Al's Old Walled City Blog

Things to do in Charleston - The Tall Ships Are Here !!

What a beautiful weekend we have for tall ships! Charleston is the official port of the Tall Ships Challenge this year and more than a dozen ships from around the world are in port this weekend. Today  at 1 PM the tall ships will parade in Charleston Harbor, and their will be boardings and sailing excursions for the public all weekend. Live music, great food and a Pirate Camp with 35 pirates round out the event! The event will be held at Waterfront Park in North Charleston. For tickets and information go to

Charleston Old Walled City Tours offers walking and driving tours of historic Charleston SC and surrounding areas. For further information go to

Charleston Walking Tours - Learn Why I Never Joined The Hibernian Society -- Happy St Patrick's Day!!!!!

This  being the season for the “Wearing of the Green” I thought I might  take this time to wish  my readers a Happy St Patrick’s Day and relate to you the story behind why I didn’t join the Hibernian Society.

Hibernian Society Hall ,1840
Of course, the Irish are famous for blarney, so, in the spirit of the occasion of the Holy Saint,  don’t think I  might not be taking just a wee bit of artistic license as I weave this tale of Irish revelry.1801. You see, my father, Bernard Ray, was quite the man about town and belonged to numerous clubs and societies, prominent among them the Hibernian Society, an Irish Fellowship Society founded here in 1801. As a young man with rising prospects in the Real estate Industry, he strongly suggested that I join the Irish Brotherhood since it would be good for business.

And so I went with Dad  to my first meeting, where the gathered company was excited to be served Eddie Lockwood’s famous spaghetti. Now I knew this recipe, it was my mother’s, the very one she learned in Home Ec  class at Memminger: a few bits of tomato perched atop a bed of spaghetti noodles, a thin watery sauce pooled around the bottom of the plate. Manna from Heaven as a child, my brother’s girlfriend, an Italian girl by the name of Angela Bambino, had introduced me to her  Italian family's rich and fragrant "Sunday Sauce".

I was unimpressed.

After dinner, the festivities began, which consisted of shots! More shots! The brown liquor was flowing!!! The goal:  throw down til you fall down!  I remember few names from the many introductions made that  night but I distinctly remember the huge hangover the next morning!

My dear father was disappointed that I was so unimpressed.  I never have had much of a taste for liquor. But, at his insistence, I gave it another try.

At the second meeting, I arrived with an open mind and enjoyed the fellowship. I found myself getting into the “spirit” of the event, but as I was making my way to the bar on my hands and knees, someone stepped on my fingers. That  just struck  me the wrong way.

And that’s why I never joined the Hibernian Society of Charleston... 

Charleston  Old Walled City Tours offers public and private walking and driving tours of historic Charleston and surrounding areas. For information got to


Tour Charleston SC - Celebrate Charleston Food and Wine -enjoy Mock Turtle Soup!

