Eat country cooking and live to be 112. Meatloaf, fried pork chops, pecan whiting and grilled cheese are staples of Jestine’s Kitchen menu in Charleston, South Carolina. There are no heart smart symbols on this menu. The restaurant had been recommended to us by an artist friend who occupied a studio just around the corner. As a native of Charleston, he knows the best places to eat in the Low Country, and this modest street-side gathering place was at the top of his list.
The tiny restaurant, squeezed between a dry cleaners and a real estate office, is an example of ordinary daily life in a city renowned for elegance and highbrow living. Charleston started as a seaside town for wealthy plantation families who craved the sea breeze after the heat of their plantations. The historic part of this city prides itself on its reserve and high real estate prices. The current citizens are, they believe, the preservers of the privileged lifestyle of southern gentry. I find it somewhat ironic that Jestine’s Kitchen, totally devoid of elegance, should continue to hold the affection of these upmarket people.
Folks line up along Meeting Street awaiting their turn to occupy wooden chairs that look like they had a former life in a none too successful office. The restaurant, which seats only forty-two, has walls decorated with cookie moulds, egg beaters and baking pans. This space suggests grandma’s kitchen. Tuscan red walls combine with jazz music to add warmth to an already friendly place.
Newcomers acknowledge friends who have earlier found a table. There is a low level beehive buzz of gossip that is just audible above the jazz and the clinking of plates. The crowd is racially and socially mixed. Several Rasta men occupy a corner table next to an elegantly turned out grandmother and her children. The young women serving are cheerful and relaxed as befits an institution that is sure of the affection of its patron.
This social cuisinart was named in honour of Jestine Matthews who was born in the Low Country in 1885 and lived to be 112 years old. Her mother was a Native American and her father was the son of a freed slave who farmed land on the Rosebank Plantation on Wadmalaw Island. She said she did not know where she was born, but when she first became aware, that is where she was living. Soon after the turn of the century, Jestine moved to Charleston where she found work first as a laundress and later as a housekeeper. In 1928 she went to work for Aleck Ellison and his wife who were expecting their first baby. It was the beginning of a lifelong friendship between the Ellison family and Jestine.
The present owner, Dana Berlin, the daughter of the only child of the Ellisons, sat down at our table and spilled southern warmth all over us. She is a pretty forty-something woman who manages the restaurant like she was putting on a party of friends. The food was satisfying and highly flavoured. Oysters, okra and crab cakes were not specialties that my grandmother produced in her farm kitchen, just off Fischer-Hallman Road in Waterloo, but the feel of the kitchen and the good food and caring reminded me of my childhood. True, my Mennonite grandmother didn’t have much of a wine list, but fortunately Jestine’s Kitchen did.
It is said that travel is broadening and anyone who has seen my backside will immediately agree.