Thursday, November 15, 2007

Cathy Pickens: Food and Friends

In my “howdy” blog [Good Eatin’ republished on November 6, 2007], I mentioned some of my favorite restaurants. If you’ve a mind to, leave a comment with one or more of your local favorite places to eat good Southern cooking. I’m always looking for new contenders in categories such as Top 5 Sources for Macaroni-and-Cheese or Great Fried Chicken or Would Kill for This Coconut Cake. We might not all agree on what’s “the best,” but let’s face it, the real fun is eating our way through all the possible entries.

Last week I visited Charleston, South Carolina for a book signing (Charleston Mysteries, my new mystery walking tour of Charleston, full of ghost stories, unsolved mysteries, and quirky history, but, alas, no food recommendations), during which I arranged a long-overdue visit to one of my favorite restaurants: Jestine’s.

Owner Dana Berlin Strange named her restaurant for the family friend whose recipes grace her menu, which includes crispy fried okra, extra-cheesy macaroni, and a Co’Cola cake that would make me glad to shed this mortal veil as long as the taste of that rich, warm cake was still in my mouth when I went to my eternal reward. (Even foodie Michael Stern sings its praises – complete with cake photo.

It’s easy to find Jestine’s: as you drive down Meeting Street into the historic district of Charleston, watch for the folks lined up along the sidewalk around lunchtime. Well worth the wait, too.

Jestine’s walls are lined with accolades: framed pieces from The New York Times, a review by Rachel Ray, a book cover and excerpts from the murder mystery Done Gone Wrong by … Cathy Pickens??
Yep, imagine my surprise, seeing the artfully framed, familiar cover! Avery Andrews, the main character in my Southern Fried Mystery series, visited Jestine’s while in Charleston working on a complex trial. Just because I’d had to stay home to write and teach and didn’t have time to visit didn’t mean I couldn’t enjoy myself vicariously.

Spying the cover, I introduce myself to Dana. We told each other how mutually thrilled we were. We exchanged neck hugs, in true Southern fashion. And I proceded to savor every bite, chiding myself for waiting so long to return to one of my favorite restaurants and one of my favorite cities.

As I walked off my rich lunch, I mused on the nature of food and friends and connections. The secret of Jestine’s is not just the food; it’s the warm familiarity with which Dana and her expert staff greet everyone who comes in the door. It’s the smile they leave you with, the sense that you’ve visited with friends, even if you sat alone at your table and read Jane Austen while you ate (which I was doing that day).

Thanksgiving and the eating orgy holidays draw near, a time to be thankful for family, friends, and really good bad-for-you food. To those of you who possess the gift of hospitality, who prepare meals which nourish the soul as well as the body, those of us who partake of your gifts thank you.

I hope you have somewhere warm and welcoming to spend the holidays. If you don’t, invite someone to join you – even if it’s at the Waffle House. [That’s a fine, fun place to enjoy a holiday meal if you’re alone, but that’s another story. I’m partial to pecan waffles.]

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not encouraging you to engage in the sin of gluttony. Oh, no. I am encouraging you to savor, to enjoy, to appreciate, to be thankful. Too often, we forget to be mindful of our food or our friends and family. ‘Tis the season, though.

Even if you don’t have any really good Southern cooking easily at hand – or if our affinity for high-fat, sugar-and-salt-pork-in-your-cooked-until-they’re-limp green beans is an affront to your refined and healthy lifestyle—I hope you find much to savor and the ones you wish for to enjoy it with. After you visit and eat, curl up with a good book (lots of good options on this blog list!), maybe with a football game droning in the background. In short, eat, read, and be merry. Now that’s what I call a holiday.

Have a happy one!

Cathy Pickens
Charleston Mysteries (History Press) and
Hog Wild and the other Southern Fried Mysteries (St. Martins)

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