Charleston and New Orleans: Compare and contrast

Charleston and New Orleans: Compare and contrast
November 3, 2011
By Judy Walker
The Times-Picayune

he minute I arrived in Charleston, S.C., I could not stop thinking about New Orleans.

Years ago I spent one day in Charleston, and have longed to return ever since. Now, after a decade of living in New Orleans, the similarities and comparisons vibrated for me like a tuning fork.

For starters, there's the Charleston City Market, the recently restored 1804 four-block public market jammed shoulder to shoulder with tourists, right outside the hotel where the Association of Food Journalists held its annual meeting in October. Horses and mules pull carriages down the streets as the drivers talk history.

When I stood on a piazza of the fourth or fifth oldest house in Charleston, a 1735 private home opened for our group to have Frogmore Stew in the yard below the balcony, I had even more reason to compare and contrast.

In New Orleans, we would call the piazza a gallery, and the Frogmore Stew is what we would call a shrimp boil. Live oaks, fig trees, native persimmons and 12-foot azaleas were part of the landscaping. The kumquats and camellias seemed exotic to members who live in more northern climates.

The tour of the home (those lead-lined urns on the fireplace were originally used to scoop chestnuts out of the fire) opened several days of professional development, learning and dining for our group. Charleston's rich culinary history parallels the one here in fascinating ways, and the chefs have taken lots of inspiration from Creole and Cajun country.

I ate tasso in at least three different dishes at three different places.

seanbrock.jpgChef Sean Brock

"We love our little food city," chef Sean Brock said in welcoming the food journalists.

In the past three years, three Charleston chefs have won the James Beard Award for Best Chef Southeast: Robert Stehling of Hominy Grill, Mike Lata of FIG, and Brock, of McCrady's and Husk.

We went to lunch at Husk, Brock's new restaurant, which Bon Appetit dubbed the nation's best new restaurant this year. (And, soon after our meeting, The New Yorker profiled Brock.)

In a way it's the ultimate locavore destination, as Brock allows nothing in the restaurant that originates outside the South. The creativity level is exemplified by the five appetizers we were served, starting with fried green tomatoes topped with pimento cheese and a wisp of country ham, followed by raw rattlesnake beans in guanciale (unsmoked jowl bacon) vinaigrette.

I had heard about the Southern Fried Chicken Skins served with hot sauce and honey. They turned out to be similar to, well, buttermilk-soaked fried chicken.

What we didn't expect were barbecue-glazed trout ribs. Who knew trout had ribs?

"It's something we would have thrown away," Brock told us. We were instructed by our servers in how to bite the meat off the bones.

The first time he was in New Orleans, Brock told me, he went to 33 restaurants in three days.

"And Sazeracs at every place," he added. "We might have overdone it a little bit."

He is great friends with local chefs Scott Boswell and Donald Link, and is part of the Fatback Collective, a Memphis In May barbecue competition team with Link, New Orleans chefs Steven Stryjewski and Ryan Prewitt, as well as John Currence and John T. Edge of Oxford, Miss., plus several pit masters and others. And Brock was just in New Orleans to be on a panel for the Chefs' Collaborative National Summit held a week ago.

This recipe of his appeared last year .

Juniper-Rubbed Duck Breast with Delicata Squash

Makes 6 servings


2 tablespoons juniper berries

1 tablespoon black pepper

1 tablespoon kosher salt

1 teaspoon sugar

Six 6-ounce duck breasts

2 tablespoons grapeseed oil, divided

Squash and Rice

2 pounds delicata squash -- peeled, seeded and cut into 1/2-inch cubes (about 3 cups)

Zest of 1 orange (about 2 tablespoons)

2 cups fresh orange juice (from about 4 oranges), strained

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

5 thyme sprigs

1 teaspoon rice wine vinegar

Salt and freshly ground black pepper

3 cups cooked rice, kept warm

Make the duck: Preheat the oven to 200 degrees. In a spice grinder, combine juniper berries with black pepper, salt and sugar and grind into a coarse powder. With a sharp paring knife, score duck skin in a crosshatch pattern (without cutting into the flesh) and rub both sides of each breast with the spice mixture. Wrap the duck tightly in plastic wrap and let rest at room temperature for 30 minutes.

While the duck rests, make squash: In a medium saucepan, combine squash, orange zest, orange juice, butter and thyme and bring to a boil over high heat. Reduce the heat to medium and cook, stirring occasionally, until the squash is tender, about 12 minutes.

Using a slotted spoon, transfer the squash to a baking sheet, cover with tinfoil and place in the oven to keep warm. Reduce the braising liquid over medium-high heat until syrupy, about 10 minutes. Remove the sauce from the heat, add the vinegar and season to taste with salt and pepper. Cover and keep warm.

In each of 2 large skillets, warm 1 tablespoon of the grapeseed oil over medium-high heat. Add 3 duck breasts to each skillet, skin side down, and cook over medium heat until the skin is crispy and well browned, about 6 to 8 minutes. Turn and cook until the duck is medium-rare, about 5 minutes longer. Transfer the duck to a cutting board, cover loosely with foil and let rest for 10 minutes.

Divide the rice and squash among 6 plates. Thinly slice the duck crosswise and divide among the plates. Drizzle with the orange sauce and serve immediately.


Rice is the quintessential Charleston food, and we had it at most meals, unless we were eating grits, aka hominy.

This is the land of the Gullah, descendants of slaves brought to plant and work the rice plantations who settled on the sea islands and preserved their dialect and culture in isolation. Cookbook author Vertamae Grosvenor and restaurateur Charlotte Jenkins unlocked some of the mysteries.


