Anyone who truly loves food knows that some of our favorite dishes aren’t so much about the taste but the nostalgic memories that .accompany them. I will always associate the taste of Passover brisket with my grandmother, and, although you would be hard-pressed to find processed foods in my pantry, I can’t imagine ever braising a brisket without her secret ingredient – two packets of onion soup powder.
As Charleston has continued to expand, our food culture is adapting – a literal melting pot of all of our food histories. I reached out to three wonderful chefs helping to shape the culinary landscape of our city to learn about how their own families have inspired their cooking and to share the recipes that remind them of home.
Michelle Weaver – Executive Chef of Charleston Grill
Chef Weaver learned the ABCs of Southern cooking from her mother. “Two of her rules were never throw out bacon grease, and vegetables taste better from your own garden,” she reminisced. Some of Weaver’s fondest memories are of her mother’s family coming to visit during the summer. “My Aunt Gaye was the baker and dessert queen. My all-time favorite was her strawberry and angel food cake. It took two days to make it right. First, she would make the angel food cake. Once the cake had time to cool, she would cut off the top and gently dig a tunnel all the way around. She would cut and macerate the berries, then fold the inside tunnel pieces and freshly whipped sweetened cream into the strawberries. Then pack it back into the tunnel and replace the top. She would finish the cake by making some sort of magical icing with whipped cream and love. It would need to sit in the fridge overnight so the juices could soak into the cake just right. My cousins and I would open the door to drool and admire it so much we would get run out of the kitchen!”
Weaver tried her first oyster during one of these get-togethers. “My Uncle Butch would drive up from Florida with a cooler full of shrimp and oysters. My first oyster on the half shell was sitting on a cooler in our backyard next to him. I loved them so much he had to teach me how to shuck them because he couldn’t keep up,” she remembered.
Weaver’s mother, Pat, would prep and cook for two days before the family arrived. “She would put on a spread that would make everyone concede she was the best Southern cook in the family. She would start with a relish tray full of crudites and deviled eggs. Her tomatoes were so celebrated, they got their own plate, peeled and sliced. We only got peeled tomatoes when we had company.”
The side dishes were the star of the show at Weaver’s house. Her mother would serve up creamed corn, green beans, fried okra, skillet cabbage and squash casserole. “Some sort of bread was mandatory to push around the plate, whether it be cornbread, hoe cakes cooked in a skillet or biscuits. If she was in a really giving mood, she spoiled everyone with Parker House rolls with soft butter. But it was all about the veggies,” she exclaimed.
“Southern food is a celebration of life,” continued Weaver. “Whether it’s a family get-together, tailgate party, a wake or a Sunday afternoon, there will be food and lots of it. It’s a way of saying, ‘I love you and I am glad you are here.’ It’s meant to feed your hunger and your soul.”
Mama Pat’s Green Beans
2 pounds fresh green beans (The wide Italian ones are a family favorite.
1 medium Vidalia onion, julienned
1 pound baby new potatoes, only cut if they are large
5 pounds ham scraps, with bone if possible
3 cups chicken or ham stock, unsalted
1 teaspoon fresh black pepper
1 teaspoon kosher salt
2 ounces butter
1. Clean green beans by removing the stems and
snapping the beans into smaller pieces.
2. Add everything to a crockpot.
3. Cook on low for 5 to 6 hours. Remove bone and
Lauren McDuffie – Cookbook Author and Food Blogger
Lauren McDuffie’s love for cooking blossomed at the same time that celebrity chefs began stepping out of the kitchen and into our living rooms through the growing popularity of cooking shows, so it’s no surprise that her food memories are closely linked with the TV. However, even with the influence of technology, McDuffie’s memories still include her family.
“My Dad would spend hours watching cooking shows with me in the 1990s. I’m not sure if he actually enjoyed watching the cooking shows, or if he really just enjoyed my enjoyment of them, but either way, it was sort of our thing together, and I loved it. When the episodes ended, he’d fully support my efforts to recreate the dishes we’d just seen prepared on screen, driving me to the store and giving me a wad of cash to procure my ingredients. I’d then, of course, head home and enjoy pretending I was on my own imaginary cooking show.”
