Charleston-more than fried green tomatoes and she crab soup

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“I can’t talk now, I’m between bites of Low Country Crab cakes and Shrimp and Grits with julienne sweet peppers and tasso ham gravy, if you please,” said my old college roommate, who I had been promising to visit since 1965.

After 40 years of letters, phone calls and e-mails, it was evident my friend and I still had one love in common-not old boyfriends-but serious southern cooking. After making good on a promise to spend a few days sampling Charleston’s world renowned specialties, I reserved rooms at two Historic Hotels of America: The John Rutledge House (Mr. Rutledge was a signer of the Constitution) and the Wentworth Mansion, built in 1886 but made quite hip with the recent opening of a chic spa. While the Low Country cuisine is a magnet for food lovers, there are other sensory delights in the form of art galleries and antique shops.

Marjabell Young Stewart, an expert in etiquette, calls Charleston a “most mannerly city.” The place is also an architectural jewel, with the most outstanding buildings constructed between 1686 and 1878. The legendary slow charm of Southern hospitality remains genuine, from the moment you arrive at a restaurant or hotel or simply step into one of the carriages leaving from the historic market area, at the corner of Anson and Pinckney streets. The horse-drawn carriages take visitors on a narrated tour through Charleston’s streets, providing the proper introduction to this fascinating city.

After the tour, we headed for the Harbor Tour, a 90-minute cruise highlighted by 75 points of interest including Fort Sumter, Fort Mountire and Fort Johnson. It was an abbreviated course in American history.

It was a doubly good choice because on the walk back to the John Rutledge House we meandered into one of Charleston’s newest restaurants, Fleet Landing. The building was once used by the U. S. Navy and is now home to traditional Low Country cuisine with a twist, such as a fried green tomato stack with local blue crab salad, creamy shellfish sauce and fried oysters with Southern Comfort barbecue (accentuated with Low Country creamy grits and Applewood smoked bacon). Tasty victuals like this make it no surprise that Charleston made the top 10 list for destinations by readers of Conde Nast Traveler. Apparently some of these readers were impressed with the Old Exchange and Provost Dungeon, built in 1771 and one of the three most historically significant buildings of Colonial America. American patriots were held prisoner here (in the Provost Dungeon in the lower level) during the Revolutionary War. Our guide, a retired school teacher, gave us a terrific tour of the dungeon, which came alive with life-like figures, clever lighting and fairly accurate recreations of what it was like to serve time here.

There was plenty to discuss over dinner at Circa 1886, the award winning restaurant at the Wentworth Mansion, while sampling its “Trio of Soups” (that being yellow tomato cream soup with marjoram croutons, chilled crimson tomato consommé with petit oranges, and green tomato and cucumber gazpacho with Tabasco oil). We mapped out our January’s culinary expedition. The Oyster Festival will be in full swing. I’m not missing this event. Y’all remember now, the 23rd Annual Low Country Oyster Festival, which takes place on Jan. 29 at Boone Hall Plantation. So c’mon down!

Contacts:

€ The John Rutledge House and the Wentworth Mansion, both members of Historic Hotels of America: 800.678.8946, www.historichotels.org

€ Charming Inns of Charleston, representing the Fulton Lane Inn, The Victoria House, Kings Courtyard Inn, The Wentworth Mansion and the John Rutledge House: www. Charminginns.com

€ Charleston Cuisine, published by Feeding Frenzy, Inc.: 888.311.8442

€ Cooks! Maverick Kitchen Store, 194 E. Bay St. , Charleston, SC 29401

843.722.1212 and 843.722.1213 (cooking class schedule) and www.charlestoncooks.com

€ Old Town Carriage Co. www. oldtowncarriage. com 888.800.5091

€ The Charleston Heritage Foundation, 375 Meeting St. www. heritagefoundation. com

€Fleet Landing Restaurant 843.722.8100.

Pam Price is the co-author of 100 Best Spas of the World and Fun with the Family is Southern CA ( www. globepequot. com)