Letter from Charleston, S.C. – Part 2 | Henry S. Fraser


Historic mansion downtown Charleston, South Carolina. (Credit: Caribbean360 / Bigstock)

Sir Henry S. Fraser

BRIDGETOWN, Barbados, Sunday May 3, 2015 – “Hold on to your sun hats, Charleston. Readers of Condé Nast Traveler have voted Charleston the No. 1 city in the United States for the fourth year in a row.”(Paul Bowers in Charleston City Paper, Monday, Oct 20, 2014).

Not only is Charleston the No. 1 city in the USA four times over, but it’s also the No. 2 city in the world for Condé Nast travellers, after Florence in Italy (city of Michelangelo and the glorious centre of Renaissance art, sculpture and architecture.) And it’s repeatedly praised for its vibrant culture, amazing built heritage, restaurants-to-die-for and genuine hospitality.

The big attraction of course is the well preserved historic city core. In spite of 18th century fires, destruction in the Civil War, a devastating earthquake in 1886, which damaged most buildings and demolished many, and a devastating Hurricane Hugo (Category 4 at landfall) on September 22nd, 1989, Charleston’s historic core is an extraordinary architectural treasure. The layout of the town in 1680 was attributed largely to the Surveyor General, John Culpepper, a Barbadian.

The original walled city comprised a grid facing onto the battery, on a peninsula between the Ashley and Cooper rivers. Plots were long and narrow, and houses were built to fit these long, narrow plots, a single room wide, with the designation Single House – a term used only by Richard Ligon in his Short and Exact History of the Island of Barbados (1657) and by the people of Charleston to this day. After walking many times along these beautiful streets – lined with houses preserved with pride, amid exotic gardens – my wife and I finally did the mandatory “tourist package”: a carriage ride. Scores of open (but canopied) carriages, drawn by beautiful shire horses, provide leisurely guided tours. And the trained guides put most taxi drivers in the shade with their wealth of history and stories – HIStories and HERstories – full of scandal and intrigue – about the characters of the past.

There are so many connections between Barbados and Charleston. We’ve talked about the early settlers – Sir John Yeamans of Nicholas, sailing out of Speightstown, and Sir John Colleton, ancestor of Hugh Godsal, present owner of Cobblers Cove Hotel in St. Peter; of the Governors; of the slaves taken to South Carolina; and of the magnificent plantations with Barbadian connections. But there’s so much else.

So a word here about the local Gullah dialect, and about food!

Off Charleston and the “low country” coastal area of South Carolina and Georgia is the chain of “Sea Islands”. They formed a distinct community, shared more recently with the coastal mainlanders, and known as the Gullah / Geechee. Because of relative isolation they retained African cultural habits and a dialect known as Gullah, based on West African / English creole with strong elements of Caribbean islands… especially Barbados (the earlier influence in the 17th century) and the Bahamas (later, 18th century influence).

We mustn’t underestimate the influence of a few talkative people! The early cockney bondservants and press ganged East Enders of London taken to Jamaica in the 1650s so influenced language, that Jamaicans today still drop their aitches (H’s) and add them in the wrong place, like London’s cockneys.

On my first visit to Charleston in 1986 I kept looking around to identify voices I thought were Barbadians! I heard oldish people saying things like: “I tell yuh!” and “ I’m going there tuhreckly “ … meaning right away …. And in Gullah they say “Enty?” for emphasis, while in Bajan we say the shorter version “ENT”? I could go on, with the syntax, partly African in origin, and the proverbs and pronounciations that have survived three hundred years. These little vestigial similarities strike deep emotional chords that bind us.

And the food. First of all, how do you think Charlestonians refer to recipes? With the archaic word “receipts”, which we associate with proof of purchase. The classic recipe book of Charleston, first published in 1950 by a charity the Junior League of Charleston and still going strong, is CHARLESTON RECEIPTS – and there’s an amusing verse up front to explain the use of the archaic Receipt:

Throughout this book, as you will see,
We never mention recipe –
The reason being that we felt
(Though well aware how it’s spelt!)
That it is modern and not meet
To use in place of old receipt
To designate time-honoured dishes!

But what’s interesting is that in St. Peter and St. Lucy, where my mother grew up, they all spoke of receipts and never recipes, and my mother’s handwritten family recipes were labelled RECEIPT book!

And in CHARLESTON RECEIPTS are the various ways of preparing hominy – like our own corn meal cou-cou – even frying the left overs for the next meal, as we often enjoyed it as children. And their peas and rice, known as Hopping John, and

macaroni pie, and corn bread, and okras … but they have many ways of preparing okras, from rich gumbo soups to pickled, dried as chips, or cut up and fried – all delicious. And their crème de la crème is the famous she-crab soup.

And when you’re going from one fabulous restaurant to another, don’t miss The Fudgery at 90 North Market Street, next to the historic craft market. The concept of “Papa Fudge” Marshall was fun with fudge! And the joyous loud singing of Will and Juanita will surely seduce you in!

A highlight of our visit was the reception, hosted by the Barbados and Carolina Legacy Foundation and the South Carolinas National Heritage Corridor, with an array of Gullah dishes and the amazing music of Ian Sanchez on the saxophone and guitarist Chris. And these two organisations have plans to promote our cultural exchanges in a big way.

Bouquets: To the amazing young sports heroes of Barbados for their recent successes – especially sprinter Mario Burke and distance runner Mary Fraser at the CARIFTA games in ST. Kitts-Nevis; swimmers too many to mention, they won so many medals at the CARIFTA championships here; and the ever brilliant surfer Chelsea Tuach. They all give us hope, while we continue to agonise over cricket!

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henry-fraser-150Sir Henry Fraser is past Dean of Medical Sciences, UWI and Professor Emeritus of Medicine. Website:  profhenryfraser.com