Tuesday, January 24, 2017

The Highly Acclaimed Poogan's Porch--Charleston Restaurant Week January 2017

Charleston is brimming with grand stories from the ghostly to the inspirational, but the one I am about to relate is both exceptional and endearing. Its the American Dream at its best. Its telling will warm your heart and put a smile on your face because the main character was a bit of a wanderer who found his place in Charleston society and a permanent residence in an old French Quarter house built in 1888. His name was simply Poogan.

In 1976, it was decided the old house would be turned into a restaurant. Poogan presided over the renovations. Like many Charlestonians, the porch was his favorite part of the house, so on completion, it was christened Poogan's Porch. He greeted its first satisfied customers. Since then, the interior of the restaurant has been upgraded and a 1500-bottle wine cellar was built in 2005. It has been a favorite of well-known celebrities, politicians, tourists and locals alike in addition to receiving recognition from Martha Stewart Living, Wine Spectator and The Travel Channel.

Poogan is no longer here and if he could speak, he would have told you, "To succeed in life, never bite the hand that feeds you." You see, Poogan was a scruffy, neighborhood dog.

There's something appealing and fun about dining at a restaurant that once was a house. Poogan's Porch is all of that and also boasts credentials that make it one of Charleston's oldest and most reputable culinary establishments. It was my choice for Charleston Restaurant Week.

Basking in the aura of the historically renowned Mills House, Poogan's Porch gives off a singular vibe of its own. Flanked by the Husk on its left and a masterfully painted fresco on its right, the yellow Victorian restaurant's street side entrance, enclosed by a black wrought iron fence, opens into a beautifully landscaped patio with cozy table settings leading to the front porch and more outdoor seating. Upon entering the front door, you can sense the antiquity of the house. Adjacent to a stairwell leading to the upper floor, a long hallway decorated with pictures and memorabilia ends at the desk of the hostess where I checked in to confirm my 5:00 pm reservation--the hour the restaurant begins its dinner sitting. I was a few minutes early, so I took a couple photographs and then waited on the porch. For a January evening, it was a pleasant 65 degrees.

At the end of the hall, we passed the restaurant's full bar and I was seated in the front room overlooking the porch. The table arrangements were modest and comfortably spaced along the walls with a fireplace on one of them. There were fans overhead and large baskets decorated the walls. The menus were placed before me and I awaited the room's server, who I was informed would be someone by the name Rosa.

I quickly perused the Restaurant Week Dinner Menu, which was 3 courses for $35 accompanied by $15 wine pairing suggestions. Shortly, Rosa arrived and to begin, I opted for a Stella, yes a beer, as my drink selection. From the menu, I chose the Smoked Butternut Squash Soup with Curried Creme Fraiche and Pickled Apples to start. Butternut squash and apples come into season around the same time and they go well together. Curried Creme Fraiche is literally "fresh cream" that more closely resembles sour cream or yogurt with spices. The combination translated into a dish that was velvety smooth and a perfect balance of earlier stated ingredients--magnificent.

I chose the Plancha Roasted Flounder with Blue Corn Grit Cake, Local Purple Sweet Potato, and Southern Romesco for my entree--all foreign descriptions to me. Plancha is to 'barbecue like the Spaniards', which involves cooking at a very high temperature around 280 or 300ºC (flash cooking) and is considered a healthy way to cook. Nicely presented with greens and sauce, the flounder was laid over the grit cake. My first experience with Blue Corn Grit Cake was pleasantly surprising. The flounder was slightly crisped along its edges, but still flaky and flavorful. All local ingredients made this a thoroughly enjoyable entree.

To complete my sitting, my dessert choice was a tough one, but I finally chose the Chocolate Gingerbread Cake with plum filling--Yummy. Total cost for my dinner was $40.00--well worth it.

Rosa was a delight--very patient and attentive. From Mexico, she lived up north--I believe she said Boston--before she came to Charleston 35 years ago and ten years later began serving at Poogan's Porch making her a 25 year veteran. Her timing was spot on--delivering the courses without missing a beat. She answered my questions with a smile. I asked her about Poogan's statue at the front entrance, which was missing and about the resident ghost named Zoe, for which the restaurant is famous--The Travel Channel voted the restaurant "Third Haunted Place in America" in 2003.