"Gullah cuisine is rice," Grosvenor said.

Jenkins grew up in a house with 17 children, she writes in her cookbook "Gullah Cuisine By Land and By Sea," and her mama's pots were so big she used them when she opened her restaurant. Gullah cuisine basics are rice, grits, shrimp, collards, pork and seasonal foods they could grow or pull out of surrounding waters. Sound familiar?

Mama Julia's Sunday Red Rice

Makes 6 servings

4 thick slices bacon

2 thick slices picnic ham, chopped

1/2 cup chopped onion

1/2 cup chopped green bell pepper

1/4 cup chopped celery

1 clove garlic, chopped

2 cups tomato sauce

2-1/2 cups water

1 tablespoon dried basil

1 bay leaf

1/4 teaspoon sugar

2 cups raw converted rice, Uncle Ben's preferred

Salt and black pepper

Fry the bacon in a heavy-bottomed pan to render the fat. Remove bacon and reserve for another use. Sauté ham, onion, peppers and celery in rendered bacon fat for 5 minutes, or until vegetables are tender.

Add tomato sauce, water, basil, bay leaf and sugar. Stir to combine and bring to a boil. Add the rice, bring to a simmer, cover, and simmer 20 to 25 minutes, until rice is tender.

Remove bay leaf. Adjust seasoning with salt and pepper as desired. Fluff with a fork as desired.

Variation: Add sausage or shrimp.


Cookbook authors and Charleston natives Matt and Ted Lee were the writers in residence at our conference. They and other Charlestonians told us about Hurricane Hugo's impact on the city in 1989, when the Category 4 storm hit coastal South Carolina, killing 27 people and causing $9 billion in damages. After insurance settlements put roofs back on and restored homes in Charleston, many owners sold out to East Coast dot-com millionaires.

The historic streets and neighborhoods are quieter now than when they grew up, the Lee brothers said, but the town took off after Hugo and hasn't looked back.


The first night of the Association of Food Journalists conference, a few of us headed off for a late-night dessert. We went to Peninsula Grill and their elegant Champagne Bar for their Ultimate Coconut Cake.

I wound up getting on the right side of two giant slices on this trip, and I wish I had another one right now. Made by owner Henry Holiday's grandmother's recipe, the six-layered cake feeds 16 and weighs about 12 pounds. The restaurant sells it all over the U.S. for $100 plus shipping, but the recipe has also been shared. Here is the version that appeared in Bon Appetit.

Giant Coconut Cake

Makes 12 servings


2 tablespoons cornstarch

2 tablespoons water

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

1-1/4 cups whipping cream

1/2 cup sugar

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter

2-1/4 cups sweetened flaked coconut

1/4 cup sour cream


3-1/2 cups all purpose flour

1 tablespoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

2-1/4 cups sugar

1-1/2 cups (3 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature

5 large eggs

1-1/3 cups whipping cream

1 tablespoon vanilla extract


2 8-ounce packages cream cheese, room temperature

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature

2 cups powdered sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

4 cups sweetened flaked coconut, toasted

For filling: Stir cornstarch, 2 tablespoons water, and vanilla in small bowl to dissolve cornstarch. Bring cream, sugar, and butter to boil in heavy medium saucepan. Add cornstarch mixture and bring to boil. Remove from heat and stir in coconut. Cool completely. Mix in sour cream. Cover and refrigerate overnight.

For cake: Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Butter and flour three 9-inch round cake pans. Whisk flour, baking powder and salt in large bowl to blend. Using electric mixer, beat sugar and butter in another large bowl to blend. Add eggs 1 at a time, beating well after each addition. Beat in cream and vanilla. Stir flour mixture into butter mixture. Divide batter equally among pans. Bake until tester inserted into center of cakes comes out clean, about 35 minutes. Cool completely.

For frosting: Using electric mixer, beat cream cheese and butter in large bowl to blend. Beat in powdered sugar and vanilla extract.

Place 1 cake layer on cake plate. Top with half of filling. Place second cake layer atop filling. Top with remaining filling. Place third cake layer atop filling. Spread frosting over top and sides of cake. Pat toasted coconut over top and sides of cake, pressing gently to adhere. (Can be prepared up to 1 day ahead. Cover and refrigerate. Let stand at room temperature 3 hours before serving.)


charleston.mkt.jpgCharleston Convention & Visitors BureauAll tourists head to the four-block-long Charleston City Market

Charleston and New Orleans: Compare and Contrast


Theirs: English; Ours: French


Both relied heavily on enslaved Africans


Tourism for both


They say PRAY-leens; we say PRAW-leens


Both claim to be the birthplace of gumbo


They have piazzas; we have galleries


Hurricane Hugo, 1989; Hurricane Katrina, 2005


Theirs: Palmetto; Ours: Live oak


They do Frogmore Stew; we do shrimp boils


Charleston City Market; French Market

Things that are the same:

Dedication to historic preservation

Well-preserved old world central district

Number one industry is tourism

charleston.carriage.jpgCharleston Visitors & Convention Bureau

Carriage rides

Long existence at sea level

Threat of hurricanes

Abundant seafood including shrimp, oysters and blue crabs

Plantations to visit

hings that are different:

Charleston has an ocean

The Civil War started in Charleston

Charleston is known as the Holy City due to numbers of churches

Tourists don't go to Charleston to get drunk and party in the streets

Charleston had a really big earthquake in 1886

Charleston "singles" are homes that sit sideways on their lots to take advantage of prevailing breezes

Sweetgrass basket weaving
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