Upstate South Carolina (Culinary & Sentimental) Road Trip (Reprint with permission from The Huffington Post)

By: Elizabeth Boleman-Herring

Poet James Dickey, whose poetry student I once was, called my “Up-Country” South (among many other things) “the country of nine-fingered-men.”*
In Pickens, the county seat of Upstate South Carolina’s eponymous Pickens County, you can still see some of those men, the symmetry of their hands rearranged by close encounters with farm or mill machinery; their full beards, Confederate-flag attire and bright blue eyes harking back to the moonshiners and stubbornly isolationist Calvinists who were their (and my) forebears.
But, for the most part, the South Carolina I’ve known since my birth in 1951, is fast-morphing, with the recovery of the country’s economy at large, into a country of other men entirely: Spanish-speaking men; men employed by big foreign business (BMW and Daimler, near Spartanburg, just for example); Black men returning from the North to take up better jobs; men voting a straight Democratic ticket; men who won’t hesitate to pick up the phone and call the cops when a diner at Clemson’s Mellow Mushroom pizzeria leaves his dog locked up in a car in the 99-degree heat of July.
In the South, the South I thought I knew, the times they are a’changin’ . . . and it’s about time. The mills and moonshine are gone. What’s replacing them — big-box Walmart stores, Pizza Huts and enclaves of rich, northern retirees — are fast-changing the landscape I (and all the Bolemans, Smiths and Shirleys before me) called home.
Mark Knight, a former school principal and current Guest Services Rep at Clemson’s Holiday Inn Express, told me, “As an Army-brat-who-was-dropped-off-and-took-root-here, I’ve lived in Pickens for the last 20 years. It’s great to witness the changing of the guard in the City Council and the fresh ideas coming in with it. I moved here and loved the idea of a town kind of like Mayberry: little crime and tons of friendly people who take time to say hello every day. It’s been a great place to raise a family and now, an influx of new businesses over the last six months has given me hope for Pickens’s future. With a Walmart Supercenter moving in, our city will only continue to grow.”
Zack Mauldin, Editor of the Pickens County Courier, expanded on his fellow county resident’s analysis: “I don’t have the numbers, but I can say that, as a 2006 Clemson University graduate, with many friends trying to enter the workforce around the time the recession hit, that jobs in Pickens County were very few and far between.
“As Pickens County struggled to replace jobs lost when a wealth of textile plants closed their doors,” Mauldin continued, “most workers from the area, including university graduates, were forced to look elsewhere to find jobs. Fortunately, the tide has turned in a big way in Pickens County. In just the last year or so, several high-tech manufacturing firms have decided to move to the county, while a number of existing county businesses have expanded operations.
“In all,” said Mauldin, “these moves have added hundreds of jobs, boosting the county from the depths of a recession into a rapid boom that has no end in sight.
“One of the main reasons behind the influx of technical jobs is the School District of Pickens County’s emphasis on Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. The education begins at the elementary level — a team of Clemson Elementary students beat 120 teams earlier this year to win the JetToy Challenge, an international car design competition in Detroit. County students have won recognition at the local, state and national levels in STEM competitions and, in May, County businesses donated more than $10,000 to the school district to continue and advance the STEM program. The school district is in the midst of opening new facilities for each of the four County high schools, as well as a new Pickens County Career and Technology Center, which opened last year. These facilities, along with Clemson University and nearby Tri-County Technical College, are churning out graduates who are ‘in high demand’ because of their skills and knowledge, Ray Farley, director of Alliance Pickens, told the Pickens County Courier recently.”
This displaced Southern author came home for a week or so this July to see old friends, visit my parents’ grave site in Townville, South Carolina, and gorge on field peas and snaps, (real) fried chicken, carrot-and-raisin salad, and pound cake.
An eighth-generation South Carolinian (with Virginians, Georgians and Native Americans thrown in, for good measure) on my mother’s side, I just get a hankerin’ to head South once every year and, the air fares being what they are, this year there was nothing for it but to drive.
For about 14 hours. Straight through, with food and gas stops. The “back way”: through Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Virginia and North Carolina. The last three hours of the drive, we were running just ahead of the massive storm that did for our nation’s capital, and much of the mid-Atlantic, right side of the country, for about a week. I guess West Virginia got the shortest end of that stick, and so many others.
We just beat it, arriving in Clemson, where I used to teach Journalism, at about 3:30 a.m. I knew I had driven about as far as was humanly possible when I hallucinated Christopher Walken hitch-hiking by the side of the interstate, somewhere near the giant peach water-tower of Gaffney (a landmark no one believes exists until I show them a photograph). Take my word for it: Christopher Walken and that great surreal peach must share some plane of existence physicists have yet to describe. I’m just sayin’: I know what I saw.
So. Here we are, my Rochester-NY-born, jazz-musician husband and I, in Upstate South Carolina, conducting a very informal culinary tour.
Which brings us, of necessity, to an eatery in Anderson, the county seat of, wait for it, Anderson County (we Southerners are stingy with our descriptors), called Mama Penn’s.
