Gritsapalooza 2013

It’s been a little more than a month since we converged on the city of Charleston, South Carolina, for our very first LC gathering. By “we,” I mean a couple dozen devoted LC recipe testers, Beth Price, our director of recipe testing, and Renee Schettler Rossi, our editor-in-chief, and me. We’d dubbed the weekend Gritsapalooza, figuring it only fitting given the locale. (We’re actually thinking of ‘palooza-izing all of our future meetups. Boston: Chowdapalooza; New Orleans: Beignetapalooza; Kansas City: Barbecueapalooza. You get the idea.)

But I gotta be honest. In all the months we spent planning this par-tay in response to testers’ requests for some face time with Fatty Daddy, I had no inkling how it would go. I mean, it was tantamount to a big blind date. We were inviting strangers—people who knew one another only via the comments they’d shared on our recipes and via social media—to come hang with us for three days and asking them to play nicely. And that’s exactly what they did. Well, for the most part. Thanks to sufficient liquor flowing to lube the wheels of social interaction, things remained quite civil, despite a couple of teensy skirmishes. (You know who you are—and so do I. Fatty Daddy sees all, knows all. Don’t you forget it.)

Gritsapalooza commenced on a Thursday with a spectacular cocktail party thrown by Beth and her husband, Clayton. I’d granted her complete and utter amnesty with regard to the menu, stipulating she could do whatever she wanted so long as it constituted a classic Charleston spread. I needn’t have worried. So classic, not to mention classy, was Beth’s menu—her dining table laden with silver platters piled precariously high with pickled shrimp, pimento cheese, benne wafers, roast beef, and tea sandwiches—that it attracted celebrities of all sorts, including the always charming doyenne of Southern cooking, Nathalie Dupree; cookbook author Rebecca Lang; food editor Kathleen Purvis; and that Bachelor Kitchen guy, Chris Hill, who never fails to charm the ladies.

But what struck me more than the undeniable allure of the food, the celebrity crowd our soiree drew, or even the flat-out tipsiness induced by the Fatty Daddy cocktail (yes, the Prices even commissioned a cocktail to be created and named after moi; and yes, it was smashing in more ways than one) was the fact that I was finally standing face to face with people whom I’d worked with for several years but had only known online. That night I noticed things that endeared them to me in ways that just can’t happen virtually, not even on a video chat. The way some folks reach out and touch you on the shoulder as they laugh in commiseration at your most recent kitchen disaster. The way a special few can intuit when you need to be enveloped in an embrace. The way some folks never, ever let their eyes stray from yours when you’re talking, not even when someone passes by with a dessert tray of Lady Baltimore cupcakes. (I don’t think I’ll ever be able to offer anyone that kind of attention.) You know, that sort of thing.

It wasn’t just me who seemed to have been charmed by pixie dust that night. Everyone else seemed to feel the same way, too. There was just something special—magical, almost, as Beth said—about the evening, from the very first moment when people we barely knew arrived to warm welcomes. There was Vicki and her husband,  Norm Lionberger, from Kansas City. Linda Bernskoetter, also, coincidentally, from Kansas City. Sofia Reino and her daughter Rita from Milwaukee. Marilee Johnson and her equivalent of The One from Atlanta. Sita Krishnaswamy and her husband, Krish, all the way from New Brunswick. And more—so many more. It was nigh impossible to make my way back to the silver-laden table for more pickled shrimp—believe me, I tried—because the room was so crowded with LCers intently focused not just on noshing but on nurturing that Krazy Glue-like camaraderie that’d instantly sprung up. It was late, really late, when we all trundled out into the cold February night and stumbled back to our respective hotels and B&Bs, our voices, like the Waltons’ at bedtime, ringing out into the night.

Day Two of Gritsapalooza commenced early in the morning, with the clinking of the previous night’s stemware being washed and dried by a self-assigned clean-up crew. (I did a marvy job supervising, with not a single stem broken and everyone chuckling and swapping stories of recent LC recipe tests.) Afterwards we sat down for our first ever Coffee Tawk, otherwise known as Answers to Those Burning Questions You’ve Been Dying to Ask David and Renee. In response to popular demand, we’d wanted to set aside some time for testers to find out how LC works—how we select recipes for testing, what determines which recipes are sufficiently spectacular to appear on the site, who does what behind the scenes, that sorta stuff, including the question most often asked of us: “How do you do it all?!” To which I always answer, puffing out my chest in pride, “It’s me. All me.” (That never fails to make Renee roll her eyes, sigh, and mutter under her breath, which is exactly why I give that response over and over. She’s so easy to tease.)