The above is an excerpt from the Charleston Courier on March 22, 1865 recounting the Freedmen's Jubilee Parade, which featured a black man on a float with a woman and two children whom he was pretending  to auction off "for good Confederate money". He played his part with vigor and conviction, causing much mirth and merriment in the crowd of black faces.
The Charleston Food and Wine Festival is in full swing this weekend and I noticed that the Grand Opening Event featured a theme of recipes from Charleston Receipts, the first Junior League cookbook. In print since 1952,it is the Bible of Charleston cookery. The Post and Courier writer notes in Wednesday's Food Section  that the Grand Opening menu wasn't announced. She then proceeds to speculate on the soup choice. Deeming She Crab Soup to mundane, she speculates on a number of choices including a fish stew, an okra gumbo, or--mock turtle soup.
I have always been a fan of turtle soup. My parents would often visit the Doc and Nananne in New Orleans (my great Aunt and Uncle) and they would return with tales of delicious turtle soup. They brought back two cans of turtle soup for me to try. The rich, dark stew with a splash of dry sherry was absolute heaven to my 8 year old palate I have never forgotten it. And so, since I could not attend the Grand Opening, I decided to celebrate Food and Wine by  recreating  that taste of my childhood.
Mock Turtle Soup
But first, a little history of turtle soup. For many years turtle soup was considered the finest of fine dining. In the early 20th century, the Villa Marguerita , Charleston's finest hotel of the time, had a $20 bowl of turtle soup on the menu. Turtle meat was considered a delicacy, exotic because the meat comes from 5 different places on the turtle, all with different tastes. A large snapping turtle is said to contain seven distinct types of meat, each reminiscent of pork, chicken, beef, shrimp, veal, fish or goat. Locally, this dish of English extraction did not survive in Charleston households into the twentieth century. Although Charlestonians continued to hire black cooks, few were trained in making Eurocentric foods, and so the food ways that have survived and that we consider Lowcountry style generally have their roots in Africa, but not turtle soup..  
For many years sea turtles were the meat of choice, so the real thing was out of the question. Where to find turtle meat today? Of course, cooters are ubiquitous, but I live in an apartment, and dressing them would be an issue. I'm not sure that I am prepared to grab the head , chop it off and hang it upside down to drain. The high cost of sea turtle meat led to the creation of Mock Turtle Soup. Using the same rich broth and a variety of meats in the broth, Mock Turtle Soup imitates not just the flavor but the texture and look of the real thing. As an aside, I used chicken livers snipped into small pieces, and that dark flavor is absolutely correct,but you might choose to use dark chicken meat, even surimi (artificial crab) or mild fish filets for this.
Next, I had to find the recipe, so first I went to Charleston Receipts. Mrs. Alston's version found there  bears little resemblance to the soup of my childhood. Next  I searched the internet and pulled out of different recipes the ingredients that I remember as crucial to the thick, brown heady broth of distant memory. My creation is exactly as I remember it, and for that reason I share it with you. Doubtless, turtle soup fans will enjoy this tasty recreation! Bon Appetit!
Mock Turtle Soup                                           My Recipe Alfred Ray
1. To one and one half quarts of water add one pound raw lean ground beef and one half pound raw chicken livers sliced small, three bay leaves, 1 teaspoon salt.
Set to boil.
2. Take one half stick of butter heated with flour, brown to make a rue for thickening. Set aside.
3. Dice both fine and medium:
One yellow onion
One red bell pepper
Two stalks of celery.
Put these in two tablespoons butter on medium high for five minutes, and then high until vegetables are cooked with a char. Add this to the broth. Deglaze the pan with dry sherry, scrape bits and throw all into the  pot along with
One can beef bouillon
one cup tomato ketchup
One large can crushed tomatoes
Stir this all together and bring to a boil. Add to this
1 teaspoon each of allspice and thyme,3 tablespoons Worcestershire Sauce
Juice of ½ lemon.
4 eggs in shell
Simmer all together for at least 45 minutes, 1 1/2 hours is better. Remove hard boiled eggs and macerate .  Add back to thicken the soup. Add rue (step 2) to thicken to stew consistency.
To serve, plate soup piping hot  and garnish with parsley and dry sherry.

Charleston Old Walled City Tours offers public and private walking tours and driving tours of historic Charleston SC and the surrounding countryside. For information go to

February 18, 1865 - The Dramatic Fall of Confederate Charleston

February 18, 1865 was the end of one era and the beginning of a new one for Charleston. For those of you "from off" who know that the Civil War--that is, the War Between the States--is a big deal in the South but you aren't really sure why that is after all this time, let me tell you a little story.

At that date Charleston had been under Federal Bombardment since August 8, 1863, a total of 587 days. Fort Sumter had been shelled even longer,  since April. General Quincy Gilmore with his Federal Troops, using African-American soldiers, had worked his way up the coast and had finally seized Battery Wagener and Morris Island . From there he commenced to bombard Fort Sumter at close range and the city at a distance using new technology, cannon with a rifled shaft. The rifling allowed cannonballs to be hurled as far as six miles, twice the previous range. These guns were aimed at the city and its civilian population. They were nicknamed "The Swamp Angels".

