January and February are the best kept secret in Charleston. The camellias are in bloom, cultivated for the social season when Charlestonians and plantation owners were in town for the races. Magnolia Plantation is not to be missed with their world renowned collection of camellias in bloom now, which peak in February. Those who wait til spring miss our spring like winter, especially refreshing if you live in environs where you see nothing green all winter. Bulbs are coming up. We are to ourselves again after the many visitors of autumn and Christmas. It is quiet. We have time get to know you better.
It is also the season of Lowcountry oyster roasts. My family and I went to the SAVE THE LIGHT oyster roast for the Morris Island Lighthouse last Sunday. I stood at the same spot for HOURS eating steamed oysters. People would go away from our table and come back hours later to say, “You still here?!” If anyone wants to have an oyster roast, my husband roasts some up for 6 or more. He is renowned for doing it the old Charleston way. He builds a fire in our old brick outside chimney; he puts a metal slab over the fire and piles on the Lowcountry oysters, ” locals” we call them. Essential then is the wet burlap sack to put over the oysters so that they steam, roast, and smoke. Where does one get a burlap sack these days? Only those who are committed to LOCAL oysters know that secret!
Thank you to all who made 2011 a great year. A young couple loitered after my last tour of the old year, waiting till everyone else left after Tea. The young man had a guilty look. Finally he outed with it. It was not my money of which he wanted to rob me; it was another English Plum Pudding, for the road. He explained, “I’ve never had anything like this before.”
I also served Hoppin’ John with a refreshing twist: Field Peas with chopped Roasted Beets, Ginger, Meyer Lemon, and dried cranberries, inspiration from The Taylor Brothers, for whose cooking demonstration I first made it. I made it it New Year’s Day for our family gathered at Aunt Dee’s. I am using my home grown Meyer Lemons before a freeze comes along. I was not as wise last year. I am making Meyer Lemon Sorbet, my favorite, and Meyer Lemon Curd with scones. Yesterday I baked two persimmon pies, which filled the house with their wonderful aroma. You have to wait til the persimmons look soggy or they will taste like chalk. We have a tree in back. We have something new for the eyes to see, persimmons and calamondin oranges in my camellia flower arrangements. Winter joys of life in Charleston keep us in good spirits until the full bloom of magic culminates in spring.
I am still up to my eyeballs in Calamondin Marmalade. I cannot work in the front garden without a passerby wanting to know what that tree is with tiny oranges. I gave tiny jars for party favors at a fabulous New Year’s Eve dinner party with our friends at Cathy and Harry Gregorie’s, owners of GDC. I ran out this morning of the marmalade jars I took with me to a citrus lecture at the Garden Club of Charleston. Don’t worry; I am making more.
We are now in the 151st year since the War Between the States began at Ft. Sumter, April 12, 1861, in Charleston, “That Hellhole of Secession.” One of the houses we visit is my friend, Francess Palmer’s, on East Battery with a dead on view of Ft. Sumter, where was fired the shot that was heard around the world. I never tire of the sunlight on the water, the ever changing views of white caps or lazy glassiness where dolphins are jumping and white sails are gliding by. To add more value in these times to the tour and to highlight the history as seen from the Battery, I am offering a full, hot Southern breakfast in my friend Francess Palmer’s home and B&B. It has been in her family for three generations. I first went there for her debutant party when we were 18. The Big Band from her grandparents era played on the lawn under a full moon. There as we gaze at the view of Ft. Sumter, I talk about the history of this War of Northern Aggression! You come to understand why Southerns had the audacity to call it that.
Our own house had been Francess Palmer’s uncle’s. We have owned it for 14 years this winter, having bought it from the Edmonds, who lived in it for 30 years after the Palmers. I cried when we moved in. I did not want to give up my home I had bought before marriage on Legare Street, where my tours had ended with tea in the garden. I said I was only moving here because I loved my husband. Preston in my face said, “Mark my words. You’re gonna love it!” And HE WAS RIGHT! Sunlight and moisture for a citrus grove and flower garden, a view of the water, open air circulation and good sea breezes, SPACE for family living and for entertaining you, my guests, all contribute to my love for our home. Though it is old enough to have problems, its assets outweigh the responsibilities…so far anyway. Your one hundred dollars each goes to the preservation of this historic Charleston house, be it ever so humble.
I realize I am living the life of my gregarious father, Fred Wichmann. He is the epitome of Charleston hospitality, inviting strangers in who he meets often through sailing or through real estate. Despite all the “strangers” I have had in my house, when I put everything back in their proper place, they are all there. No one has taken from me yet after six years of my private tours. I use old things for my enjoyment and that of of my guests as they were used in 18th and 19th century Charleston. Thank you for being the people to whom this Holy City of Charleston was meant to be hospitable. Lafayette was amazed at Charleston hospitality when he visited here in 1825, saying there were so few inns or hotels because Charlestonians were so hospitable, “they would take you into their homes be you prominent or indigent.” Read the first translation ever published of “Lafayette in America, 1824-25”, until now hidden in the French language.
I meet some of America’s nicest people on my tour. I don’t want to let them go. And so, I invite them in! I learn from them. Jump in and tell me something if it is on your mind. I learned from Johnny Kicklighter that a scene I show of an old print of Francis Marion, the Swamp Fox, was on a South Carolina dollar bill and a Confederate bill. I did not know that connection. It is a scene of him loving his enemy, doing good to those who mistreat you. Marion is sharing with hated but lost Redcoat Tarleton hot sweet potatoes just pulled from the fire. That picture tells the story of the heart of Charleston hospitality. This value is an aspect of Charleston that once understood completes the picture of who we are. Until newcomers get this understanding that it is more blessed to give than to receive, they are not going to be regarded as belonging. We are not a gated community of arrogant rich people trying to keep everybody else out. We are an open city with a heritage and culture that is still alive, to be shared, and which has defined us for centuries. This sentiment I learned growing up in Charleston and from Elizabeth Verner Hamilton, poet, gardener, and daughter of Charleston artist Elizabeth O’Neill Verner. I am sharing my larkspur seedlings, which came from ones she shared with me decades ago.
I do my best in my humble efforts to give you that experience of Charleston that has persisted from generation to generation. My tours are once a day at 9 a.m. with entrance into private homes and gardens. At the end of my tour I invite you in to my home. After my last tour of the old year, a man moaned, “A hundred dollars!” “Y-es”, I replied holding my breath. “This tour is worth MUCH more than a hundred dollars a person! ” he exclaimed, to my relief. May God bless us, every one.–Laura Wichmann Hipp– Call 843-577-5896 for reservations.