Poogan's Porch is one of Charleston's oldest independent culinary establishments. Located just off of Meeting Street on Queen Street, it is in the heart of downtown Charleston. Its professional staff is excellent. It is like going to a friend's house for dinner, but this dinner invitation includes a top chef by the name of Daniel Doyle cooking in the kitchen.

72 Queen St, Charleston, SC
Phone: (843) 577-2337

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Enter The Whacky World Of David Ives in "All In The Timing"--Now Showing At The James F. Dean Theatre

All in the Timing, written by David Ives, premiered at Primary Stages in 1993, moved to the larger John Houseman Theatre, and ran for 606 performances. In a review The New York Times said "there is indeed a real heart...There is sustenance as well as pure entertainment." It won the Outer Critics Circle John Gassner Award for Playwriting, was included in Best Plays of 1993-1994, and in 1995-1996 was the most performed play in the country after Shakespeare plays. It consists of six one-act plays called "enchanting and perplexing, incisively intelligent and side-splitting funny." Without further ado, this is what you can expect as you wander into the peculiar and disoriented world according to David Ives. Now showing at the James F. Dean Theatre January 13th to 22nd with energy and enthusiasm.

Directed by Larry Spinner, Sure Thing begins with the question, "Is that seat taken?" This piece chronicles the seemingly endless possible directions that exist when two people try to successfully link up over a cup of coffee for the first time. You will learn what ringing a bell can do for those awkward first moments of meeting. Starts off a little slow, but gets better--kinda like a first date.(Berry - Jeni Haman, Bill - Eli Hummer)

Directed by Elissa Horrell, Variations on the Death of Trotsky shows the 1940's Russian revolutionary with a mountain climber's axe buried into his skull by his communist gardener, Ramon, the day before, yet he remembers nothing. His wife comes in the room with an encyclopedia from the 1990s to inform him that the book says he is going to die today prompting him to make his final philosophical statements on human life several times over. Interestingly, the real Leon Trotsky was attacked by Ramón Mercader with an ice axe as the weapon. Trotsky did die a day later. This is an obvious parody of the actual events taken to the extreme. Daniel gets the David Ives Award for literally falling on his face. (Mrs. Trotsky - Phyllis Jackson, Trotsky - Daniel Rich, Ramon - Eli Hummer)

It's funny watching movies where monkeys dress up and imitate humans, but what would it look like if the tables are reversed? Directed by Kristen Kos, JC Conway(Swift), Phyllis Jackson(Milton), and Shua Jackson(Kafka) go bananas as they give a side-splitting glimpse into the little bit of monkey business called Words, Words, Words. It experiments with the philosophical precept that three monkeys typing into infinity will sooner or later produce Hamlet. What would the resulting conversation be in the chimpish collaboration? I give it a rating of five bananas.

Directed by Daniel Rich, The Philadelphia takes place in a coffee shop where the various inhabitants are stuck in different states of mind paralleled with cities in the United States. Mark finds himself in a Twilight Zone-like state in which he cannot get anything he asks for. Carefree Al, who is the Los Angeles, advises befuddled Mark to ask for the opposite of what he wants, the Philadelphia. The waitress, meanwhile, is in the Cleveland. This one has a twist at the end. (Al - Ernie Eliason, Mark - Cody Smith, Waitress - Michelle Smith)

Philip Glass Buys a Loaf of Bread is a humorous musical exaggeration with the celebrated composer having a moment of existential crisis in a bakery. Philip Glass, an American composer, is considered one of the most influential music makers of the late 20th century. Glass has described himself as a composer of "music with repetitive structures," of which Ives has some fun with. In this metronomic snippet, he encounters an old girlfriend accompanied by a friend. The result reminds me of a scene from a Danny Kaye movie called "The Court Jester," which was also referenced in Words, Words, Words. (Jeni Haman, Eli Hummer, Phyllis Jackson, Shua Jackson)

Directed by Shua Jackson, The Universal Language is about Don, the creator and teacher of Unamunda--a made-up language purported to be "The Universal Language" based on words from the English language, as well as German and the Romance languages. His first pupil, Dawn, is a shy, stuttering girl with little money. She hopes that this new language will help her overcome her speech problems. Their lesson ends up in a dazzling display of frenzied verbal redundancies and a confession. Cody Smith(Don) and Michelle Smith(Dawn) do a phenomenal job delivering the tongue-tying dialogue of the scripts discombobulated syllables. I also give this one a rating of Five Bananas.