The civilian population in the lower city were ordered to evacuate as far north as Calhoun Street. People scattered to the countryside . The bombardment continued but the city refused to surrender. General Gilmore had taken a lot of heat for bombarding civilians in the Northern Press and in Congress, utilizing the same "Total War" approach that prompted Sherman to burn Atlanta. In May of 1864, he was transferred to the Army of the James and was replaced by Alexander Schimelpfennig, a Prussian with no reservations about the siege campaign.

The stalemate continued until the very end, and Charleston surrendered not because of Federal advances here but rather General Sherman's burning of Columbia two days earlier (February 16) which destroyed the last transmission lines between Charleston and the outside world.
Confederate General Hardee's orders were that in such a contingency he was to evacuate his men. And so, Hardee ordered his men onto boxcars at the Northwest Rail Depot at the corner of East Bay and Chapel Streets. Sherman had destroyed the rail lines west at Branchville, and north to Wilmington was the only option.

General Hardee was leaving nothing behind for the Yankees. Perhaps the city had resisted so long because of General Beauregard's "Ring of Fire" , eight batteries strategically arranged around the harbor that provided withering resistance to Yankee attempts to raid the Harbor from the ocean. Those guns had to go! They were spiked and deafening explosions were heard throughout the city even as word spread of the ongoing evacuation.

The departing army did, however, save the docks on the Cooper River. Cotton there was gathered and piled into pyres at Citadel Green, and there it was lit afire, a symbolic burnt offering to a way of life careening to a close. The eerie glow from the fire and the black pall of the smoke added to the sense of panic as people fled to the streets, rumors spreading that the Yankees were already burning the city as they had Columbia. Although that fire was a controlled one, docks and warehouses on the west side were set ablaze indiscriminately. On Lucas Street was a long shed filled with 1200 bales of cotton. That, along with Lucas' Mill containing some thirty thousand bushels of rice and R.T. Wilkin's warehouse at the foot of Broad Street were set ablaze and destroyed. The bridge west over the Ashley River was ordered blown up, and fire from that explosion set ablaze inhabited neighborhoods uptown. Confederates burned cotton warehouses, arsenals, quartermaster stores,  railroad bridges and two ironclads. It is ironic that as rumors spread of Yankees burning the city, it was General Hardee's orders that made the burning a reality.

And so the bitter cold, rainy night commenced with a spree of looting and vandalism. Rumors spread that the evacuating troops had left food on the platform at the train station. They had also left bad gunpowder. As a desperate populace stormed the Depot looking for food, children played with the gunpowder,  carrying handfuls across the street  to watch it flare in a makeshift fire. They created a powder trail that led back to the Depot and that flaming trail ignited an explosion that killed approximately 160 people instantly. Two hundred others were wounded. What irony that over 587 days of siege, only 53 persons had died as a direct result of the Federal shelling. Three times as many died on evacuation night. The Charleston Courier gives this description:

"The explosion was terrible, and shook the whole city.....The cries of the wounded, the inability of the spectators to  render assistance to those rolling and perishing in the fire, all rendered it a scene of indescribable terror."Charleston Courier 11/20/1865"
The fire could not be contained and consumed most buildings from  Chapel Street to Calhoun Street and from Alexander Street to Washington Street  with few exceptions.

Early the morning of the 18th, Lieutenant Colonel A.G. Bennett, of the 21st  U.S. Colored Troops,  received City Aldermen Gilliland and George Williams as emissaries from Mayor Macbeth, with a letter of invitation from the Mayor requesting that he take possession of the city and establish order. I can see the post script to the letter (BTW, General Hardee took the last train out last night)  Although General Schimellfennig was still here, ill with malaria,  Gilmore had arrived back in Beaufort on February 10, ostensibly to accept a pending surrender, a "save face/restore honor" move.  Imagine Gilmore's rage and disappointment to receive a letter of invitation from the Mayor! With no formal surrender and no sword to be handed over, Gilmore must have been a bitter man.

