Thursday, May 28, 2009

Captain Tim's Low-Country Boil: The South at Its Best

Two weeks ago, I ventured south of the Mason Dixon line to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina's feisty, ever-expanding resort town that over the years, has become somewhat of hot-spot for all walks of life. Whether it be a cavalcade of Harley Davidson bikers looking to re-energize over a cold one, young families hankering for some precious beach time with their little ones, or querulous bachelors desperate to shed their hyperactive city lives for the torpor of the South Carolinian heat, Myrtle Beach manages to offer something for everybody.

And of course, it goes without saying, that in this "something for everybody", inheres a sprawling landscape of eateries that strive to satisfy every culinary craving under the sun. That's the good news. The bad news is that the majority of the eating options in Myrtle Beach exists in the form of national and regional restaurant chains that are anything but local. Obviously as the Ubereater this deeply saddens me mainly because as a true fanatic for the cuisine of the American South (I dream about biscuits weekly), it pains me to see this sort of mass commercialization in region of the country so famously proud of its roots.

I say this not as a gauche gastronomic gadfly looking to belittle the eating habits of this area, but more pointedly as an avid eater and true culinarian perplexed by the irony at play here. In fairness, I do realize this sort of development is not without purpose, and was most certainly a function of the local demand. There was a need - and the community met that need. I'm not out to vilify the Landry's and the Pizzeria Uno's of the world - these are legitimate establishments that are quite popular throughout the country - but it is extremely difficult for me to justify eating at these sorts of places when I travel to a part of the country that is otherwise teeming with timeless food treasures.

All this said, after some thorough investigation, it became clear that the if I were truly determined to get my hands on some classic southern grub, I would have to leave the flashing neon lights of Myrtle , and head to one of its less crowded neighboring communities - North Myrtle Beach to the north, or Murrell's Inlet to the south.

Having resigned myself to knowing that an authentic culinary tradition of the South was all but beyond my reach at this point, and realizing this trip was supposed to be about celebrating my friend's dangerously dwindling Bachelordom and not my quest for the perfect shrimp and grits, I accepted our less than ideal situation and moved on.

Little did I know that one of the best southern food experiences of my life would take place on a sail boat docked in a South Carolina coastal channel less than a mile from the Atlantic Ocean.

It was the idea of our group's ring lead to charter a boat for the day to enjoy the open water and if nothing else, simply get away from it all. We enlisted Myrtle Beach Sailing Charters, owned and operated by Captain Tim Hamilton, to navigate the complex network of narrow winding waterways that form the Carolinas' extensive channel system which slowly segues into the mighty Atlantic.

Included in our 6 hour tour, along with knocking back a few beers, basking in the sub-tropical sun, and listening to the feel-good rhythms of Bob Marley and Jimmy Buffet, was a hearty lunch to be prepared by our trusty skipper, who, as I would later learn, is as much as a chef as he is a captain.

After hopping overboard for 45 minutes or so, Captain Tim summoned us back to the boat. Our lunch, evidently, was ready. After finagling our way back on to the vessel, grateful I didn't break anything along the way, (it's always more difficult that it looks), we were greeted by a set table that contained no indication of what was being served.

Hungry, wet, sun-drunk, and still detoxing from the night before, I literally squealed like a pig when our jolly skipper announced that for lunch we would be enjoying his Low-Country Boil, a central pillar of the pantheon of the Southern table that has come to represent what I love so much about the food traditions of this part of the country. Much like Chili in the Southwest and Chowder in New England, Low-Country Boil is more art than science - a method more than a recipe if you will, that involves boiling in seasoned water and in proper sequence, potatoes, corn, sausage and either craw fish or shrimp, until amply cooked. The key here is the timing of the cooking, since each warrants vastly different cooking times.

This steaming pot of goodness is then drained and served family style, accompanied by drawn butter and hot sauce. It is a messy, dirty orgy of consumption that can be draining, but always satisfying. For an Ubereater, it is an out-of-body experience.

Captain Tim's version arrived on a gargantuan plate as a steaming hot mountain of low-country love, built with perfectly boiled, silky starchy new potatoes, ultra-sweet cobs of corn, massive hunks of juicy savory sausage, falling-off-the-bone chicken legs, and of course oodles and oodles of giant shrimp pulled from local waters. Serve with drawn butter, hot sauce (Texas Pete!), and some old bay seasoning, I was in my glory.

We attacked this heaping mound of deliciousness with reckless abandon, leaving no morsel unmolested and essentially clearing the plate in minutes. Like a pack of rabid dogs, we fought, albeit passive-aggressively over the last few tidbits of love on the plate ("You sure you don't want it?")
In the end, covered in butter and hot sauce, and self-dusted with old bay, we successfully devoured more than 3 pounds of shrimp, among all the other goodies camping out on the plate.

This was not only the best meal of the weekend, but one of the best meals I've had this year. As I told Captain Tim, and the rest of the guys that day, there could not have been a better meal awaiting our return from the water. Absolutely and utterly delicious, and entirely fulfilling in terms of both mind and body.

I want to thank Captain Tim for the wonderful time we had that day. As a skipper alone, his hospitality and genuine interest in making sure we were enjoying ourselves was quite appreciated. As a South Jersey-native, I like him even better, but more important, as a chef, his ability to make an already exceptional trip, even better with authentic, local, made-from-the-heart food, embodies the kind of experience I had hoped, and finally did, get, while in South Carolina. This is a true testament to the South's pride in their food, best exemplifed by Captain Tim's poigant mantra towards the culinary arts:

"Just get great ingredients, and don't f$%# it up!"

Can't argue with you there.

Thankfully, and as is usually the case, my culinary adventure to Myrtle was not all for naught, once again proving that beneath the veil of modernity, there will always rest a rich layer of culinary bedrock that will forever thrive on tradition, love, and an honest devotion to lovely food.

Myrtle Beach Sailing Charters

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