A pleasantly lighted stage, with wall to wall clocks dominated by a painted caricature of a man dressed in a black suit wearing a black top hat, served the six-act play well. Robert Venne, also dressed in black suit with black top hat and reminding me of comic Lou Costello, entertained between scene changes and also credited with the artistic creation of the painted likeness.

Knowing something about David Ives before you come to the play is helpful in understanding the mind set behind the six one-act plays or you just might go bananas. If you don't, you just may find yourself in Philadelphia instead of Los Angeles. Either way, it is All in the Timing. "Is that seat taken?" "Ding."

Purchase tickets now.

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Summerville's Rich History--From Pine Trees To Sweet Tea

Unlike "New Summerville," which was laid out by the South Carolina Railroad like a checkerboard with straight, broad thoroughfares, "Old Summerville" was characterized by winding streets. When it came to laying out the roads, it's apparent the old town planners did not incorporate the idea "the shortest distance between two points is a straight line." For that matter, as to what a straight line meant, they had no clue. Summerville history implies the early road architects were of the four-legged variety, bovine to be more exact.

New Summerville plot map 1850
New Summerville plot map 1897
Richly graced with thick groves of tall pines and old oaks, the trees cooling touch and healing scent enticed early Ashley River planters to the sandy hilltop in the pines where they could escape the oppressive heat and voracious mosquitoes of their lowland plantations. During these marooning excursions, they brought their livestock with them. On arrival, the beasts were turned loose to wander in and around the tall pines and old oaks. Overtime, these creatures of habit carved out the thoroughfares that became the first named streets of the newly founded summer village.

From those very same trees, they constructed their simple homes. Beginning with Captain James Stewart, 14 families eventually marooned themselves every summer for nearly five months in structures scattered around the main cattle path called the Great Thoroughfare--W. Carolina Avenue today. Called "mosquito houses," these structures were built eight feet off the ground on stilts to protect against insects and to catch breezes. A wide center hall ran the full length with two rooms on each side for cross ventilation. Each room had a fireplace. If there was a second floor, it was identical to the first. The stables and carriage house were located away from the main home for obvious reasons--besides trampling out the roads, the livestock produced an odorous by-product unlike the pleasant pine scent.

Map of Old Summerville
Other notable cow paths of original Summerville connected to the Great Thoroughfare were Railroad Street; now Sumter Avenue, Pine Street; now Charleston Street, Centre Street; now Linwood Lane, Morgan Street; now Clifton Street, Gadsden Street, and the present Cuthbert Lane once referred to simply as "Street." A plat, drawn-up in 1831, showed the layout of the early streets and homes.

In 1841, there were 15 homes in "Old Summerville" when "New Summerville" was established by the South Carolina Canal and Railroad Company. Seven years later in 1838, there were 29. The two Summervilles became an official town in 1847. The cherished pines were declared sacred and a law prohibiting the cutting of certain-sized trees without permission was passed. Now connected to Charleston and points west by the railroad, wealthy Charlestonians came to town and built homes to escape the yellow fever epidemics. At the end of the 19th century, it was declared one of the two best places in the world for the treatment and recovery of lung disorders launching the dawning of "The Golden Age of the Inns". Despite the longtime commitment to preserve and protect the sacred pine trees, the planners of Summerville deemed it necessary to sacrifice some of them to embrace its burgeoning fame as a health spot to the world and the illustrious Pine Forest Inn (1893 booklet) was built. While visitors flowed into town, other inns were established.

