Saturday, November 23, 2013

Pickles, Pigs & Whiskey. What's Missing?

High Wire Distilling Co. owners Ann Marshall and Scott Blackwell pause for a photo with Chef John Currence.

Chef John Currence is one of those chefs who is immediately approachable. I wasn't actually familiar with the man before he came to High Wire Distillery on his old school book tour launch, but after a bit of conversation, it turned out he might be one of those people worth knowing and knowing about. After a pause in his conversation with Chef Sean Brock, he took my copy of his new cookbook, Pickles, Pigs and Whiskey, and walked over to a table to focus on the inscription and take a moment to chat. This totally unnecessary gesture was indicative of this chef’s giving spirit.

At Tuesday night’s launch party, some of the finest chefs in Charleston recreated select recipes from the book, and the results were fairly spectacular. Chef Currence has won a number of awards recognizing his culinary talents. He works with admirable groups like Southern Foodways Alliance, and owns four Mississippi restaurants, with more on the way. I've never been to his restaurants so I couldn't promise you he makes amazing food, but based on his accolades and Tuesday’s experience, I'd be willing to bet on his stove-top skills.

“You have no idea my dedication to my craft,” Currence said to me, and he meant it with no pretensions. His commitment to creating an accurate representation of City Grocery Restaurant Group’s bold, intense, and rustic aesthetic is evident on every page. Pickles, Pigs and Whiskey becomes a library of vivid photos with obligatory anecdotes about the provenance of each dish.  Below the anecdotes, Chef Currence artfully fleshes out his fictitious kitchen with musical suggestions accompanying the recipes to serenade you as you sauce. 

Angel Postel of Home Team PR, introduces Chef Currence to the crowd. 

Charleston is never a bad place to enjoy a night of eating in the company of food lovers, though it is rare to experience such a well-conceived evening. The High Wire facility was customized to be a convenient and charming backdrop for events like this. Grassroots wines, Edmund’s Oast brews, and High Wire liquors provided countless beverage options to pair with dishes from F.I.G, Two Boroughs Larder, Husk, Butcher & Bee, and The MacIntosh.

The sneak preview of beers from Edmund's Oast's Master Brewer, Cameron Read, had me salivating as soon as I walked in the door. Cameron brewed two 10-gallon batches specifically for the book launch. The “southern drinking experience” Sorghum + Biscuits, in the style of an English Pale, was made with biscuit malt from Riverbend Malt House in North Carolina. Rumbustion was a dryer Belgian Golden, with an infusion of High Wire rum for a mildly-sweet balance. Read brews a very solid beer and is a major reason that Edmund's will be giving local beer haunts a reason to quiver over their cash drawers when it opens early next year.

I caught Lauren Shor, of Rafa Distributing, at the F.I.G. table more than a dozen times, which is to say that I was right in line behind her, tracking bowls of fresh fried bivalves through the dining room like a bloodhound. Sous Chef Jason Stanhope offered the Cornmeal Crusted Buttermilk Fried Oysters (pg 139) with shellfish from both the Gulf and Beaufort. The two varietals offered either meaty, subtle sweetness or briney resistance underneath the peppery and tangy house made ranch dressing with fines herbes. If following the recipe causes you to be as deft at frying oysters as the chefs at F.I.G., then Currence may be a demi-god. 

Cute cones of Oysters were devoured by the fistful.

Two Boroughs Larder's Chef Josh Keeler presented Sweet Pickled Deviled Eggs with a Trout Roe garnish (pg 70). No description of this dish could be better than the given, “you are looking at the classic caviar accompaniments”. A Northern affinity for luxury items like caviar meets a quintessentially Southern pickled, deviled egg. It had me craving lox and bagels.

Chef Sean Brock of Husk and his Sous, John Sleasman, were churning out the simplest of luxury items, Crispy Pickled Pig's Ear “Frites” with Comeback Sauce (pg 150). Whether it was the Crystal Hot Sauce or just the brine, this iteration was inescapably more delicious than the already delightful BBQ Pig Ear Wraps Brock serves up at Husk. In the book, Chef Currence suggests listening to “Lookin' for Love” by Johnny Lee while you fry up some of these marvels, but he has to know that after you do that for someone else, you won't be looking for love much longer.

A modest interpretation of the Spicy Hill Country Meat Pies with Sriracha Mayo (pg 128) came from Stuart Tracy and High Wire's neighbors at Butcher & Bee. I was thoroughly disappointed to realize that “Hill Country” in the recipe title didn't refer to the pies being made with squirrel meat or possum, but instead to the small mountain towns where the Southern version of the meat pie is said to have originated. Disappointment faded as I was rapidly distracted by the morsels of flaky dough decorating my fingertips.

(L)Angel Postel of Home Team PR, with chefs from The MacIntosh/  (R) Little birch bark piglets adorned the tables. I found this one munching on a square of pâté. 

I could not keep my hands off of the Pork Pâté (pg 125) offered by Executive Chef Jeremiah Bacon of The MacIntosh. The country style recipe was nixed in favor of an ultra smooth paste served on house-made lavash and punctuated by chopped pickled Geechee Boy chestnuts from Edisto Island. Someone said Bacon, and I swooned.

Joe Raya

The Bittermilk No. 2 Tom Collins

Beyond all the food, Joe Raya of The Gin Joint/Bittermilk was posted in the tasting room with a series of cocktails based on High Wire spirits. The ultimate was the Tom Collins with Bittermilk No. 2, an Elderflower and Centennial Hop syrup. If any of you remember this year’s Wine and Food Festival, you may recall that he made a similar spirit, the Sharecropper Collins, which caught my attention but lacked the resinous pine and bright citrus flavors expected of the hops. Raya still hasn't captured the bright character of the hops, but he is getting closer with each attempt. The concept is seductive enough, and the cocktails featuring these infusions are always outstanding. 

This was one of the better events I have had the pleasure of attending recently. Home Team PR did a great job with every detail, and the featured recipes from Chef Currence were a gastronomically pleasing backdrop.

If you are looking to attend another cool event from Home Team PR, grab a ticket to the Pitmaster Backyard BBQ at Home Team BBQ's West Ashley location on December 6th, 2013. The menu will include some non-southern style beef barbacoa and smoked baby goat, as well as oysters and sides. Tickets are a great value at $30 per person and are likely to go fast. For more information, email

While the Pickles, Pigs & Whiskey tour will be wrapping up this week, I suggest you stop into one of Chef Currence's restaurants in Mississippi in the next few months. Keep an ear (preferably a crispy pig ear) to the ground for details on the opening of Big Bad Breakfast in Birmingham, Alabama (expected in February 2013).

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