McCrady’s – Seeds of Muse and Obsession

Every second, our connections to history dissipate. A family recipe is eaten for the last time, unknowingly. Land-rich, but cash poor, farmers sell their land to development. A forgotten plant might simply die out in a field next to the highway. History is kept alive by those that simply document. Farm almanacs, family cookbooks, and forgotten fields offer insights into a culinary past. Without research, proselytization, and, ultimately, consumption; yesterday might fade away. Sean Brock, chef of McCrady’s and Husk, is on a mission of reclaiming and re-imagining the Carolina Rice Kitchen. He mines the past with an archeologists’s zeal but cooks through a lens of today – an enchanting modern cuisine with Jeffersonian agrarian roots.

CONVERSATIONS

Burkhard Bilger described the historical streak at Husk and McCrady’s as “a kind of revisionist history”, in an excellent New Yorker profile.1 When the epiphany hits, especially at the more rustic Husk, it just makes sense that colonists would feast on such a vegetable, vinegar, and pork parade. But the label assumes Brock is trying to re-create the past and brand his version as authentic. Arguably, he is not.

He wants to “seek the truth” that “lies in history.” 2 The cooking is a conversation with the past – asking questions and bridging cultures. To Mary Randolph and her many vegetable recipes – where his menus have shifted from pork to plant. To the yeoman farmers and slaves – where heirloom crops are cooked with modern technique. To Thomas Jefferson – would anyone have appreciated the Tennessee Truffle more? And to the city and region itself – “what does it mean to be a Southern restaurant in the Carolina Rice Kitchen?” Every plate from both restaurants continue the dialectics.3

History is recurring in Brock’s food but the motif is Carolina Lowcontry – then, now, and beyond. How accurate can texts describe the tastes of the past? There is only interpretation.4 The disconnects between past and present, the gaps in experience, can only be studied and iterated. Sometimes this results in a direct hit: “Hoppin’ John… was awful… until we discovered the seeds… then it made sense.” More often, it’s cycling through the many ongoing experiments inside the historic building – rooftop garden, house-made bottargas and ham, countless jars of fermenting blobs and picked vegetables – and giving them new context. Or it’s composing an iconic dish with precision and technique – like the elevation of fried chicken to an arguable Platonic ideal at Husk.5 The food draws connections between disparate points: historical, imagined, and “improved” – building on the culture of the place.


Sweet-tea brined fried chicken cooked in many fats at Husk.

Pig Ears / Pickled Onion / Marinated Cucumber – a Asian-influenced favorite at Husk. Asian? There was a relatively unknown Chinese presence in Charleston since the 18th century

The old smells and tastes of the Carolina Rice Kitchen are the ghosts that Sean chases. Seeds are an intermediary to that past. They are tools of reclamation – biological time machines – the truest link between his cuisine and yesteryear. Carolina Gold rice, benne, antebellum wheat, Abruzzi rye, Jimmy Red corn, and Sea Island red peas were foundations of America’s first creole cuisine – due in part to slaves, trading vessels, and crop rotations. Some, like Carolina Gold, were regarded internationally as the best. But golden ages die. Much of the farming knowledge and labor simply ran away after the Civil War and dispersed. The North’s Industrialization, focused on efficiency and profitability, eradicated the rest by the Great Depression. Lost was how the plants worked together to re-nourish the soil. And without the soil… Today, a plant could be sprouting for the last season, unknown in a random field. A few people are desperately looking for them, including Sean. It is a historical mystery with few clues, and diners are privy to glimpses of these investigations during meals at either restaurant.

“but it won’t be long before Charleston becomes a stop on their culinary itineraries.” – me, in my 2007 review of McCrady’s.


Husk crudites

AUTHENTICITY

It wasn’t always this way. Brock had a reputation for molecular from his stint at The Capitol Grille in Nashville. But it was the ingredients that surprised me during that first meal in Fall 2007. The meal still had an international flavor to it but touches like ham consomme, Tennessee truffles, local milk-fed pigs, and the by-catch wreckfish, from the brackish waters, were potential evidence of a transition. Brock had just started a garden, began raising pigs, but he had not yet delved obsessively into heirloom seeds and heritage animals (the latter was to come in a few short months.) The food had local ingredients and seasonal tastes, augmented by molecular techniques; but it had not yet embarked on its journey through the past, layering histories into the food.