As a now famous story relates, one such individual, who came to town to avail upon the purported healing aspects of the pine tree's turpentine scent on the advice of his physician, was found sitting on the porch swing of a W. Richardson Street residence by its matriarch and became the first guest to stay at the newly established White Gables Inn. Other notable names included Carolina Inn, Halcyon Inn, Wisteria Inn, Holly Inn, The Postern, Squirrel Inn and Pine View Inn. Summerville flourished into the 1900's, but in time, it would lose its magical charm. Its icons one by one mercilessly succumbed to the wrecking ball and the tantalizing scent of its biggest asset faded into the changed landscape.

In 1991, 40% of the buildings in the downtown district were vacant. With a mission to revitalize the downtown area, DREAM was formed in 1992. Then, in 2010, inspired by an article in the Azalea Magazine, Summerville experienced an identity renaissance when it branded itself the "Birthplace of Sweet Tea." The "Sweet Tea Festival" was inaugurated and the Summerville Trolley Tours were established benefiting local businesses and captivating residents and visitors alike. Nexton exploded unto the scene and Summerville's first craft brewery on November 26, 2014 broke ground in the remaining space of the Coastal Coffee Roasters building with the laying of its cement floor. In 2014, a plan for a boutique hotel was proposed. In 2015, a conditional final approval for the project was given by the Board of Architectural Review, but one of Summerville's cherished pine trees overshadowed the proceedings and became a flashpoint for preservationists and opponents in what would become the Dorchester Hotel controversy.

Of the pine trees still around, longtime residents nurture fond memories and tell stories of playing below their broad branches. Located near the corner of W. Richardson and Central Ave, the proposed site of the hotel, stands one of those cherished pines. Considered the oldest tree in Summerville with a circumference of 13 feet and believed to predate 1847, the old pine was scheduled for an appointment with the axeman to make way for the highly contested Dorchester Hotel project.

Ragged from old age and brutal weather, the trees glory days were waning. The cutting down of the tree would have been a solemn day. It was a sad day when the Pine Forest Inn came crashing down. We could dignify the old tree the way the Hopelands Gardens in Aiken honored one of its prominent cedars when a portion of it came down. They carved benches out of the cherished wood and placed them on site for visitors to use. Inevitably, each pine in its time will succumb to the natural powers to be.

Truth be told, the tree was not the only concern raised by the hotel's opponents, but alas, it is no longer of any concern. The Dorchester Hotel Project itself has been axed. However, imagine where Summerville's history would be today if people in the late 1800's would have opposed the construction of the Pine Forest Inn because they wanted to preserve an old pine tree or the increase in traffic it may have caused or believed it did not reflect the flavor of the historic district, which by the way, could be legitimate concerns. From Hutchinson Square (Master Plan) to Middleton, you can smell the ongoing scent of change.

The cows no longer wander around the tall pines, the "mosquito houses" have disappeared into the shadows of the old trees, the trains of the old railroad no longer stop, and the great inns have gone quietly into the night. People no longer come to escape the oppressive heat and voracious mosquitoes of the coastal lowlands or for the cooling touch and healing scent of its sacred pines. Today, people come for its charm, its southern hospitality, its sense of community, and its rich history. A history as colorful as the town's famous azaleas and refreshed with the lifting of every flavorful glass of sweet tea. Wouldn't it be nice if the Town had a place for them to stay? A place that is as much an integral part of its identity similar to the way the Pine Forest Inn (1909 booklet) was in the heyday of the "Golden Age of the Inns." Maybe, a hundreds years from now people will look back on this era and call it Summerville's "Golden Age of Sweet Tea."

Things to see and do in Summerville.
Shop Summerville.
Dinning in Summerville.
Theater in Summerville.
Historic Sites in Summerville--Colonial Dorchester State Park, Middleton Place.
Summerville's B.I.R.D.S. Project.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Hauntingly Imposing--Sheldon Church Ruins of Prince William's Parish

The sky was blue and the air was crisp on this late December day. A slight breeze playfully shuffled the fallen leaves laying about the sacred grounds. The bright early afternoon light lazily trickled down through the twisted limbs of the numerous aged oaks scattered about. The shadows cast unto the old structure by the tree's were as distinct as its illumination from the sun. The combined setting embodied a sense of serenity and solitude overshadowed by an unmistakable aura of desolation. Denuded of anything flammable, the time-stressed bricks of the old church bore the erosion marks of passing time indelibly etched over some 265 years into their sandy red grains. Just beyond its four singular pillars and mounted at its gaping entrance, an engraved stone plaque identified the antiquated edifice as the Church of Prince William's Parish known as Sheldon.