Nonetheless, Federal Troops moved in and took possession of the Arsenal just minutes before it was to be blown. The U.S. flag was hoisted over the Citadel, the Arsenal and the Customs House within two hours.Federal troops were put to work putting out the flames.The navy took possession of Fort Sumter and Fort Moultrie within 24 hours. They were cautious because the Confederates had left dummies, or "automatons" standing guard to give the impression that the forts were still occupied.

 That afternoon the the Federal Troops entering the city were led by the Fifty Fifth Massachusetts Regiment, black soldiers recruited from the ranks of liberated slaves. Marching through the city they sang "John Brown's Body." Their standard was not the Stars and Stripes, but  rather  a flag which read "Liberty" was waived to and fro, much to the horror of the remaining white citizens. White Charleston was miserable and in desperate straits, the wealthy  having long since removed themselves from the city. With the exception of a few businessmen who stayed to protect their interests, only the poor remained. and they were confused and astounded by the jubilation of the blacks at Yankee occupation. Some 200 Confederate deserters surrender themselves, declaring that they were tired of fighting. Jacob Schirmer, a local white businessman, writes in his diary, "We have writ our own destruction, and now we must live with it".

The New York  Tribune reports that the city was surrendered at 9 AM on Saturday morning , February 18. The departing confederates had left behind two hundred guns and a fine supply of ammunition.

Charleston Old Walled City Tours offers public and private walking tours and driving tours of historic Charleston SC and the surrounding countryside. For information go to

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The Charleston Slavery and Freedom Walking Tour is offered through Black History Month.

The Charleston Slavery and Freedom Walking Tour  is being offered Monday through Saturday at 1:30 PM through Black History Month  This is not a Gullah Tour, nor is it an African American Focus Tour. Highlighting the history of Slavery in Charleston from its inception with the founding of the colony , this compelling Charleston walking tour  provides context on life in Charleston for persons both black and white prior to the demise of slavery in 1865. For more information and to purchase tickets online go to or call 843 343 4851 to make reservations.

Charleston African American History Tours - The fascinating story of Miriam Wilson.

Charleston walking tours are trending to include more African American History as well as Women's History. Miriam Wilson came to Charleston in the 1930s, a single woman from Ohio who amassed a collection of slavery related items. Her story is both unique and compelling. As a child, I clearly remember seeing the spiked collars. Come take my Charleston Old Walled City Tour or my Charleston Slavery and Freedom tour to hear the full story!

Charleston Walking Tours: Christmas in Olde Charleston!!

