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Southern scavenger

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A quest to sample the best of what the South has to offer food-wise

By Chris Sardelli

 There I was, sitting at my desk, writing a story on deadline and sipping from a tall cup of iced coffee, when I heard a comment that turned my head. 

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“Chris, I just have to tell you that I can’t stand iced coffee,” said my coworker, and occasional chef, Greg Summers. “Hot coffee is where it’s at. I’ll never figure out the appeal of that cold stuff. I just don’t get it. Coffee is ’sposed to be hot enough to take hair off a hog’s back.”

I was quick to defend my favorite jolt of caffeine, something I drink almost every afternoon. After all, where I grew up in Northern Virginia, and especially in places like Rhode Island and Massachusetts where many of my family members hail from, nothing goes better with a late-afternoon donut quite like an iced coffee. 

But as I learned more than six years ago when I moved to South Carolina, while some culinary delights may be all the rage in Boston or D.C., there’s a whole slew of sought-after delicacies you can only find in the South. 

And to tell you the truth, ever since I moved here, I’ve been on the hunt to track them all down and taste them; to cross each of them off my bucket list. 

Call it my “Southern-fried scavenger hunt.”

For every iced coffee up north there’s a sweet iced tea down here to sample. For every bowl of seafood chowder served in the northeast, there’s a plate of shrimp and grits I’ve been dying to dive into. 

So, I started simple, adding pimento cheese sandwiches to top of my list. A staple of southern celebrations, these treats feature a cheesy spread smeared between two slices of white bread and cut into quarters. 

Though many people have grown up with these tasty concoctions, I hadn’t even heard of them until I moved here. 

I was apprehensive to try them at first, but after diving into the sometimes salty, sometimes spicy snack, now I can’t wait to be invited to a birthday or wedding so I can stock up. 

Next up was sweet iced tea. 

I remember the strange look I got from a waitress when I first ordered a “sweet iced tea;’ a look that said “of course it’s sweet, where are you from?” 

My confusion was justified, though. Up north, if you ask for an iced tea, it’s guaranteed you’ll have to add the sugar.

Of course, now, I’m hooked on the stuff, and a large cup of Bojangles or Popeye’s sweet tea is quickly rivaling my iced coffee obsession. 

With my thirst quenched, the quest continued, and one by one I checked off more culinary delights on my southern food tour. 

I remember discovering the joys of shrimp and grits while covering the opening of a manufacturing headquarters in Indian Land several years ago. 

A waiter hauled out a tray of cups filled with the mixture and I dug in, heartily enjoying the creamy stone ground grits coupled with the large, spicy shrimp. “Where have these been all my life?,” I thought. “And will anyone noticed if I grab some more?,” I also thought. 

A few years later, while picking produce at a farmer’s market with my wife, I saw a sign for boiled peanuts cooked in salt water. That was on my list too, so I bought a handful and started chomping. As I cracked them open and water spilled out the sides, I scooped out the slightly mushy and very salty peanut inside. I was hooked and another item was checked off. 

As friends and coworkers learned of my new adventure, the suggestions kept coming. 

I cracked open my first cans of Sun Drop and Cheerwine, the latter of which I enjoyed so much, my wife and I offered it to guests during our wedding reception. 

I tried my first spoonful of Hoppin’ John at a soul food festival and loved every bite of the low-country mixture black-eyed peas, rice and bits of salt-cured country ham. 

Then there was my introduction to chicken bog. I was absolutely perplexed when a coworker asked if I’d like to buy a $6 plate of the stuff to support her church. Why not? I was game to add it to my list. 

I opened the styrofoam container to reveal a heaping helping of slightly soggy yellow rice, juicy strips of pulled chicken, slices of sausage, all sprinkled with pepper. 

After my first bite, I couldn’t stop eating. How have I never eaten this before? 

Similar in style to a jambalaya, it turned out to be one of the tastiest things I’ve ever eaten. Now each year, I make sure to fork over my $6 to get another plate. 

The list kept growing – collard greens, fried okra, chicken fried steak, fried green tomatoes. Each was better than the last, and I kept wanting more. 

And finally, there’s that culinary curiousity, that southern favorite, fatback. As my quest weaved in and out of kitchens and restaurants all around the state, it dawned on me I had never tried the stuff. 

So when I had the chance to profile the famed breakfast bar at nearby JoMars restaurant a few years ago, I finally tracked some fatback down. 

I heaped a helping onto a plate, sat down and took a crunch of a salty strip. Though I can’t say I was hooked, it was definitely a taste I’ll never forget. 

Looking back, it seemed as if I’d finished the list and tasted everything I was meant to taste. 

That is until Greg strolled by and asked if I’d ever tried cracklin corn bread. 

Can somebody get me a butter knife and some Blue Bonnet? I think it’s time to go back on the hunt. 

 

Contact reporter Chris Sardelli at (803) 416-8416.