special is always delicious. The farm egg vegetable soup is practically a meal in itself, especially if you add the house ricotta and baguette. If you are craving the memorable avocado toast, go early in the day.

For artisanal pizza, there’s EVO. The pistachio pesto pizza was named one of the best by Food Network Magazine. It and the pork trifecta are the most popular. My favorite has local mushrooms and harvarti. Bon appétit!

Peg Moore may be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

 

 

Mercury newspaper racks are located at the following locations:

The Meeting Street Inn

Clair's Service Station at 334 Folly Rd.

Harris Teeter on Houston-Northcutt Blvd.

The Square Onion in I'On

Mt. Pleasant Library on Mathis Ferry Rd.