In a city well known for its food - where Southern cuisine and BBQ is king - it can be difficult to find plant-based or kosher foods at the grocery store, much less on the menu of one of Charleston’s famous restaurants.
Charleston, South Carolina, is becoming friendlier to the special diets of vegans, vegetarians, and some members of the Jewish community, making meals much easier and more enjoyable to consume.
Adriana Apintiloaiei is a senior at the College of Charleston and has been eating a strictly vegetarian diet for over six years.
“I have always wanted to be a vegetarian ever since I was little because the thought of eating animals never really sat right with me,” said Apintiloaiei.
For her, eating a vegetarian diet means staying true to her morals and doing what she can to make a positive impact on the environment.
Another senior at the College of Charleston, Rowan Emerson, considered himself to be a “freegan" - a term he came up with to describe his diet.
He eats a diet centered around veganism, but if one of his roommates brings back chicken wings, he won't let them go to waste.
For both Emerson and Apintiloaiei, the positive impacts on the environment that comes with eating a plant-based diet are a large factor in their eating and lifestyle habits.
Stepping away from plant-based diets, some members of the Jewish community may find it difficult to find kosher options around Charleston.
In a 2020 study done by the Pew Research Center, the Jewish population in the U.S. is 7.5 million adults and children. Not all Jews keep kosher. In fact, many do not. This proportional difference makes it equally difficult for these groups to find places to eat and grocery shop.
Marcie Rosenberg, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America and a long time resident of Charleston, has provided an option with her kosher catering company, Dining In.
The company has been in business since 1989.
Many Jews do not keep kosher on a regular basis or even at all, often depending on if they are religious Jews or more culturally observant Jews. However, out of the three movements of American Judaism - reform, conservative, and orthodox - keeping kosher is one of the defining factors of being a practicing orthodox Jew.
And keeping a kitchen kosher is a very involved and thorough process, rooted in ancient Jewish law.
Rosenberg explains that keeping kosher means that you cannot eat dairy and meat together. Additionally, you are prohibited from eating certain types of meat.
“Not only do you not eat dairy and meat together, but you have separate pots, pans, dishes, knives, cutting boards for dairy and meat,” said Rosenberg.
In a kosher establishment there is also a mashgiach. This is a person who meets certain qualifications and has the knowledge to supervise the kitchen to make sure that everything is kosher.
Rosenberg has the qualifications and the knowledge to be a mashgiach, however, since she is the business owner and head chef, she has to have another person be her mashgiach.
There are also certain cleaning and preparation procedures that need to be fulfilled in order for the kitchen to be kosher.
“I pour boiling water on the sinks and all over all the stainless-steel counters, carts,” said Rosenberg. “The kitchen is cleaned very well. I burn out the ovens at the highest heat for an hour.”
If she is baking challah bread that week, she bakes it parve, meaning “neutral." Parve foods are those you can eat with either dairy or meat.
Two days before she bakes her challah, she goes through the preparation process, and when she is finished the kitchen sits for 24 hours before she starts baking.
Rosenberg is the only caterer in the Charleston area under the va’ad - an organization comprising rabbis who supervise and ensure everything in a kosher kitchen pertaining to kashrut, which is the set of dietary rules under Jewish law. This organization is who a mashgiach would answer to.
Prior to settling down in Charleston, Rosenberg spent her childhood and young adulthood living in New Jersey. Where she grew up, there was no shortage of kosher markets and delis. She has noticed that our city down here is lacking in these options.
The food culture around the low country also affects the vegan/vegetarian communities in the same way.
Apintiloaiei grew up in the northern Virginia suburb of Leesburg, right outside of Washington D.C. She noticed that it is more difficult to find plant based options around Charleston then back in her hometown.
“It can be pretty difficult to find a place that has any vegetarian options, and if they do have them, it’s usually some of their sides that I put together to make a meal,” said Apintiloaiei.
Game changers in the Charleston food scene
Charlie Layton, who is the executive chef at the helm of Basic Kitchen in downtown Charleston, has a lot to say on what it takes to serve veggies and plants in Charleston.
Layton got his start in the culinary industry by finessing his way into the kitchen at a small pub in Cornwall in England.
After working in that pub for 10 years he met the owner’s brother, Ben Towill. Towill then invited him to become the executive chef at the Basic Kitchen in Charleston- a position that Layton was eager to take.
“I just wanted to go back to the city. I'd been there for 10 years and kind of gotten the idea of moving back to London,” Layton said. “I figured, well, if I was going to leave somewhere, why don't I take this opportunity and move to the other side of the Atlantic?”
Layton himself is vegan, which has been tough to maintain due to his work… chefs often have to taste their food, and it’s not always vegan!
Basic Kitchen launched as a completely vegetarian restaurant, which didn’t even serve booze! That, however, quickly changed.
“When we were first opening, we were discussing ‘how are we going to segment ourselves into the Charleston food scene?” Layton said. Eventually, they started serving alcohol, and then incorporated meat into the menu.
The mouthwatering naughty burger is one of these options. It is 6 ounces of Brass Town Farms 100% grass-fed beef with aged white cheddar, griddled onions, dijonnaise, bread and butter pickles in one glorious sandwich.
Though much of their menu is heavily plant-based, Basic Kitchen operates under the ethos of clean eating, providing a farm to table dining experience, second to none.
Though she is most famous for her challah, Rosenberg is a highly skilled chef, having studied at the Culinary Institute of America. Additionally, Rosenberg and her husband owned and operated West Side Deli in the Charleston neighborhood of West Ashley for eight years before closing in 1999.
Dining In has changed over the years, evolving from offering in-home private chef services, to now curating exquisite meals prepared in the kosher kitchen at Congregation Dor Tikvah, a local orthodox synagogue.
Though not all of Dining In’s customers are orthodox, many do keep kosher in some ways.
“I even know people that did belong to the reformed synagogue and thought it was important to buy kosher meat,” Rosenberg said. “Maybe they wouldn't keep kosher, but they want to make sure their meat is kosher.”
The busiest time of year for Dining In is Passover. Rosenberg recalled a statistic that around one-quarter of Jews in Charleston keep some form of kosher in their house, but that increases about 10 percent when Passover arrives.
Dining In now offers meals for weekly shabbat, the high holidays, weddings, and bar or bat mitzvahs. Rosenberg’s first wedding will be in November at the Sanctuary Resort on Kiawah Island. The hotel is having a rabbi come in to kosher the kitchen for Rosenberg. What a lucky client they are!
Whether it is kosher, vegan or vegetarian options that Charlestonians might be looking for, it is clear that they do, in fact, have options! Charleston is one of the fastest growing cities in the nation, with increasingly more options for every type of eater.
Some of the most popular options include Gnome Café, Neon Tiger, Huriyali, Crust Woodfired Pizza, Five Loaves Café and Marty’s Place- all in the heart of Charleston and with raving fan bases!