“No disrespect to the dead,” Terry McCray says, dredging a couple of meaty flounder fillets in seasoned flour while holding forth on funerals, “but the repast is the thing. It’s almost like: ‘Who’s cooking? Can we skip the cemetery?’”
The laughter that breaks out among customers gathered in the storefront kitchen of Dave’s Carry-Out in Charleston, South Carolina, is a recognition that the same single-minded, first-to-the-repast love of home cooking is the reason they wait in line for McCray to fry their dinners to order. No heat lamps here—your shrimp, your whiting, your flounder sports a crackly, shattering crust that’s perfectly salty and golden. The trio of nurses in their scrubs, ID lanyards around their necks; the bleary-eyed college kid just waking up; the South of Broad gent with the popped collar and grosgrain watchband—they all know what elevates a simple fried seafood platter to a thing of beauty, and they know it can’t be rushed.
That fried flounder is monumental, an icon of Charleston’s food culture as heroic as shrimp and grits or she-crab soup: whole fish stretching over the edges of the Styrofoam clamshell, preventing it from closing. But no matter the open clamshell—we aren’t going anywhere. While most Dave’s customers head out with their Styros, we always eat in. Somehow the notion of taking these platters back to our desks seems downright sacrilegious. Eating them in the car? Impossible! The buttery fish, hoppin’ John—bacon-riddled rice and small red field peas—and creamy lima beans deserve better than that.
We also stick around for the McCrays themselves, for the experience of eating in an intimate, family-run place, whose diminutive size and devoted clientele mean that conversations, about Charleston food and traditions, happen often.
During the daytime, McCray’s mother, Sandra McCray, who founded Dave’s with David DeGroat in 1987, anchors the kitchen in a white apron, cooking on vintage WagnerWare pots, steering the action at the fryers. Late nights, you’re more likely to find Terry, as we did recently, multitasking the conversation and the cooking in a Spoleto Festival T-shirt, spotless even at the end of his shift. The McCrays are veterans of the food and beverage industry in Charleston. Terry’s late grandfather Ellis McCray was a bartender who worked downtown cocktail parties South of Broad. Terry’s father, Jack, did time in a few restaurant kitchens around town but is now better known for being the jazz columnist at the Post and Courier and the city’s preeminent jazz historian. The younger McCray graduated from Burke High School, attended Morehouse College in Atlanta, where he majored in banking and finance, did an internship at the Equitable in New York, but ended up returning to Charleston in 1996 to help his mother and “pops,” who died in 2009.
“One thing about New York I never understood,” McCray says, almost by way of explaining his return to the Lowcountry. “The chicken. You look in the window, that chicken [on the rotisserie] looks so good. Then you take it home: no flavor. There’s something about Charleston cooking…,” he says, letting the sentence hang.
True, the cooking of the Holy City can be difficult to put into words. Best to experience it firsthand, piping hot, from a Styro clamshell on the corner of Morris and Coming.