Opened in 1970 in a strip mall storefront a stone’s throw from Anderson’s best-known hardware store, Mama Penn’s, the restaurant, which specializes in all those peculiar-to-the-South “sides” which accompany fried chicken, chicken livers, pork chops, country steak, and something known hereabouts as a “flounder plate,” has morphed into a behemoth of a place as cool, orderly and efficient as a Swiss clock . . . chock full of locals snarfing down everything from biscuits and gravy to peach cobbler.
Just walking into the place is, for me, a religious experience. My husband looks at me peculiarly, but it’s been a year now since I had decent, homemade cornbread, grits milled locally, butter beans and field peas, or . . . “sweet tea.”
If you grew up on sweet tea, you know of what I speak. If you didn’t, there’s no use trying to parse it for you.
In any event, at Mama Penn’s — and at Dyar’s Diner, in Pendleton, or Wade’s, in Spartanburg, my other two favorite Upstate eateries — just the sides on today’s menu comprise: Macaroni & Cheese, Mashed Potatoes & Gravy, Green Beans, Potato Salad, Cole Slaw, Rice & Gravy, Yellow Buttered Corn, Turnip Greens, Ambrosia, Butter Peas, Broccoli & Rice Casserole, Fried Squash and Diced Cantaloupe. I’ve died and gone to heaven.
I beg Tommy and Jimmy Davis for a recipe, any recipe: I settle for a Mama Penn’s T-shirt, emblazoned with the query: “Have you had your veggies today?” I have.
Even a New-Jersey-exiled Upstate South Carolina writer home for only a week cannot eat 24 hours a day. I tried, though.
We drove up to Pickens in the 100-degree heat of midday, looking for some non-existent cool in the foothills of the Great Blue Ridge, but found only more great blue blazes.
Getting out of the heat and light at Café Connections on Main Street, we found . . . more food, in the form of a bake sale to benefit the café’s proprietors, Southern Baptist missionaries Ann and Steve Corbin who, in the face of The Great American Recession of the Early 21st century, have opened not really a soup kitchen but, instead, a “coffeehouse-type ministry” smack-dab in the middle of Main Street, offering free Wi-Fi, dessert and coffee on the house, billiards and karaoke, frequented by a lot of nice folks serving up faith, hope, charity and carbohydrates (soup, in winter) to those in need.
They’re light on the proselytizing and heavy on the help.
We were impressed. We lit into some Italian Cream Cake, blondies and Diet Dr. Pepper. We’d been taking a walk, not planning to nosh any more till supper, but, what the heck.
On the way back to the car, we passed Mr. Russell Dorsey, of Pickens, done up in American flag headgear: he was kind enough to let a complete stranger from God only knows where take his picture.
Downhill again, in Clemson, where we were staying at a Holiday Inn Express — far better accommodation than existed in this college town back in my days in the English Department — we were drawn by sheer osmosis into the Mellow Mushroom pizzeria, where Chef John Mercado, originally of L.A., was sliding immense pies out of a cavernous oven.
Another one of my favorite restaurants on the planet, the Mellow Mushroom has décor that I describe as early Grateful Dead, which is exceedingly odd, as the place is staffed by Clemson University students young enough to be Jerry Garcia’s great-grandchildren.
There weren’t many of us in-house today. The sane people had all taken off for Lake Hartwell, or were home prostrate in front of their air conditioners. Still and all, the head of Pickens County’s Democratic Party, Michael Kiger, was there with a couple of his friends. I told Mike that his title comprised, in and of itself, a South Carolina oxymoron. What were the odds of five strangers, all rabid, card-carrying liberal Democrats, showing up at the Mellow Mushroom simultaneously? We compared bumper stickers: I had far more but, then, one risks one’s scalp sporting a rear-windowful of Obama ads in this neck of the woods.
We also (the adults in the room, that is) executed something of a citizens’ arrest, as some Dufus-who-will-go-unnamed had come in for a pie and a pitcher, leaving his dog in a locked car in the pizzeria’s sweltering-hot parking lot. The young manager, whose parents run an animal shelter, was distressed, as were Mike, his friends, my husband and I.
“Call the police,” I opined. The chef did just that there and then, and two patrol cars arrived within a minute or two to write the jerk a ticket.
It was 100 degrees out there, all the car’s windows were rolled up, the little pooch had been inside through half a pitcher of beer and half a large pizza, and I pray the moron-driver wasn’t a local, because if there’s one thing a Southerner loves more than his sweet tea, it’s his dog.
*In his novel, Deliverance.
. . .
Mama Penn’s Delectable Sweet Potato Pie
1 (14 1/2 ounce) can mashed sweet potatoes
3/4 Cup milk
3/4 Cup firmly packed brown sugar
2 large eggs
1 Tablespoon butter, melted
1/2 Teaspoon salt
1/2 Teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 unbaked (9-inch) pastry shell
Sweetened whipped cream (topping)
Garnish: ground cinnamon
Blend the first seven ingredients in a blender till smooth. Pour into pastry shell. Bake at 400 degrees for 10 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 350 degrees. Bake 35 minutes. Let cool completely. Top with whipped cream, and garnish with ground cinnamon.