The historical record etched unto the stone plaque was brief, yet concise. It stated the church was built between 1745-1755, burned by the British Army 1779, rebuilt 1826, and burned by the Federal Army 1865. On Old Sheldon Church Rd, located at its street entrance, the historic marker supplemented a few more details to the narrative. In addition, it related the church was Anglican, primarily paid for by Lieutenant Governor William Bull I, and named after the ancestral home of the Bull Family at Sheldon Hall and Parish of Warwickshire, England.

William Bull was a land owner and politician in early South Carolina. His father was Stephen Bull, who was also Lord Anthony Ashley Cooper's deputy and one of the leaders of the expedition which came from England in 1670 and settled Charles Town. In 1733, William assisted James Oglethorpe in the founding of the new Province of Georgia and assisted General Oglethorpe in establishing the physical layout of Savannah, Georgia by surveying the land to form the basic grid pattern of the streets and squares. As a land owner, his Newbury Plantation bordered the church grounds where he is buried along with other South Carolina leaders.

The South Carolina Department of Archives and History gives a detailed description of what the
original church looked liked. It is said to be the first conscious attempt in America to imitate a Greek temple. Completed by 1753, Sheldon Church's walls were three-and-one-half foot thick and built along a row of seven Tuscan columns (six engaged, one outstanding). The western facade had an elegant portico, crowned by a triangular pediment with bulls-eye window and cornice with dentils. The large front doorway had a fanlight above and two round-headed windows, symmetrically spaced, on either side. On the north, five bays between the engaged columns were filled with a single tier of tall, round-headed windows; the other bay was left open for a portico. At the eastern end, above the alter, was a Palladian window, with a round-headed window to each side.

The Archives also mention the two crucial events pertaining to its burning. Sheldon Church was burned by General Augustine Prevost's British troops in May of 1779. General Sherman's 15th Corps under General John Logan burned it on January 14, 1865. A recent discovery has presented an alternate view as to what happened at the end of the Civil War. In a letter dated February 3, 1866, Miton Leverett wrote that "Sheldon Church not burn't. Just torn up in the inside, but can be repaired." It is possible the inside of the church was gutted to reuse materials for the rebuilding of homes burnt by Sherman's army. Either way, it was never repaired and was abandoned to the merciless rigors of time, but not forgotten.

Visitors from all over the country come to the Sheldon Church ruins to photograph its majestic remains and solemnly stroll its sacred grounds. One visitor wrote these well chosen words describing his visit: "It's hard to find the right words to describe the feeling that washes over you as you walk up to this place. Even writing this review I can feel a flood of emotions rushing back as I remember the time I spent here just taking the life of this place in. The ruins carry their own self being the projects upon its visitors as they walk the grounds."

Wedding ceremonies have been held in the ruins of Sheldon Church, but since 2015 it was no longer available to the public for such ceremonies. The day I visited, which was on a Friday, there was a steady flow of visitors, but never more than ten people.

Photographs from 1940 shows Sheldon Church Ruins overgrown
People have inquired whether there are any ghost stories associated with the Sheldon Church Ruins. Like most historic southern ruins with long and tragic histories, one would presume it to be the perfect candidate. The most well-known tale tells of a woman being seen dressed in a Pilgrim style brown dress and other accounts of strange activities, such as heavy footsteps being heard, and unexplained flashing lights. Ensuing investigations have been made and nothing out of the ordinary has been found. It definitely is a place where ones imagination could run wild, especially on a hot, humid evening when the sun slips below the mossy old oaks and darkness wistfully creeps through their branches and slowly smothers the dampening grounds.

Take in the setting, contemplate the history, photograph the architecture, the feeling of reverence and awe inspired by the Sheldon Church Ruins is hauntingly imposing. It is worth your consideration as you travel the Lowcountry taking in its colorful and illustrious history dating back to the beginnings of the United States.