Christmas in Charleston is a special time of year! In a city where old traditions persist, it is a city of Holiday gatherings, festoons and greenery, old china and Grandma’s pound cake. Even so, celebrations have evolved through the years. Christmas trees were a novelty in the 1850s, and Christmas Pie (today we know it as “Mince Meat Pie”) was on every table. Charleston Old Walled City Tours is proud to announce that we are offering our popular Christmas in Olde Charleston Walking Tour again this year. For information or reservations call 843 343 4851 or go to   h and choose the "book online" button in the upper right hand corner.
We also want to make everyone aware of Christmas 1860 at the Edmondston Alston House.
This year, on December 2 and December 9,  the Edmondston Alston House is presenting a candle a light reenactment of Christmas 1860. To purchase tickets ,make reservatiuon and get information for Christmas 1860 at the Edmondston Alston House got to: . If you have never attended it is a powerful event. Assisted by the Washington Light Infantry in period garb, you’ll never forget it. For that reason, I have compiled "snapshot" of Christmas 1860 in Charleston as reported in the newspapers.
Keep in mind that only five days earlier, on December 20, 1860, the very document that removed South Carolina from the Union, the Ordinance of Secession, had been signed on Meeting Street. Society was in an upheaval. There had already been a shock in the financial markets, yet this did not stop the Christmas revelry as reported in the Charleston Courier. Charlestonians, convinced that their cause was right and that the Federal  government would never challenge, joined their enthusiasm for Secession with their Yuletide festivities. Over at the South Carolina Institute Hall there was a swift decision to rename it Secession Hall. The Charleston Daily Courier announces :
“At  Secession Hall, the George Christie Troupe (The Christie Minstrels?) would be present to dedicate it, under  that name, with a new and original “Secession Polka”, composed by one of them, and dedicated to the “Palmetto Minute Men of Charleston”. The hall is rich and promising in other good things, and the past triumphs of the Troupe leave no doubt of the success of this Christmas Eve entertainment”. Charleston Daily Courier 12/22/1860
For many, Christmas was like any year. Reverend Porter went about feeding and gifting poor children as was his vocation, the holy man that he was. : The German Church sponsored a Christmas Tree Display. The New England Society attended their Annual Forefathers Day Feast, which celebrated the landing of the Pilgrims at Plymouth Rock. The Charleston Mercury announced “The 42nd Anniversary of the New England Society was celebrated on Saturday evening at the Mills House. The banquet spread was in the usual excellent style of MSSRS Nickerson and Purcell, but it was noticed that attendance was not so large as in former years.” Charleston Mercury 12/12/1860
Since they were from New England, a part of the country that was late to adopt Christmas as a holiday, it is curious to see that they had a feast not unlike Thanksgiving so close to Christmas. Celebrated on December 22, the menu for 1859 showed 60 items on the buffet (!), including East River Oysters from Manhattan. It is sobering to note that the Banquet was cancelled the following year and instead, $1000 was donated to the Cause.
At home there was an assured sense of normalcy. The Mercury reports:
: The German Church sponsored a Christmas Tree Display.
” Santa Claus  bore as heavy  a load of of choice gifts down the chimneys of our houses last night…..his assistants tottering under burdens of brown paper…full of noisy painted things., but the thought of the joy they would occasion at the spring of the Yule converted the shame  to an honor and made the burden light.   “
There was an apparent shame in carrying a huge bundle of gifts, unless you were Santa , of course! Christmas Day, with all those gifts to unwrap, was a joyous day for children. The sun rose on a dreary day, foggy and damp. But the spirits of the children were hardly dampened by the weather. For the young it was all about presents, firecrackers and deviltry. Reports the Mercury;
“Young Charleston was not so easily to be deprived of the privileges and enjoyment of the Festival…muddy youngsters escaped from the parental roof…to revel in the Christmas fun and Christmas fog. Within doors there was the usual frolic and enjoyment, and the fact that they were no longer people of the United States did not diminish a whit of the zest with which relished their turkeys and demolished their plum puddings and mince pies. We venture to predict that next Christmas they will eat them with even keener enjoyment.”Charleston Mercury 12/27/1860
The Mercury also gives a post-game assessment of Christmas 1860:
“It  was feared by many that the Christmas that dawned today would be comparatively dull and silent, that there would be few Christmas trees  the stockings almost empty and the Yule fire would burn with a weaker flame.  We rejoiced in the dispersion of all these ill apprehensions.
Apparently, Black Friday is nothing new, as indicated from the same article:
“So crowded were our favorite toy stores that it was difficulty that one was waited upon….some favorite marts were thronged to the doors .It was impossible to elbow a passage through the living ranks. Charleston Courier 12/27/1860”
Anxiety over Secession was overshadowed by a confident  belief that their Cause, Secession and Independence, was the right thing, and that their future was secured. No sons had been lost, no farms burned, no evacuations ordered. It was the last such Christmas.


