CHARLESTON — When I think of Charleston and the surrounding Low Country, several images come to mind: the beach at low tide; the gliding of pelicans and dancing of dolphins; our kids playing on the sandbars; and our great friends down yonder who have shared family vacations with us over the past 25 years.
I can’t visit the area without thinking about the late, great Pat Conroy, who shared his passion for the Low Country in his novels and nonfiction, including his cookbook published in 2004. Conroy was crazy about food and cooking. “It is my most religious belief that a recipe is just a story that ends with a good meal,’’ he wrote in “The Pat Conroy Cookbook,’’ which includes recipes, and stories, from his life.
When we first started visiting the Isle of Palms, a couple of bridges away from Charleston, there was the usual fare: fried seafood, hush puppies, and iced tea so sweet it would make your teeth ache.
But now when we return, we do so with food in mind. In Charleston, it’s the cheeseburgers at Husk: two patties with bacon ground into them, oozing American cheese on a benne seed bun with homemade pickles. And at Slightly North of Broad (known locally as Snob), it’s the shrimp and grits. At 82 Queen, it’s the Carolina Crab Cake.
Not far from the city, on Sullivan’s Island, our mandatory stop is Poe’s Tavern, devoted to Edgar Allan Poe. My go-to dish is the Annabel Lee, a burger topped with a crab cake. Poe was stationed here at Fort Moultrie from 1827 to 1828, and it’s where he set his story, “The Gold Bug.’’ I sometimes order the Gold Bug Burger topped with pimento cheese. On a recent trip, I got The Sleeper, a burger with roasted garlic bleu cheese and buffalo fried shrimp.
Charleston is an antebellum city steeped in history, and a new addition on Sullivan’s Island is The Obstinate Daughter, named in homage to the defense of the island against the British fleet in 1776. Great, quirky pasta (try the gnocchi with short rib ragu) and pizza.
The Southern tooth is also a sweet tooth: pecan pie, pound cake and cobblers abound at any “covered dish’’ supper and in many restaurants. But whenever I go to Charleston, I head for Market Street Sweets next to the old city market. As soon as I walk in, a candy maker hands me a warm piece of praline — both traditional and chocolate — and I’m in sugar heaven.
On my last visit, manager Quanah Guest gave me a bit of history: “The praline is a Southern handmade candy that has been around here for 200 or 300 years. It was first brought over by French mercenaries, and was originally made with almonds.’’
But the French soon ran out of almonds. “The only nut tree indigenous to North America is the pecan tree,’’ Guest says.
At Market Street Sweets and its parent store, River Street Sweets in Savannah, the pralines are made with four ingredients: butter, sugar, cream, and pecans. For the chocolate pralines, dark chocolate is added.
It’s all mixed together in a huge praline pot with an electric motor that continually stirs the stuff for at least 30 minutes at 400 degrees. The candy makers then scoop the pieces out onto a marble slab to absorb the heat. “It only takes three minutes once it hits the marble to be ready,’’ Guest says.
They must be doing something right, because they sell at least 200 pounds of pralines a day. “We start at 8:30 in the morning and make them till we close at 11 p.m.,’’ he says. That’s seven days a week.
“No, ma’am,’’ he says when I ask for the precise recipe. “We don’t give it out.’’ We bought a pound for $21.95, but it always includes a “free’’ half pound.
At Sweet Julep’s, a candy shop over the bridge in Mount Pleasant, candy maker Corley Ginn presides over a fresh batch of pralines, ($15 a pound), offers a sample and says timing is everything. “It’s time-consuming, and knowing when your sugar gets to the right point. If it’s too hot, they come out like rocks. Or not enough, and they won’t be set, and will be soft and almost goopy.’’
“It is,’’ she declares, “a fine line.’’
She’s right. I haven’t found any decent pralines north of the Mason-Dixon line, so occasionally I make my own, from a recipe in the “Party Receipts’’ cookbook from the Charleston Junior League. It takes some boiling and some beating before the misshapen, glorious blobs are dropped onto waxed paper.
Makes about 40 pralines
2 cups light brown sugar
1 cup sugar
¼ cup light cream
1 tablespoon light corn syrup
1 tablespoon butter
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
3 cups chopped pecans
1. In a large saucepan, combine the sugars, cream, and corn syrup. Bring to a boil and continue cooking until the mixture reaches the soft ball stage, 238 degrees on a candy thermometer.
2. Remove the pan from the heat and add the butter, vanilla, and pecans. Beat the mixture, to cool it. (To accelerate the process, set the pot in cool water while you are beating.)
3. Drop heaping teaspoons of the mixture onto waxed paper. If the mixture hardens too fast, reheat it and add extra cream to soften.