Fast-forward five years later: James Beard recognized Brock’s talents, magazines can’t stop writing about him, and Husk is a national sensation.6 The experiments continue at McCrady’s but they are just as often based on product and preservation – pickling, fermenting, curing, dry-aging – as technique. The experiments with dashi – variations like toasted rice, cabbage, mushrooms – are not Southern per se; but they make sense in a Southern context. This is the revisionist history at play. It is also the influence of restaurants like noma, where what it means to be a cuisine of the place has been validated. And with its strict “below the Mason-Dixon line” limitations, Husk has also helped Brock realize the unlimited grand potential in his small region of the world.

It is not historical cuisine a la Epcot: it is not “authentic Southern cuisine” as written in cookbooks; it is merely “authentic Sean Brock.” This is chef, farmer, seed saver, plant hunter, anthropologist, and amateur scientist trying to find the best Southern flavors. Time is not a barrier. Fine dining is not going casual; instead, the market has embraced full expression of a chef. Fine dining now values journeys, obsessions, and personal style, outside of its limiting French and Spanish influences of the past. In fact, you could argue a premium is now placed on local cuisines. And McCrady’s is one of the most inspirational meals of this kind, for its commitment to a region and its history; and a chef that is obsessed with the journey through time – both past and future.

“What is Southern food?” – it is a question that is asked throughout…


Pork skins w/ Tennessee truffle

THE MEAL (FEBRUARY 2012)

More vegetables have made their way to the McCrady’s plate.7 It is somewhat ironic since, post-molecular, Sean became known, and celebrated, for pork. But vegetables are his first love – have you seen his arm? In Notes from a Kitchen (page 86), he says crudites were a very Southern dish and common at his family’s dinner table. It makes sense – vegetables are more plentiful than meat. As Jeffrey Steingarten wrote in his Vogue article, The Virginina Housewife cookbook had 14 recipes for pork; and 40+ recipes for vegetables.

Here, a seemingly simple slate plate of green strawberries paired with sweet grilled beets and arugula leaves – yes, please.8 It is a great transitional dish; full-flavored winter beets, full of sugar, with the lean-ness of acidic strawberries – spring is coming. Next, floral notes of rosewater beautifully brought out the sweetness of raw scallops. The fennel buds and sprigs were sharp. This was such a refreshing, but sensual, dish.


Beets w/ Ambrose Farms Strawberries

Raw scallop w/ fennel & rose water

Oyster & peppergrass – briny, green, acidic, sour

While walking through Charleston earlier in the day, the most beautiful city in America, we stopped for a tour of the Russell House. Russell was a wealthy merchant and his entire family, and their slaves, lived on the grounds. There were many mouths to feed. We sat in a waiting room before the tour and the docent noted we were sitting in the original kitchen – which was just a giant ravaging hearth. It was manned all day for the families and frequent parties. Obvious in retrospect, of course a hearth was the main cooking device.

Thanks in part to some incredible meals at Saison, I have become a little obsessed with cooking over wood fires, coals, and embers. Wouldn’t it be interesting, I thought, if Brock used more smoke at McCrady’s? (He later wondered this too.) It is the great smell of cooking outside, especially on a cool, crisp night. It permeates the South. Why wouldn’t Brock reach back into time and apply more precision to this most primitive of techniques? He is a man, after all, that makes his own charcoal from pig bones. And cooks some impromptu BBQ in the parking lot behind Husk. McCrady’s conveniently has two large fireplaces in the main dining room. And, on this night, a dim smoky aroma lured one into the dining room.

A grilled swordfish seemed busy at first sight: milk-poached sunchokes, crisped sunchokes, sorrel leaves, sorrel puree, pickled ramp hollandaise, and sheep’s milk yogurt. But the spectacular quality of the fish, so meaty and dense, held up to all of the ingredients. Each bite contained a slightly different juxtaposition of elements – be it the sting of sorrel or pickled ramp, the crunch of crisped sunchokes or ramp flowers, or the ‘sauces’ of hollandaise vs sheep’s milk yogurt vs sorrel puree. A faint smoke purred underneath it.

