Sunday, November 23, 2008

working weekend

November 23

I'm sorry for my week of silence. We had some staff cutbacks at the magazine, as you do during times of recession, and so the work loads of those of us still standing have been adjusted.
And so here I am, on a Sunday morning, working. I've been working all weekend here at the Inn at Palmetto Bluff in South Carolina, right near Hilton Head, covering the resort's second annual Lowcountry Celebration, hosted by celebrity chef Tyler Florence.
I've just come back from the spa, making sure the massage therapists are up to snuff. They are.
Okay, so this weekend hasn't been such a hardship. I'd agreed to come down here many weeks ago, and there was no reason to cancel my plans despite the layoffs in the company.
Layoffs are horrible, and if you currently have a job in the United States at a company where more than one person works, chances are good that you've already seen layoffs this year, or will see them sometime soon.
There's not a single nice thing to say about layoffs. If you're one of the people whose job was eliminated, well, you're out of a job. If you've kept your job, you'll be expected to get the same amount of work done with fewer people while dealing with survivor's guilt and the sadness that a bunch of your friend just lost their jobs. Add to that the awarenes that your job might be next and, well, it makes a temporary escape to a resort to eat and drink that much more worthwhile.
Palmetto Bluff is a four-year old community near the town of Bluffton on the banks of the May River. Nearly half of its 20,000 acres has been set aside for conservation projects, and the rest has been turned into a golf course, a spa, an equestrian center, a canoe house, plots of land on which people can build homes (plots go for $250,000-$3 million, with most in the $350,000-$1 million range). And then there's the resort, which consists of a lodge where reception, a lounge, the restaurant and a big porch are located, and a bunch of cottages stretched along a little pathway suitable for golf carts to drive down.
My particular cottage, #15 (picturd above), has a back porch and a very pleasant back yard that stops at the river.
I would be on that porch now (the view from it is on the right), but it has been un-seasonably cold during my visit — colder than I had expected. So last night during the traditional oyster roast I was wearing a t-shirt, a turtleneck, a button-down shirt, a cashmere sweater, a light pullover jacket and my new Inn at Palmetto Bluff fleece.
But the food was extraordinary. Bluffton is known for its oysters, and I'm told that the May River has both blue crabs and stone crabs.
But really the side dishes were the amazing part, and a reminder of how good southern food is -- nothing fancy, just food intended to taste good without any bullshit. It tasted like my paternal grandmother's food. She raised my dad in North Carolina and everything she made tasted like she meant for you, personally, to have a happier life for having eaten it.
That's what the food at Palmetto Bluff tasted like. So we had biscuits and gravy and squash spoonbread and the most delicious sunchoke & rainbow chard gratin, among other things. My favorite feature, because it was so obvious and yet I've never seen it before, was a chop bar, featuring venison chops, pork chops and wild boar chops. It should be a feature at every wedding.
The night before was possibly even better. It was a block party featuring straight-up southern food ranging from gumbo to she-crab soup to this sweet potato cornbread that you'd have to taste to believe. The editorial staff of Coastal Living, one of the sponsors of the festival, whipped up a batch of Southern-style cassoulet that did, indeed, taste like cassoulet, but with Southern-style pork.
Tyler Florence cooked the only really refined dish: a light yet creamy oyster stew.
I was actually wondering what the celebrity chef was doing there. The festival looked like it would have gone on just fine without him. But I later learned that he's actually a big fan of the resort, having been married there and, he speculates, made two children there.
The festival also featured a tasting tent and cooking demonstrations and late night campfires with marshmallows for making s'mores.
The weekend gave me a chance to ruminate more on the state of chefs these days and on how their celebrity is affecting the industry.
The day before I left for South Carolina I happened to meet another celebrity chef, Cat Cora, and I asked her about the phenomenon. I'll tell you what she said in my next blog entry.
But now I have to pack.

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