Afterward, people came and went from Beth and Clayton’s home, which we’d dubbed the Hospitality House, as they traipsed about town; attended various seminars at the Charleston Wine & Food Festival which was held that same weekend; and frolicked in Charleston’s many restaurants. Let me tell you, there’s no shortage of fine food in that city, particularly grits, pork belly, and shrimp. Especially shrimp. Pickled shrimp. Roasted shrimp. Shrimp salad. Shrimp and grits. Fried shrimp. I felt like Bubba Gump, I ate so much shrimp. And as you can imagine, quite a lot of time was spent swapping tales of menus and meals. Overall we had quite nice things to say about several places, including the Butcher & Bee, Charleston Grill, Toast, Eli’s Table, Slightly North of Broad (S.N.O.B.), Amen Street Fish & Raw Bar, and the MacIntosh—but more on that later.

Foodwise, the highlight of Friday was the oyster roast held in the Prices’ driveway late that afternoon. We’d been instructed by Beth to not dress up but rather to come dressed as casually as possible. The One, who never hesitates to find reasons to don cashmere sweater, khaki pants, and shoes with a price tag higher than our national debt, thought her warning to be piffle and wore his Sunday best. He was certain a southern oyster roast was a civilized affair, with visions seemingly dancing in his head of slightly smoky, supremely briny, shucked oysters being passed by tuxedoed waiters. Only when he saw a plywood table set atop two sawhorses and a dozen or so oyster knives did he realize his error. Moments later, when Clayton dumped bucket after bucket of cluster oysters–imagine shellfish condominiums–from the grill onto the table, The One looked down at his clothes, back to the table, and then at me in all my blue-jean glory. To say I engaged in a little schadenfreude wouldn’t be inaccurate. Hah!

That didn’t stop The One from presiding over a corner of the table for the entire duration of the roast, shucking oyster after oyster after oyster and slurping them down in greedy succession. (Oops, did I say greedy? I meant quick.) What he lacked in expertise he more than made up for in gusto, rivaled only by Shawn Gorman, husband and unofficial sous chef of LC recipe tester Jackie Gorman, who deftly and gracefully wielded his knife and his know-how, patiently stopping to offer anyone who asked a concise lesson in the art of shucking. Meanwhile, the rest of us mingled in the brisk afternoon air, getting muck all over ourselves, dipping oysters in red-wine mignonette or cocktail sauce, and sipping wine.

Friday night, everyone was on their own to do as they pleased. (Even I, egomaniac that I am, didn’t want to presume folks would feel the need to spend every single second with me.) The One and I feasted on fried chicken at Hominy Grill. Renee and her bourbon-minded man, E, managed to procure last-minute dinner reservations at the much-ballyhooed Husk. Beth and several other carousers crashed the festival’s many after-parties. The one constant, it seemed, was the boozing. From the looks of everyone the next morning—not to mention the amused expressions as cellphone pictures were passed around—very few of us escaped Charleston’s liquored embrace unscathed. (The sole exception was Eydie Desser. Poor Eydie. Somehow, due to an unfortunate glitch in communications, she was left alone in her hotel room. Oh, Eydie, we’ll say it yet again, we are so sorry!)

And Saturday? Saturday was the real reason we’d all traveled to be together. We’d designated the entire day to be spent cooking alongside one another, with dinner that night the culmination of the day’s handiwork. Having overslept, though, I was late to the stove and could barely think until Beth, gracious and all-knowing southern lady that she is, placed a huge container of pimento cheese and a couple of croissants in my hands and shoved me in the direction of the espresso maker. (Note to self: Add pimento cheese to the list of hangover cures.)

We’d already divvied everyone into teams. As I stopped in at different stations, knives were flying, burners were flaring, and pots were dancing with hot oil. Still, the lot of us took a break and indulged in a rather boozy midday interlude, embarking on a food-and-wine river cruise along the Cooper River in near-Arctic weather. To prove our mettle, we huddled on the top deck, wine glasses in hand, planning our next ‘palooza. Nova Scotia, Kansas City, San Diego, Boston, and, believe it or not, India were voted into contention. (Did you know that India is in the Northern Hemisphere? Me either.)

Then back to Beth’s we raced, to spend the rest of the afternoon in the kitchen putting the finishing touches on things, each according to his or her own pace, whether frantically or lackadaisically. Some of the work actually spilled out onto the patio and the dining room, as there was only room for so many cooks in the kitchen. Just ask veteran LC tester Dan Kraan, who’d been tasked with fishing the bones from several blackened snapper and spent hour after hour at the dining table, chatting away while his fingertips did the work. Those of us who were supervising gathered around tester Susan Bingaman’s mom, Mary, and let her regale us with tales of her daughter’s early years. (Susan, she’s a gem. Be good to her.)

Finally, a mere two hours behind schedule, we finally set out Saturday’s supper. It was, unintentionally, a virtual trip around the world—okay, a couple of different continents—with stops in Portugal, for clams and sausage in a copper cataplana from yours truly; India, to partake of Sita’s minty potato cakes with green-chili chutney and sweet-and-sour chutney; the Caribbean, for Melissa Maedgen’s grilled fish buljol and triple dog three-pepper grilled salsa (among several other items too numerous too mention); and then back to Charleston, for Linda Pacchiano’s pickled shrimp on Carolina grits cakes, which we dubbed Gritsapalooza cakes. (Special thanks to Jackie and Vicki, who magnanimously followed through on Linda’s idea in her absence, as a death in the family precluded her from attending. The two sous chefs not only flawlessly executed the dish, but thoughtfully videotaped its making so Linda could feel as though she was a part of the gathering.)

