Eating Upcountry : New Worlder

Paw paw vinegar. Tomato koji. Blue barley miso. Catfish liquamen. Mushroom shoyu. Sour corn. This is South Carolina Upcountry umami.

There are several dozen flavor compounds are written on a white board in a corner of the kitchen at Husk in Greenville, South Carolina. The restaurant opened in late 2017 in a 1903 dry-goods store on the West End where a rescued mural on the wall upstairs reads: “Bread is the Staff of Life.”

The Upcountry larder isn’t quite what it is in the Lowcountry down on the coast. The foothills of the Blue Ridge mountains, a small corner of temperate rainforest brimming with game and fungi, are a short drive from town. Mountain trout and catfish can be dropped off daily, while legumes, squash, and corn – the three sisters adored by the Cherokee – are staple crops in the valleys.

“When we first got here, we asked the farmers: ‘Y’all know what grows here better than anyone. Let’s go from there,’” Jon Buck, Husk Greenville’s executive chef told me as we walked through the restaurant’s kitchen, passing skillets of corn bread cooking on a brick hearth.

“Sean [Brock] was adamant about finding my own corn guy here,” says Buck.

Instead of recreating the corn flavors of the Lowcountry, they are trying to make uniquely local corn recipes. They have been milling Trucker’s Favorite corn from Hurricane Creek just outside of Greenville at the restaurant, but lacto-fermenting it in a saltwater brine before cooking it. It adds some sour notes and it allows them to minimize dairy in their grits, which are served with royal red shrimp and red pepper gravy. “We want to try to taste as natural a grit as possible,” he says.

The restaurant’s aim, along with several others in Greenville, are nothing less than to help give an identity to the food of South Carolina’s Upcountry. While Charleston and the coast has blossomed into one of the south’s culinary hubs, this region is essentially unknown and untested. The surrounding micro-climates provide a vast set of ingredients, while organizations like GrowFood Carolina provide access to seafood and small producers elsewhere in the state. Plus, with a rapidly expanding urban center, the conditions seem to be ideal.

When The Neighborhood Dining Group chose Greenville for their third branch of Husk, after Nashville, there was a collective: “where?” Greenville is just the sixth largest city in South Carolina, though that’s a deceptive figure. The metropolitan area, extending to Spartanburg, is heavily populated and is home to international corporations like Michelin and BMW. It’s also at the nexus of the culinary hot beds of Atlanta, Charlotte, Asheville, and Charleston, not to mention famed agricultural institution of Clemson University. It’s not a surprise how fast growing of a city Greenville is, but the amount and type of culinary activity is eye opening.

In neighborhoods once limited to abandoned mills are now thriving urban farms, farmhouse breweries, and hybrid cafés and groceries, many of which are connected by the Swamp Rabbit Trail, a 22-mile bike and walking trail along the Reedy River. Then downtown, where a building boom is underway, there have multiple big name restaurant imports, like Caviar & Bananas from Charleston and Biscuit Head from Asheville, and high end restaurants like Michael Kramer’s modern osteria Jianna.

Greenville would seem to be a bastion of conservatism, even the evangelical Bob Jones University, however, there are some surprisingly progressive culinary ideas being batted around. The non-profit food hub Feed & Seed, which broke ground on a wholesale market in late 2017, is trying to connect neighborhoods, restaurants, and schools in ten upstate counties with seasonal farm products, ensuring a revenue system for regional food producers and fair prices for consumers.

“If I can get these to you will you use it?” Mary Hipp, one of the founders  often asks local chefs. More often than not they say yes. “We’re not asking to buy organic, but fresh and local.”

When it opens next year, the market will include an urban demonstration farm that teaches locals hands on gardening practices, as well as a light processing facility and butcher shop.

At Kitchen Sync, solar panels power the grills and all pre and post consumer food waste is composted. It has the highest Certified Green rating in the United States among independent restaurants, though you wouldn’t know it by sitting down.

“I don’t want it to be in your face. To scare people away,” says Kevin Feeny, who manages the restaurant, while his sister Karin Feeny Farrell is the chef.

Feeny, who used to work for years in chain restaurants, has been quietly putting aside two percent of all sales to go towards community projects. He hasn’t told anyone about it. The menu is eclectic, with dishes like roasted and flashed fried beets and chicken thighs with collards, plus decent cocktails and regional craft beer.

“First and foremost, we’re a neighborhood restaurant,” he says.

At the 67-seat restaurant The Anchorage, set in an old mill infirmary in West Greenville and nominated for a James Beard Best New Restaurant award in 2018, there are only five services a week and a no reservation policy, so neighbors can always walk in. Like at Husk, chef Greg McPhee, a Johnson and Wales graduate that has been working around the southeast for a decade, is exploring what exactly is Upcountry cuisine. Unlike in the Lowcountry, there are few culinary traditions here and fewer expectations.

“Ingredients are still the driver, but you have creative flexibility with putting together dishes,” he says.

Chilled mushroom congee isn’t exactly what you might expect to find here, though you look closer and there’s Carolina Gold brown rice and pickled chicken of the woods mushrooms from the hills. Vegetables stand out. though the restaurant is not vegetarian by any means. For instance, grilled cantaloupe might get a shaving of lardo over it, and Virginia oysters on the half shell are regularly on the menu.

Wanting to try to understand what exactly Upcountry food is, I go with McPhee to meet with some of his suppliers. In Travelers Rest, where he once worked at Restaurant 17 in the chateau-like Hotel Domestique, we stop by Blue Ridge Creamery, where Danish born Christian Hansen left behind the corporate world to create cheeses with Carolina terroir. We test a fresh cheese smoked in tea leaves wrapped in wine soaked fig leaves, as well as their blue, which McPhee serves on a charcuterie plate. They tell me about their agreement to send their leftover whey to a farmer who feeds it to his Ossabaw Island hogs, which McPhee then buys the meat from.

At Broken Oak Organics, a small farm further into the mountains near the North Carolina border, the bears and wild hogs had just come through and tried to pick the crops clean. The new influx of chefs like Buck and McPhee has allowed farmer Craig Weiner to diversify. He’s working with more heirloom products and foraging for things like day lily sprouts and hemlock. Mushrooms are everywhere, he says. You wouldn’t find them in the Lowcountry, but lion’s mane, chanterelles, golden milkys, and little pinks grow here like grass. It’s wild and misty, with thick forest cover, yet it’s just a short drive from town. It’s not quite Appalachian, not quite Southern. It’s somewhere in between.