Octopus and grilled mussels, by contrast, had great smoky depth. A taste of the sea would yield to hints of bitter, before an eventual decay into smoke. The umami of squid ink and (Tennesse) truffle bread puree served as a backbone for the dish. Sparks of sweetish onion and thyme jumped out in varying bites. In some ways, it was like breathing the outside air – the sea breeze from the Charleston Harbor mixed with the winter smoke from chimneys.


Grilled swordfish, milk-poached sunchokes, crisped sunchokes, sorrel leaves/puree, flowers, pickled ramp hollandaise, sheep’s milk yogurt

Local waters octopus, mussels, squid ink juices, lemon thyme, truffle bread puree

Considered one of the foundations of historical Charleston cuisine, and culture; Charleston Gold Rice nearly came and went within three-hundred years. It is a long grain rice that is very aromatic and flexible in its starchiness. It was exported and known world-wide as one of the world’s best rices. It fell out of favor during the Great Depression and was left for dead. If not for the work Dr Richard Shulz, and later Anson Mills, it may still be sitting in the USDA seed bank.9 Slowfood USA has an excellent write-up on its history.

Creamy, buttery, nutty with just enough flowers and herbs to cut its richness. The smell was intoxicating – of butter and nuts – and, on a cool February Charleston evening, with fireplace crackling, it was also the smell of warmth and comfort. And it was the smell of history, of reclamation, of talking to the past, of imagining the glory where an entire city and region was defined by a simple grain. It was the centerpiece of the menu, the restaurant, and it was just rice.

A clear signature dish, without peer.10

A successful decoder ring, an unambiguous statement of “this is what we do.” It encompassed everything about the chef and restaurant and focused it on one plate. Michel Bras has his gargouillou, Saison its brassicas, Willow’s Inn a perfectly smoked salmon, and Sean Brock serves Charleston Ice Cream. These are some of my favorite things in the world, and all are relatively simple products, taken to an obsessive level. Brock claims this is the dish that changed the way he cooks. The fact that the rice was no longer grown in any meaningful quantities is a testament to a misalignment of quality vs convenience in our food systems.


Charleston Ice Cream, red bay leaves, roof-top herbs

Puffed salsify, salsify, indian cress, cured egg, black butter,

Tennessee truffles are farmed where the climate approximates the Périgord region of France. They are potent. Were they the equal of the best French Perigords in season? Have you had such a mythical fungus? This was a product grown in the region, an expression of the nearby land, one of many plants imported into the region over the centuries. (Try finding something of this quality during truffle season in France. I tried, in 2007, with little luck.)11 This truffle was generously shaved over a celeriac baked whole in rice and hay for a nice, heady aroma.

After crackling in the hearth all night, the onions were finally unwrapped from their foil. Plated with cabbage, mushrooms, and mustard flowers; the smoke just hung in the mouth. Bitter, earthy, with just a touch of sweetness from the onion. It was also refreshing to see vegetables getting their own dish this late into the menu.


Rice & hay celeriac baked whole, sheep’s milk whey

First season onion, cabbage, wild mushrooms

In his excellent Faviken cookbook, Magnus Nilsson (who just cooked at McCrady’s) explains that hay is an old-world cooking technique where heat is conserved and slowly cooks the meat inside.12 As an added benefit, one gets the smoky hay taste. But there’s also a nice symmetry between barnyard squab and hay nests. This was aged at a higher temperature to quicken its readiness. The lemon curd added the right brightness, a welcome counterpoint to the squab reduction.

Anson Mills deserves mention too. Their products can be found on menus across the country, usually noted as such, but even that is not enough. The ingredients’ humbleness – grits, oats, and farro – belie the extraordinary, potentially revolutionary, story behind them. The grains are special enough to be featured as a dish of their own. They are some of the most incredible products one can buy for a pantry (though you should store them in the freezer.) And, yes, you can buy them here. You should. It is the great heritage/heirloom paradox – they will only survive if we eat them. Brock and Perennial Plate did an all-grains menu earlier this year – it looked special. Brock has credited Glenn Roberts for his great influence. He also helped Brock gain access into the heirloom seed growing practice – “you have to prove yourself.” The seeds are too precious to simply give away to anyone. The lamb was nice, flavorful and cooked right, but the oats were really the star.