For the first time all day, the raucous clattering of pots and pans and laughing voices suddenly turned silent, if that’s what you can call the sound of two dozen people shoveling forkfuls of food into their mouths at the same time. The relative quietude was interrupted only by compliments for the cooks and requests for seconds, as well as recipes. The silence was broken again when pastry chef Jenni Fields, a Friend of LC (FoLC), turned up bearing her splendiferously sinful Brown Sugar Cinnamon Pound Cake with Blood Orange Caramel Sauce. It was a last course of which the entire South could be darn proud. As a backup dessert, Beth had finagled a world-famous coconut cake from the Peninsula Grill for dessert, knowing of my deep and abiding fondness for coconut (and perhaps prodded by the fact that I hadn’t stopped talking about it all weekend). It took me several slices to ascertain exactly what I thought, but I do believe it lives up to the hype. Wait, maybe I’d better have another slice. (Beth, do you have any in the freezer still?)

Shortly after dinner, someone reminded us that we’d published a recipe for the storied Sazerac on the site just the week before and suggested that those of us who hadn’t tested it give it a try. A run to the liquor store for absinthe ensued, as did many, many toasts (including one to you, Linda, and another to you, our dear testers who could not be with us that weekend, and a third to you, dear readers). When the last drop of absinthe disappeared, cad that I am, I persuaded Beth to bring out her loquat liqueur, a homemade delicacy that she makes only once a year, when loquats are in season. As she tells the story, the ripe fruit can only be harvested by sending your son and husband high into the branches of the tree; then you wash and stem the fruits of their labor, combine the loquats with vodka and sugar, give the results a good shake, put it in a dark place, and let it sit. And sit. And sit. We’re talking months here. Anyways, I felt terrible, because we made quite an embarrassing dent in her limited stash, and by 10 p.m. the entire gang was strewn on couches and chairs throughout the Prices’ home. I honestly haven’t witnessed a happier, more sated bunch of folks in a long time—maybe ever. (Full disclosure: Before our flight home on Monday, I did manage to miraculously secure a bottle of loquat liqueur to replenish the vastly diminished supply—cuz I can assure you, I ain’t climbing any loquat tree, not even for Beth, on whom I have a curious crush of sorts that perplexes both me and The One.)

And then Sunday. Our last day in Charleston. Already. The bunch of us straggled to the storied jazz brunch at High Cotton, where there was a live Dixieland band and apple-smoked bacon and White Lily biscuits and classic ambrosia and cheese grits and, yes, more shrimp. But what I remember more than anything else as everyone said goodbye was the tears. Lots and lots of tears and long embraces. And the induction of our youngest LC recipe tester, Rita Reino—or rather, honorary LC recipe tester, given what I understand about child-labor laws.

I’d asked our core team—including Sita, who is not only a tester but Beth’s right hand, along with Renee and their significant others—to stay behind one last night in Charleston so that I, being in a magnanimous mood, could treat us all to dinner at the MacIntosh, Beth’s recommended restaurant, as a thank you. We spent the evening fawning and, yes, swooning over the menu. I because they had foie gras parfait. Renee relinquished all manners and hogged most of the perfectly crisped pork belly first course. E was happy because I insisted he order a flight of rare bourbons. Sita and Beth ravaged the ravioli. Krish was so taken with the Orange Ghost cocktail concoction of ghost pepper, Aperol, elderflower, and Champagne that he ordered a second. And The One, well, let’s just say I was so proud of him for sharing his sweetbreads starter, though I knew he would have rather devoured them all himself. (The One doesn’t, under any circumstances, like to share his food. It’s a topic for another day.)

Let it be known that, despite the many temptations throughout the weekend, I dutifully counted my Weight Watcher points the entire time. Although admittedly, sometimes I counted more points than others. A couple of times everything was so tempting, I just couldn’t seem to get enough of anything in my mouth. One evening I actually made everyone who had a picture of me stuffing my face delete the evidence. (That Momma Leite stare that I inherited can be quite effective.)

And that was Gritsapalooza. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I swear I came home 10 pounds lighter, even though no one in the history of Charleston has ever left the city having lost weight. Yet it must be true, because I was walking on air for at least a week afterward. To witness firsthand all the relationships we’ve forged in the past 14 years come together in a single weekend of—get your hankies ready—loving humanity caught me unawares. It was only then, in Charleston, that I realized how truly blessed I am to be surrounded by the finest, most talented, and, thankfully, funniest people in the world. I can only wait for our next adventure.

David Leite's signature

Back to Gritsapalooza 2013 on Leite's Culinaria