Charleston Shrimp and Grits - My Very Own Shrimp and Grits Recipe,

When I was younger , in a simpler time pre-Hugo, Shrimp and Grits was a Lowcountry breakfast dish. Of course today it has emerged as a signature dish along with She Crab Soup and Huguenot Torte. It is delicious, and there are numerous excellent versions to be found around town. The version at the Marina Variety Store immediately comes to mind for me. Since I made Shrimp and Grits today, and it looked so good in my cast iron skillet, I thought that I would share my version. It is simple, inexpensive, honest and maybe better for you than some other versions. Still, my version provides all the indulgence that a hot creamy plate of Shrimp and Grits implies. Please read through the recipe first, and note the ingredient list at the end. You will want to start the grits well before the sauce. Enjoy!

                                       Al's Shrimp and Grits
Set burner to 3/4 high.Place 1 slice of bacon plus 11/2 tablespoon canola oil in skillet, then start slicing.

I start out with the Holy Trinity----Onion, bell pepper and celery. The old recipes call for using a tablespoon each. That misses the point. Lets get some veggie fiber in breakfast!
so I use a small whole onion, sliced lengthwise and the chopped in half
three stalks of celery medium dice, hearts and leaves fine dice and reserved
1/2 bell pepper, chopped fine

Saute 5 minutes, Add 3/4 lb peeled shrimp, and then a tablespoon of flour , saute 3 minutes stirring with a wooden spoon to scrape the bottom. We're working on browning the flour for a roux.Add some more canola if you use too much flour.

Then add 1 cup or more of shrimp broth, 1 tsp of salt,a tablespoon of tomato paste,  an authoritative dash of cayenne pepper and reduce to a thin sauce. Combine 1/3 cup of milk and a teaspoon of flour, well blended together to form a thick liquid, and add to the sauce. Whisk it all together until you have a creamy sauce, then add finely chopped celery leaves and stalks finely chopped and three or four chopped raw shrimp.  The celery added at the last provides a bright crunch in the finished dish.

Cover the pot and remove from the heat. Wait 10 minutes.

For the grits, which were called hominy when cooked B.M.E. (before the modern era) ,  I prefer to use plain grits cooked with a little salt. Sometimes I use shrimp broth if I have it. I think of grits as a canvass in the painting. The secret to a good pot of grits is not to add cream or cheese. That makes grits different, but not always better. Good for  ham and eggs perhaps, I see those additions as superfluous fat and cholesterol when the intent is to place a creamy sauce on top. Plain  Quaker Grits is just fine. The secret is to forget the ready in 15 minutes on the box.A good pot of creamy grits takes at least an hour, and there should be a crust in the bottom of the heavy bottom pot that you always use to cook grits.

Grits can be cooked thin or thick. Since thin grits with a sauce turns into a soupy mess, thick is what I want to place a sauce on top.Its not a bad thing to turn over the spoon and the grits still stick to it.I
 was taught to cook grits the old fashioned way. I pour the grits into the pot, add a dash of salt, then I put water  in the pot up to the first joint of the index finger. Then I stir it and put it on high to boil, cover it, and reduce it to a simmer for an hour. Works every time.

Plate it by placing the hot grits on the plate, and mash a depression in the center with a serving spoon.
Ladle the sauce and shrimp over the grits. Serves three.

For three:
3/4 pound shrimp, peeled . four held in reserve
1 cup or more shrimp broth* see recipe at the end
1 small onion
three stalks celery, leaves and upper stalks reserved
1 small bell pepper --or red--or yellow
11/2  tbs or more canola oil
1 slice of bacon
1 tsp salt
cayenne pepper to taste
2 tbs  plus one teaspoon flour
1/3 cup milk
1 tbs tomato paste
optional: finely diced tomatoes, 1/2 cup

* for the shrimp broth, place shrimp shells in a quart container or a bowl, cover with water,cover with plastic wrap and microwave on high for two minutes.

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