Squab, squab reduction, arugula pudding, onion flowers, lemon curd

Lamb, Antebellum oats, grilled onion, carrot

And then to dessert. Winburn Carmack’s desserts take on a savory character, veering just into the sweet zone. The ice cream finished with the great tang of its cultured sheep’s milk. Blood orange bitters were subtle, and hinted at citrus inflections with each bite. The greens were not everyone’s idea of dessert but they do add a hint of contrast. In Carrots, Vaudovan, Buttermilk; the buttermilk was oddly refreshing, despite its sourness. Vaudovan danced around the sweet notes of the carrot – if everything in the world was seasoned with vaudovan… The carrot was further intensified by the bright herbs.


Blood orange bitters, cultured sheep’s milk ice cream

Carrots, vaudovan, buttermilk

McCrady’s in Charleston is like the past, present, and future of Southern food remixed through the eyes of Sean Brock. Strong ties to the past help form the food’s identity, but don’t limit it. There is an inspiring tone – history can be recaptured and it can evolve. In five years, Brock’s food has changed noticeably – more focused, of the region, and more natural. The clarity and confidence of vision helps him marry modern cooking with heirloom ingredients and recipes seamlessly. It is a blend, a modern soup, served with a pickled ramp flower.

One could argue McCrady’s has a destiny. No other restaurant in American has its legacy, and future, interwoven into such a long, coherent arc. To be located in the fertile Lowcountry. In a building constructed by a Revolutionary War veteran POW. That once hosted President George Washington. If the walls could talk. Perhaps they do through the dishes at McCrady’s. A chef who was once fascinated with molecular cuisine but ventured back into his own past – a garden planted, animals raised, and seeds saved – a continuing chapter in Charleston Lowcountry cuisine.

“Was visited about 2 o’clock by a great number of the most respectable
ladies of Charleston – the first honor of the kind I ever experienced.
Dined with the Members of the Cincinnati and in the evening went to a
very elegant dancing Assembly at the Exchange, at which wee 256
elegantly dressed & handsome ladies”

- George Washington’s journal on his visit to McCrady’s

If George Washington were to dine again at McCrady’s, he would have to toast the chef – and cannons would blast over Charleston for everyone at Husk and McCrady’s.

- chuck

1 – It is a great article that goes into depth about the “grand culinary reclamation project”; you can see read an abstract here. Unattributed quotes in this review can be attributed to the article.

2- From page 66 in Notes from a Kitchen: A Journey Inside Culinary Obsession by Jeff Scott and Blake Beshore. Notes is a unique look at chefs and their creative process. It is mostly photographs with great essays and interviews, often layered on top of scenes from notebooks, kitchens, farms, and the great outdoors. The first volume showcases Sean Brock and Johnny Iuzzini. Buy them while you still can.

3 – The role of (literal) story-telling during a meal is an interesting topic. Sean Brock is a great story-teller – did you see him on Charlie Rose? The servers at McCrady’s are very knowledgeable about the food’s history too – they are involved with harvest and farming. The entire package at McCrady’s works seamlessly – it’s natural and not forced. Eleven Madison Park, during its re-launch, had servers telling tales of NYC and got panned for it. According to reports, they immediately backed off. It sounded very contrived. How much of a role should the restaurant, server, or chef play in explaining the food? A good story needs no explanation; but an engaging piece of work always benefits from backstory, context, and exposition. Does knowing a grain is rescued from history add anything to a McCrady’s meal?

4 – We probably think everything “worthwhile” has probably been documented and/or studied by someone. But, then, what is meaningful changes over time too, and we look at new problems from different perspectives. At the dawn of industrialization and mass markets, and eventually GMOs, who would’ve guessed old farm almanacs could reveal so much? Document now – people, and technology, can sort through the cruft later. Is there any other reason not to start a blog today?

