Decked out in our Sunday best, my friend’s family and I strolled over one Sunday morning to “the Surf,” a golf and beach club in North Myrtle Beach which hosts a great weekend brunch. Before hitting the buffet, my friend’s uncle (let’s call him “Uncle”) sensed that I was here not just to engorge myself with bacon and eggs but to do some purposeful research on the more regional brunch options, and he explained some things to me about Southern cuisine. He was also very helpful in suggesting what to choose from all the different types of foods – there was an omelet and grits station, a salad bar, baked goods, prepared hot foods in shiny chafers, bagel crisps and lox with cream cheese, red onions, capers, caviar. There was also a nice frilly table with a variety of desserts that the country club is particularly well known for.
The first thing most of us hit was the omelet station, which was fully stocked with a great variety of mix-ins: ham, bacon, shrimp, cheese, tomatoes, peppers, onions, mushrooms. The eggs were whipped up in advance and poured over the customized medley of meats and veggies, pulling them into a fluffy, light pillow of protein. Perhaps what made these omelets so picturesque and delicious was that the mix-ins were crisped up with the addition of melted butter (to the right), adding a rich finish to the dish. The experts at the helm of the omelet station knew just when and how to toss and fold. Mine had tender, crisp chunks of shrimp and a variety of veggies all cooked very nicely, just enough cheese to make the mound gooey but not too sticky. The high ratio of mix-ins to egg was great, with the latter serving as more of a binder for all the good stuff.
As per the suggestion of the family, I also attacked the long row of chafers, lifting each lid to see what steamy, filling stuff they contained. There were sausage links and bacon, corned beef hash and red skin potatoes, meat patties and scrambled eggs. I, however, was on a mission to a) not overload myself with this stuff, as I am unfortunately wont to do at buffet style breakfasts, b) to try one thing particularly popular in this area of the States – biscuits and gravy with country ham, which (and let me put this in bold) we do not have in the Northeast. Yeah, we have some fast food chains that do a magnificently crap-tastic job at imitating these Southern staples. We also have a few pricey and slightly overrated versions of these dishes at restaurants which, though their chefs may very well be from the South, adopt “the South” as a gimmick and thus strip it of authenticity.
Not the case at Surf Golf and Beach Club of South Carolina. Here, the biscuits and gravy were (or seemed, at least, to me) pretty legit. Yes, it’s a heavy and calorie-rich breakfast, but so is breakfast in all parts of the world characterized by a physically demanding plantation work lifestyle. Since then the dish has trickled up and over to all social classes, becoming a shared favorite and a thing to be proud of and feel represented by in this region. Biscuits are made with flour, milk (in this case, I think, buttermilk), butter, and (most importantly) baking soda + baking powder instead of yeast, which makes it a quick bread that does not need time to rise before baking. The outside had a wonderful butter-tanned crust, crunchy and layered, while the inside maintained a pillow-soft, airy texture. The sawmill gravy available to pour over the top was the perfect accompaniment, thick and salty and lush. The stuff is pretty much Béchamel, a roux of flour and sausage drippings, smoothed out with some cream and seasoned with salt and pepper. The warm, dense, creamy gravy did wonders atop the crispy exterior of the biscuit and soaked into the soft flesh on the interior as well, adding a “cream of meat” flavor to the thing. I also tried some of the country ham, often served either alongside the biscuits and gravy or sandwiched into the biscuit. As my friend’s uncle pointed out, it was a bit too salty and the texture was a little too stiff and rubbery for me. Not to mention the fact that the gravy had enough pork sausage fattiness to make the salty ham not really necessary anyway… But we did have a few laughs over an anecdote about an Kentuckian ex-boyfriend of mine who was particularly fond of his ham.
On my plate, I also included a small pool of cheesy grits, just to taste. They (and grits is plural) were buttery and smooth, warm and satisfying, with some sharpness from the cheddar, though not too salty. As soon as the family saw how much I was enjoying these, they recommended getting some custom made at the omelet station, which apparently doubles as a grits-upgrading station. There were cheesy and normal grits to choose from as a base (from which I tried to cheesy ones, mistakenly thinking that’s as far as this dish goes), to which a creamy topping would then be applied. The guy added chopped onions, peppers and tomatoes to the saucepan and poured over some Béarnaise (clarified butter emulsified in egg yolks and seasoned with peppercorn and tarragon), deglazing the pan with creamed sherry which gave the dish an addictive aroma and a great depth of flavor. The sweetness of the sherry blended with the mild natural sweetness of the shrimp and the caramelized veggies and did something magical. The sauce was poured over the plain grits, not mixed as I thought it would be, which resulted in a layer of the grainy, hearty but pure hominy grind and the indulgent, creamy stuff on top.
My friend’s uncle explained that Shrimp and Grits is a good representation of the cuisine of the Lowcountry, which includes the South Carolina Lowcountry and the Georgia coast. Apparently this is a regional cuisine that shares some features with Southern cooking but is actually pretty different in many ways. Because of cultural, economic and demographic differences as well as because of easy access to estuary-linked seafood, Lowcountry cuisine seems to have many parelels to New Orleans Cajun cuisine. Shrimp are important here. Hence, throwing them on top of grits with a luxurious French sauce and sherry.
Dessert included all types of cakes and shortcakes, puddings and custards. I chose the Heathbar Cake, which had a very light, white sponge cake base that was topped off with a very sticky, creamy and thick, velvet-smooth caramel sauce. The sinfully decadent sauce pooled at the base of the cake and seemed to hypnotize me into eating it all with my tiny dessert spoon. The crunchy, sweet bits of toffee were very nice when combined with the smooth caramel and the airy cake. A little whipped cream and a juicy red strawberry to garnish.
Overall, I was very impressed by brunch at Surf Golf and Beach Club. Usually the buffet style repels me because I inevitably overeat and because the standard of quality is usually lower than an a la carte, where each dish is prepared and garnished individually. The dish options are usually meant to please all and, well, sometimes “all” doesn’t have the best palate. In this case, though, everything was very good quality and fresh, nothing became cold, rigid or wrinkly from sitting out too long and the variety enabled me to try different stuff without getting too full. It also helped to have a authentically Southern family eating around me, reminding me minute by minute that this was not a gimmick, but that I actually was in their region eating their food which they had their own little habits with (“I like my __ with __ and __, my husband likes it more __ but without the ___”).
Having lived for the past few months even a few States down from Mass, I have been experiencing an intensifying curiosity about Southern cuisine. I’ve met enough people who have told me about enough dishes I have never heard of, techniques that seem to have a rich history behind them for me to think maybe it’s not all about donut burgers and lasagna soup. At Symphony Hall, Bourdain said that Southern food is, in his opinion, the best example of traditional American cuisine – it is in the South that the grandmaws live and make the hearty stuff that has kept the heartbeat of American culture going for centuries. He also said that Paula Deen destroys the reputation of Southern cuisine by labeling b*llsh*t that in NO way is traditional as “grandma food.” Sure, butter and cream is used in large amounts… same as in traditional French cooking. There is nothing wrong with that if it is done with a purpose behind it, to make food rich and luscious and satisfying. And this is exactly what Southern food, from what I’ve heard and experienced thus far, does.