3-4 squirrels, skinned, cleaned, and cut up
Sprinkle salt and black pepper
1/2 cup flour
3/4 cup cooking oil
The simplicity of this little South Carolina recipe belies the rigorous prep work that goes into it. For one thing, you have to "squinge" the hair off the squirrel before you can even begin to think about cooking it, and you do that by holding it over an open fire to burn its fur off. Then you make a knife cut and pull the skin over the creature's head, basically turning it inside out. There are few things as ugly as a freshly skinned squirrel.
The recipe comes from a book by Sallie Ann Robinson, Gullah Home Cooking the Daufuskie Way. I'm paging through this book and sipping free lemonade while Amy and I are standing in line outside a famous soul food diner in Charleston, South Carolina, called Jestine's Kitchen. Jestine's doesn't have any squirrel on the menu, but this recipe would not be out of place here. The blue-plate specials listed in the window include fried catfish and shrimp Creole. The place is named after Jestine Mathews, who provided all the recipes. Jestine's father was the son of a freed slave who lived on Wadmalaw Island, and that made her part of the South Carolina sea-island culture known as Gullah, freed slaves and their descendants who spoke their own language and passed down recipes based on what they could catch and grow themselves. When we finally get a table at Jestine's, we eat fried green tomatoes and cheese grits; we have hot corn bread slathered with honey and butter, a bowl of the crispest pellets of fried okra, plus blackened chicken, catfish, black-eyed peas, mashed potatoes, and the house "table wine" sweet tea. For dessert, we order coconut cream pie and peach cobbler. "I'll never eat at another Cracker Barrel," Amy tells our waitress, who looks appalled. Jestine herself lived to be 112 years old, possibly because of the healthful diet of fried oysters, corn fritters, pecan whiting, and Coca-Cola cake she ate every day for her whole life. Today, Dana Berlin, granddaughter of the lady Jestine worked for as a housekeeper many years ago, pours our sweet tea.
Overnight, it seems, Charleston has become the food capital of the South. There's a concentration of young and old chefs here who, just like Jestine Mathews and her Gullah contemporaries, are working wonders with whatever they can catch and grow in the Lowcountry. Well over a century after Jestine was born, the hog is still king of the Carolina table. At the fanciest restaurant in town, Charleston Grill, Bob Waggoner is getting his collards from Wadmalaw Island where Jestine's daddy once farmed, and he's cooking them with Palmetto Amber red ale and cabernet pigs feet. Waggoner braises the greens with the ale and hog jowls, roasts then simmers the pigs feet in red wine, then tosses the greens in this rich reduction. We eat our collards, flecked with sumptuous bits of pork, while a jazz trio plays Dave Brubeck classics in the background. And we have shrimp sausage and zucchini blossoms stuffed with lobster and smoked salmon. We graze through a dish of young, local lettuces and dip into a fragrant bowl of Frogmore stew, where crab, shrimp, andouille, fingerling potatoes, and corn kernels jostle in a light shellfish and tomato broth. At last, a crepe burdened with Carolina peaches and pistachio ice cream is just the right Frenchified Southern thing.
A couple of blocks over at FIG, a young upstart from the Northeast who came south to seek his fortune is making edible art just as interesting at half the price. FIG's chef and co-owner, Mike Latta, is a passionate slow-food advocate who buys his produce from local growers and his fish off the nearest dayboat. Here too, the hog is put through its paces, in this case as a piece of roasted suckling pig from a nearby sustainable farm called Sweet Bay Acres. It's served with rapini and grain mustard and roasted beets produced by the family farm of Celeste and George Albers on Johns Island. Chances are that Ted Chewning, who raised the pig I'm eating, knew it by name and this piece of pork has real personality. Zucchini's in season, and so are fava beans, so FIG serves the most delicious zucchini salad imaginable paper-thin slices of the squash in a lemony dressing with fresh, emerald-colored fava beans, bracing mint, salty pecorino cheese, and crunchy shaved almonds. Bliss.
On our way home to Florida, the back of our truck riding low because of all the peaches and giant watermelons and pecans and vine-ripe tomatoes and bags of Vidalia onions we've loaded into it, we stop for a night in Atlanta. The home-cooked meal Pete and François lay out for us rivals anything we've eaten on the road. There are pork chops covered with warm spicy-tart apple and currant chutney and silky whipped sweet potatoes full of heavy cream and a vat of magnificent collards glistening with bacon fat and a full stick of butter and half a pound of big chewy chunks of bacon. There are bottles of red wine and a store-bought lemon cake for dessert. And then a wobbly walk in the warm, sweet-smelling Atlanta air down the block to Zesto home of the chubby decker, the footlong, the chicken gizzard dinner with tater tots, and of Zesto's REAL ICE CREAM where, in guiltless Southern style, we order our "second dessert." Butterfinger Arctic Swirl, hot fudge sundaes, and a soft vanilla ice cream cone with Zesto's famous "nut brown crown."