5 – The fried chicken is only available by special request, in advance through Sean Brock personally, but it re-defined fried chicken for me. It was brined in sweet tea and fried in Benton’s ham fat, lard, butter, and chicken fat. He fries it slowly over 40 minutes. Skin comes out crackling and meat has a hint of sweetness. It is very very very good. Very good! Even better the next morning in the CHS airport! (If it was sooo good, why were there leftovers? Three people, three chickens!)

6 – With Husk’s popularity now, it is entertaining to read this old blog post from Sean Brock about a failed tomato dinner. Can you imagine the response now?

7 – Sean Brock is one of my favorite chefs, and he knew we were coming, but if anything colors this review with rose-tinted glasses, it is the fact that McCrady’s has a direct connection to George Washington. I’m not one to hold heros but George Washington, with Alexander Hamilton and John Adams, would adorn my personal Mount Rushmore.

This was my sixth Sean Brock meal. My first was in 2007 – reviewed here: “Ingredient Fetish”.

In 2011, I ate at Husk twice (dinner and brunch) and McCrady’s once. Both TomoStyle and Ulterior Epicure were more studious and blogged about our first Husk meal – sensational in every respect – and I saw first-hand how much Brock had grown as a chef. Ulterior Epicure hinted at what happened after our first Husk meal – “Brocked”. And, of course, UE blogged about our McCrady’s meal too.

8 – Grilled beets seem to be a bit of an obsessions for Brock. We had one tiny piece at The Willow’s Inn First Harvest Dinner (next review) – it was smoked all day – sensational. As David Shields is quoted in The New Yorker profile: “We have this vision of antebellum agriculture as a kind of Never Never Land… But it was a frenzy of research. They took the… beet culture of France… and tweaked them to create this extraordinary myriad of vegetables and grains.” Order his beet dishes.

9 – You can buy this at Anson Mills. You should buy this. Buy it now. If we don’t eat these great products, they won’t be around.

10 – I’m a sucker for the signature dish – it’s a nice succinct answer to “who are we?” Some might bemoan its theoretical failings; chefs might feel type-casted like an actor; but, to me, a proper signature dish is the one that clicks and encompasses everything about the chef and restaurant on one plate. It’s not forced – it’s immediately clear. For me, it’s an important signpost across many repetitions and meals.

11 – For the French Truffle Trip in 2007, we spent too much money for relatively mediocre experiences. There were some star dishes – l’Arpege’s 2002 Antony comte with truffles, Pierre Gagnaire’s cotton candy with truffles, Relais d’Auteuil’s raw scallops and truffles, and Ledoyen’s truffles, sunchokes, & foie gras.

The entire meal at les Ambassadeurs was truffle nirvana – clearly better than the rest from a truffle perspective. That salad, wrapped in truffles, will always haunt me. The Ledoyen meal was among the best I’ve ever had – an under-rated restaurant in Paris despite its three stars. The rest? A very expensive lesson that a truffle is not necessary a truffle, even in season, even in France.

12 – A lot of cookbooks have been released this year but three were sensational: Art of Cooking with Vegetables by Alain Passard, Charred and Scruffed by Adam Perry Lang; and Faviken by Magnus Nilsson. Each book is highly recommended for the home cook because they share a similar philosophy towards cooking – they treat their recipes as frameworks, not absolute. Each does a wonderful job of laying down a philosophy about cooking overall, without getting too bogged down in measurements and ingredients. They teach a respect for ingredients and process; and their best advice is to just “pay attention.” Every meal I cooked this summer was influenced by one of those books.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=1621232488 John Sconzo

    Bravo, Chuck. Once again, you have distilled the essence of a chef and a cuisine. Sean is one of my favorite chefs too. I love his work and Sean as a human being. His passion is contagious and his food delicious, soulful and intelligent.

  • http://twitter.com/CulturedPickle Cultured Pickle Shop

    Really great post Chuck. As with every time I encounter great writing, reading this filled me simultaneously with the desire to write and dread that I’ll never be able to write this well. I think you managed the, not so easy, feat of embodying the spirit of the restaurant into the review. You artfully accomplished rooting the reader in a place in time, as I think Brock does with is cooking, his storytelling, and his love for the Lowcountry. As always your footnotes were illuminating and your references will keep me busy for weeks. Truly a pleasure from beginning to end. Thank you.

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