I started last week so sick, I lost my voice. I ended it at the Charleston Wine + Food Festival, where I talked myself hoarse as a book signer (for "Pecans: A Savor the South Cookbook") instead of my usual role as a journalist. Along the way, I managed to rack up some seriously good food experiences:
New England clam chowder at Deep Sea Seafood Market. A chilly Tuesday was the perfect time to finally visit the new fish store at 10020 Monroe Road (across from the Five Guys near the corner of North Sardis and Monroe). If you complain that Charlotte doesn't have a fish market, this is your answer. Besides well-sourced and wild-caught fish, it serves simple food like sandwiches and salads. The clam chowder is off-the- hook good, with a ton of clams and a pure-cream flavor. Buy a small order to eat there ($3.99), or get a quart to go ($10.99). I'm almost afraid to try the lobster bisque. It sounds frighteningly good.
The Glass Onion, Charleston. Before driving in to Charleston's "old town" for the festival, I stopped for lunch at this funky cafe on U.S. 17. I've known Sarah O'Kelley through the Southern Foodways Alliance for years. She and chef Chris Stewart have teamed up to create a sweet little restaurant with their own riffs on Low Country and Southern. When I got there, Sarah and I stood in front of the menu for 10 minutes figuring out what I should get: Fries with Bearnaise (who thinks of something that decadent?), a platter with their housemade Belle's Sausage, pimento cheese and a "salad" of pickled okra, green beans and cucumber chunks, and a deviled egg flavored with their signature Thunder Sauce, a sweet/hot red pepper relish. My kind of place: They keep mint syrup by the iced tea dispenser. Details: ilovetheglassonion.com.
Benton's Country Ham, Roasted Oysters and Pappy Van Winkle: The Charleston Wine + Food Festival is a long weekend of deliciousness and fun, with lots of private parties sprinkled in. I got to stop by an oyster roast at a home on Broad Street, courtesy of the crowd from www.leitesculinaria.com, and had paper-thin slices of Allan Benton's country ham at Hominy Grill. But you know it's going to get something different when you walk into a small party at the new cookbook store, Heirloom Books, and the guy behind in the counter is Julian Van Winkle (left) of the Old Rip Van Winkle bourbon company. And he's pouring 12-, 15- and 20-year-old Pappy Van Winkle and a special-reserve 10-year-old. For non-bourbon afficiandos, Pappy is so sought after, people chase bottles like unicorns and pay hundreds of dollars for them. In Charleston, you could stop by the restaurant Husk and buy a single shot of 23-year-old Pappy for $130.
Waffle House eye candy: The Charleston Wine + Food Festival sounds pretentious, but it actually isn't. It's so much fun, there was a Waffle House chef cookoff featuring Ashley Christensen of Raleigh (right), Edward Lee of Louisville and "Top Chef" (top), Mike Lata of F.I.G. and The Ordinary, and Michelle Weaver of the Charleston Grill. The four chefs had actually gone to Waffle House's nearby headquarters to train and they had to compete by making short-order specialties with time limits. Lata was the official winner, but Christensen and Lee were having so much fun wearing those hats, they didn't lose a thing.
Great wine: Before leaving Charleston, I always stop by The Wine Store at the marina on Lockwood Boulevard to see Debbie Marlowe. And I always give her the same order: A mixed case of wines, her choice, all below $20. Her old friend, "Hoppin' John" Martin Taylor, says Marlowe has the wine version of perfect pitch. She's down to earth and unpretentious, and she loves my challenge of picking great bargain bottles. Back at my own stove Sunday night, I made ribeyes with a mushroom sauce, served with a fantastic glass of 2007 Vina Gormaz tempranillo.
So what did all of those things have in common? Every moment involved people having fun with what they do, whether it was chefs goofing around, a distiller pouring what he makes, young cooks making fun food or a wine expert having fun with the cheap stuff. Forget fancy: The best food is just fun.