Dining Out: The California-zation of Southern cuisine

Every time I land in South Carolina, the state where I grew up, I’m reminded how much it isn’t California. Everywhere I look, I’m reminded it’s fatter, poorer and less cosmopolitan—and also notably friendlier.  

Nowhere is this difference starker than in politics. North Carolina flipped to the Democratic side in the presidential election of 2008, but South Carolina has stayed redder than Mark Sanford’s face when he finally returned from the Appalachian Trail.

But when it comes to food, at least on the high end, things have changed quite a bit since I left 20 years ago. California cuisine has taken over, albeit with a Southern flair.
On my most recent visit, my parents took me out to Terra, an upscale eatery where the wine, prices and style all came from California. The flavors and ingredients were Southern: the peppered spiciness, the liberal use of butter. But the way they were put together is pure California cuisine, a cultural mash-up where creativity is valued for its own sake and the idea isn’t just to be good but to create something that has never existed before.

I had the seared scallops—very Californian at $24 for the entree. This was served with a sherry mustard butter, with a sharp Dijon undertone. It also came with a local sweet corn and butterbean succotash. Yes, very Southern, but not something my redheaded grandmother every heard of while growing up in Mississippi. The scallops were perfect, the flavors strong but not overwhelmingly complex, and fresher than any I’ve had around here in awhile.

My dad had the flounder (also $24), served with pickled okra. Now okra is a mainstay, but I’m not sure I’ve seen it pickled before. The mussels my mom ordered were the most standard thing we had that night, in a white wine broth. For desert, I downed a chocolate mouse made with polenta, of all things, along with coffee ice cream made on the premises.
Now Southern food has been good for a long time. But it’s only in recent years that it’s been recognizable as something you might buy in a hip eatery in Berkeley or Santa Barbara. Alice Waters of Chez Panisse seems to get all the credit for this style of cooking, but I don’t buy it. My Southern-born dad and uncle both lived in Northern California in the 60s, before she opened her famed eatery, and both say there were already lots of restaurants doing the freewheeling style back then. My uncle worked in one. My dad went from a culinary illiterate to being such a good cook that all through high school, my friends were constantly trying to finagle dinner invites to my house (though the three years he spent in India didn’t hurt either).

It’s not like we were going to forget where we were, though. Rep. Joe “You lie!” Wilson was holding a rally down the block. Halfway through our meal, a caravan of five military surplus vehicles pulled out, driven by 60-ish guys in army fatigues. Of course, they would have been perfectly at home at a Sacramento Tea Party rally, and Wilson himself would be perfectly plausible representing a number of California districts.

But Green Party candidate Tom Clements was also in the papers while I was there. In the wake of the woefully unqualified Alvin Green getting the Democratic nomination to take on US Sen. Jim DeMint—a win that left some speculating that Green was a GOP plant, though an investigation found no wrongdoing—Clements has been racking up labor endorsements right and left, and may threaten to take second place (the only thing really at stake) away from Green.

Walking off our meal on the new river trail, not 200 yards from where Wilson’s rally had been half an hour before, we came across a multiracial drum circle, tie-dyed and dreadlocked, thumping away against the deepening twilight. Suddenly, my old home felt a bit more familiar. Who said cultural homogenization has to be boring?

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