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Tartare, sauced

A day trip to a different world

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About a month ago, my girlfriend and I made a trip to Charleston, S.C., to attend the Charleston Food + Wine Festival. The festival was made up of various "cooking competitions," (a weird thing, when you stop and think about it; yet, I know few people with a bigger hard-on for Iron Chef than I), various cooking demonstrations, book signings, and the odd TV celebrity to make sure that people actually showed up.

Tom Colicchio and Charlottean Sam Talbot of Top Chef were there, as was Applebee's poster boy Tyler Florence. After fighting with the horde inside the vendor tent (you never saw so many people queue up for a $3 wine glass) we somehow wondered into a cooking competition that Mr. Phenomenal Salad himself was participating in. Granted, most of the folk in Tyler's tent (and there were some ladies there that seemed interested in Tyler's, um, tent) probably have a big, Costco-sized jar of Emeril's "Essence" at home, but Florence seemed to believe that nobody there knew anything whatsoever about cooking. At one point, he made the very sincere-seeming suggestion that using freshly ground pepper and sea salt would "really" make your food taste better, as "it hasn't been sitting up there on a shelf forever." (Actually, it probably has -- you're merely releasing oils, etc. -- but who's counting.)

We then attended a demonstration conducted by a local chef and a food writer who I happen to know. After their presentation, we spoke with the pair, who agreed the whole event was way too congested for comfort, and so, at about 3 p.m., we decided to go get our drink on (food industry folk like nothing better than eating -- except drinking).

As we began our trek, we soon started picking up stragglers. None of us seemed to know where we were headed, but, as my girlfriend noted, we knew that, at the very least, a cold beer was waiting for us at the end of our journey. We finally ended up at a Southern chain called Jim and Nick's, a barbecue joint found in cities and small towns throughout the Deep South. In our rag-tag band of boozers was an editor from an extremely well-known magazine, as well as a chef from a rather well-known restaurant in the South. (This isn't name- or position-dropping, I'm only mentioning this to further the "how the hell did I end up here" factor.)

The food and drink flowed forth. Regular readers may remember my pesco-vegetarian piece of a few weeks back. Remember how I said I would take it day by day, and how I reserved the right to make decisions based on the situation? Well, I backtracked when presented with a plate of barbecued sausage, jalapeno pepper slices, fresh-made pimento cheese, and saltine crackers. Not exactly foie gras or filet mignon, but indescribably delicious nonetheless. Furthermore, I haven't eaten meat since (well, once, but more on that later.)

We soon decided to head to yet another bar. The sun was starting its descent, people were everywhere enjoying the beautiful warm weather, and all seemed right with the world.

A black, Secret Service-style Suburban pulled next to us, and a couple of guys from within screamed out the names of some of our co-conspirators. Next thing I know, we were in a fancy loft, drinking Woodford Reserve out of the bottle, noshing on snacks, and playing pool.

I felt like Jim Harrison, the author and noted man of appetites, or at least what I half-drunkenly imagined life as Jim Harrison would be like: good food, great conversation, and the most wonderful setting imaginable (the South in the springtime). Trou was dropped, billiard balls racked, and last-second dinner reservations were slurred.

My girlfriend and I opted out at this point (wisely, I've heard), figuring it might be a good idea to grab a bite to eat before the Sparklehorse show we'd planned to hit later that evening. On our way back, we stopped at the restaurant FIG to have a couple of appetizers: an artisanal cheese plate, and (here's that meat thing again) steak tartare. Tartare has always been one of those foods I'd always wanted to sample, but was either too timid (or vegetarian, or freaked out that the kitchen was dirty) to try. It was forbidden, the meat version of the menage a trois.

I considered the day I'd had -- utterly reenergizing, and filled with all manner of physical and aesthetic delights -- and dug in. It wasn't quite what I thought it would be, even as I wasn't sure what I was expecting. It was meat and spice and little more, and by the end of it, not much different than any steak you might eat -- transcendent to begin with, and something a little south of that by the time you've polished off the last bite.

The day started off nothing like I'd planned -- we missed Colicchio and Talbot, and spent a total of maybe an hour on the grounds we'd spent $35 to enter -- yet it was one of the most memorable culinary experiences I've ever had.

Charleston's like that -- there's a reason some folk call it Little N'awlins. It tempts you, tickles your taboos, and promises you a story every time you sit down at the table. I'm reminded here of my favorite Colicchio quote from last year's Top Chef, which incidentally, came after someone (Elan?) prepared a tartare: "This is a cooking competition -- but you didn't cook anything!" Perhaps not. But food, like life, is usually more ingredients and enthusiasm than technique. Better a tartare than all day in a hot tent shilling chefware, no?

Timothy C. Davis is an associate editor with Gravy, the official newsletter of the Southern Foodways Alliance. His food writing has appeared in Gastronomica, Saveur, The Christian Science Monitor, and the food Web site www.egullet.com.

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