“Whiskful Thinking” is a weekly column that explores the very Southern concept of food as a vehicle for history and storytelling. When recipes are included, each ingredient is a snapshot of time gone by, and the finished product conveys the spirit of that moment. “Whiskful Thinking” is written by Le Cordon Bleu graduate Jeremy Green.
For my family, summer in South Carolina means one thing: Pawley’s Island. My Aunt DeeDee has a beautiful old house there on the creek. It was built in the early twenties in the shabby-chic tradition. It’s a large house full of secrets tucked away on a relatively secret little island. Most of my summers in childhood and adulthood alike have included weeks spent on the beautifully barren shore and the “backyard,” which is what we call the creek.
There’s a unique phenomenon on that island. We call in the “fairy lights.” It’s bioluminescence, to be scientific about it. It’s especially common in the late summer and early autumn, and if you’re familiar with the island, you can tell when the water’s going to glow at night. The water in the “creek” (waterway) feels silky against your skin and smells a little different. Those evenings are some of the most special I have never known. You can almost taste a bit of the otherworld on your tongue.
Our clan likes to walk down to the point of the island and float back as the sun is going down, if the tide is going in the right direction. By the time night falls, eerie green sparkles appear in the water; they are nearly the same shade as lightning bugs. The young ones dive as deep as they can and emerge sparkling with tiny, temporary emeralds. Those of us of more advanced age enjoy the show, floating leisurely with our beers and marveling at the fairy lights. If the bioluminescence is particularly strong, sometimes you can even see it in the footprints tanned feet leave in the sand near the surf.
Pawley’s is a place of legends and of ghosts. It is the home of Alice Flagg who died yearning for her lover. No grass grows on her grave to this day. Some say it’s the sadness of her soul; others say it is the folks who walk counterclockwise around her tombstone to feel her pull at their wedding rings. It is also the Grey Man’s island. Our legend has it that if someone sees him before a big storm blows in, his or her house will be spared.
It’s not just specters waiting in long wedding dresses or grey men safeguarding those salt-weathered homes that lend this place its magic. For me, this is the home of love, which is certainly its own kind of magic. It’s not just the sacred family bonds we share but also something more romantic. You see, I was proposed to here, on the dock of the Island House. It was maybe only my idea of perfect: I was sun burned and wearing a bandana to cover hair made wild by beach wind. He got down on one knee at sunset, and surrounded by those I love most in the world asked me to share his life. It was the happiest moment of my life. White gold until our hair is white and we are old. The water glowed especially bright that night.
Generations of us have come to the Island House to find peace, to get away, and to eat with our loved ones. And boy, we eat. I’ll tantalize you a bit: some of the best shrimp n’ grits I’ve ever had have been served there. Biscuits topped with tomatoes that are as red as jelly top almost every table. Hams and chicken salads in ancient crockery wait on tanned little hands in an old glass ice box. But you know what I look forward to the most? My momma’s cucumber sandwich spread and DeeDee’s Vacation Cake.
Vacation Cake is not really a specific recipe; it’s a feeling. You make up a box of Duncan Hines orange cupcakes and you top it with orange frosting. If you’re feeling real fancy, grate a little orange zest on top. But you must, you absolutely must put the little wrapped cupcakes in a JC Penny shirt box (fill it up!) and leave it on the counter. Its part of that Pawley’s magic.
Momma’s cucumber sandwich spread is a pure enchantment, and it is in fact a recipe that I will share with you. You see, she loves cucumber sandwiches and thinks they are the height of elegance—and ever so refreshing on a hot summer day. They’re a bit of work to prepare the old way, so she has improvised this little treat.
Cucumber Sandwich Spread
2 8 oz boxes cream cheese, softened
5-6 cucumbers, peeled and grated
Garlic powder to taste
A dash of juice from canned minced garlic
A grind or two of black pepper
The barest pinch of salt.
So, you just mix everything up and put it in the ice box. She usually stores it in a cool whip dish (for authenticity’s sake). When someone is ready for that elegant little treat, all that’s required is a quick slather and a trimming of the crusts. Momma often cuts them into little rectangles with the ends rounded, like the British do. My Momma’s a bit of a Queen in training herself, you know.
Y’all go on to Pawley’s when you can, but don’t go telling the out-of-towners, alright?
The view of the “Creek” from our dock