Those memories go hand-in-hand with the experiences that she shared with her grandmother in the kitchen. “A couple of times a year, she’d fly from Seattle to our home in Kentucky, and I’d spend so much time planning all of the things we’d bake together. Everything we made was sweet: chocolate cream pies, apple pies, raspberry rolls, angel food cake — the kitchen came alive for me when she visited.”
Though cooking shows are wonderful inspiration, they can never replace learning alongside someone influential as a child. “My grandmother would teach me small tricks and techniques, like crimping pie crusts, peeling apples in one long, coiled strand and separating eggs. My grandmother was definitely responsible for instilling not only a love of food and baking in me but also a sort of confidence at an early age, which is such a precious thing. It’s that feeling of confident pride that so vividly colors my early memories in the kitchen, and I absolutely have her to thank for it,” McDuffie expounded.
Toasted Garlic Zuppa Toscana
1 pound Italian sausage, spicy or mild
6 slices bacon, finely chopped
3 tablespoons vegetable or grapeseed oil
12 garlic cloves, lightly smashed
2 celery stalks, diced
1.5 cups diced sweet onion, such as Vidalia or Walla Walla
10 to 12 small yellow potatoes, quartered, such as Baby Dutch Yellow Leaves of 4 or 5 fresh thyme sprigs
4 cups chopped Tuscan kale, baby kale or another similar green of your choice
½ teaspoon salt
Lots of freshly cracked black pepper
¾ cup dry white wine
32 ounces low sodium chicken stock
2 cups half and half (plus more as needed)
1. Place a large, heavy-bottomed pot over medium-high heat and add the sausage. Allow it to brown deeply on one side – just don’t mess with it – and then break it up and flip it/stir it to brown all sides; it takes 5 to 7 minutes. Transfer the sausage to a paper towel-lined plate/tray and set aside for now.
2. In the same pan over the same heat, cook the bacon until nice and crispy; 3 or 4 minutes. Transfer to a paper towel-lined tray/plate for now. Don’t drain the pan.
3. With the pot now over low heat (as low as it will go), add the extra oil (this will prevent smoking and will better soften/toast the garlic). Add the smashed garlic cloves to the pot with the bacon grease + oil.
4. Stirring very frequently, allow the garlic to gently toast (we’re mimicking the flavor and consistency of roasted garlic). This should take about 5 minutes. When the cloves look lightly browned, a little shriveled and are fork-tender or squishy, transfer them to a small bowl and cover with plastic wrap so they’ll steam. Drain all but 2 tablespoons of the garlicky, bacony oil.
5. Set the heat to medium and add the celery, onion, potatoes, thyme and kale. Season with ½ teaspoon salt (no more) and lots of pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 5 minutes. Add the wine and cook for 2 minutes, allowing the alcohol to cook away. Add the stock.
6. Using a fork or your fingers, smash and break up the garlic cloves until you have a paste. Add this to the pot — they will sort of melt right in and get sweeter and amazing as the soup simmers. Simmer the soup, uncovered, over low heat for 20 to 25 minutes, or until the potatoes are very tender.
7. Add the sausage and half and half to the pot and allow the soup to heat through. Taste and season to your liking. If it’s too salty, add more half and half. Serve hot, topped with the reserved bacon, and enjoy. This will keep covered in the fridge for up to 5 days. You can freeze it in freezer bags for up to 3 months.
- This soup could get way too salty if you add any more than I’ve called for. Be conservative and then salt as needed at the end.
- If you can’t find small yellow potatoes, you can purchase 3 or 4 larger yukon golds (or something similar) and simply cut them into small, bite-sized pieces.
- If you don’t feel like it, you can skip the garlic step here and substitute 2 to 3 tablespoons of pre-roasted garlic paste from your grocer’s produce department.