Sunday, June 8, 2014

Review: June 2014 Charleston Epicurean Box

Ah, Charleston. My best friend moved to the Holy City a few years back, and every time I visit her, it gets a little harder to come back to the Bluegrass. I've been known to spend entire days just wandering South of Broad, taking pictures of window boxes overflowing with flowers and the city's traditional wrought-iron gates... kayaking on Shem Creek... watching the amazing artistry of the sweetgrass weavers at the City Market... breathing in the scent of the Confederate jasmine in my bestie's backyard... burying my toes in the sand at Breach Inlet... and dear baby Jesus, the food!

Munky Wunkle really enjoys exploring Charleston's military history. Fort Moultrie, I think? Or maybe the Battery...
I've recently discovered the world of subscription boxes, so when I stumbled across the brand-new Charleston Epicurean box, I knew I had to check it out. Charleston Epicurean promises "the best of local Charleston food and artisanal style," which rings all my bells as a lover of the Lowcountry, culinary goodness, and unique little finds. I signed up for a three-month subscription, and my first box has arrived (lightning-fast shipping, I might add). Let's dig in, y'all!

First up: the stamp on the box itself. I love a couple of things about this... first, the wrought-iron gate design, which I didn't notice features a fork until I was writing this review! Clever design indeed. I also like the little extra personalized touch a stamp lends, as opposed to a pre-printed box or label. Inside the lid of the box was an attractive insert with a little blurb about each item, an inclusion that I appreciate.

 And now, on to the contents...
  • The New Primal Spicy Grass-Fed Beef Jerky (2 oz., $7.59): I'm a selective jerky eater; I've disliked more kinds than I've liked, but I've been known to find certain types that float my boat. I tend to enjoy teriyaki-flavored jerky, so I was excited to see that this jerky is flavored with tamari and ginger, and sweetened with honey and pineapple juice. It's made from grass-fed beef... here I must admit that my carnivore palate is not refined enough to distinguish between cows, but for those who can tell the difference, there ya go. I also prefer a moist jerky as opposed to the ΓΌber-tough, overly dry variety, and this jerky has a touch of tenderness that I appreciate. The New Primal is not joking when they call this jerky spicy... and that's the downside of it for me. I like a good tingle of heat, but this is "get me a glass of milk RIGHT FREAKIN' NOW" spicy for me, and I didn't even make it through an entire strip before my tongue was protesting. Those with mightier strength against food-fire may enjoy this, but I have to take a pass. So, would I buy? Not the spicy kind, but I do find myself curious about The New Primal's Trail Packs that blend jerky, nuts, and dried fruit.
  • Mike's Famous Original Deep Fried Peanuts (8 oz., $4.00) I have to admit to feeling an instant twinge of disappointment when I spotted these peanuts in the box, because I immediately thought of boiled peanuts, which, in my opinion, are one of the South's greatest culinary failings. Thankfully, these fried specimens are infinitely more palatable than their slimy boiled counterparts. The deep-frying process makes the shells easily chewable with a pleasant bit of crunch, which also makes these peanuts much less messy to eat since they don't have to be shelled (always a bonus). I received the "Salted" variety, but the salting was very light, and I could have done with a bit more seasoning. (Mike's also offers a variety of other flavors, including Old Bay and Cinnamon Sugar, which sound more interesting than plain old salted.) So, would I buy? Hmm... I suppose I might try some of Mike's other flavored peanuts if I stumbled across them, but I wouldn't go out of my way. There are other salty snacks that I just like better than peanuts, and there's nothing mind-blowingly different about them when they're fried, except that the shell becomes more easily edible.
  • Charleston Favorites Charleston Red Rice (8 oz., $4.95): This dish is a Lowcountry classic that can be prepared as a side dish, or bulked up with some sausage or seafood to make a meal of it. The mix is very simple: rice, sun-dried tomatoes, and dried onion... I'm a little skeptical, because bacon doesn't come into play either in the mix or in the additional ingredients called for in the recipe on the bag (except as a garnish), and pork fat is a pretty traditional component of this dish. Not to go all Emeril on you or anything, but pork fat rules! I'll probably wind up sneaking some into this when I prepare it. Side note: I'm generally terrible at cooking rice, because I always manage to burn the bottom of it, so here's hoping I can break the streak this time! I think this will also provide an opportune moment to finally bust out the Charleston Rice Spoon I received as a gift when I became a supporter of Charleston's Drayton Hall. (If you haven't been to Drayton Hall, it's worth a visit as an interesting counterpoint to the other area plantations.) Also, how stinkin' cute is that teeny-tiny Tabasco bottle tied on with a bow? So, would I buy? Jury's out on this one for the time being.
  • Olde Colony Bakery Benne Wafers (5 oz., $3.99): I'm a bit ashamed to admit that in all the times I've been to Charleston, I'd never gotten around to trying a benne wafer. Benne wafers are a mainstay of Charleston cuisine rooted in East Africa; "benne," or sesame, was first brought to America in the days of the slave trade (a sad but fascinating part of Charleston's history). Despite their origin, eating benne wafers is actually supposed to bring GOOD luck, so maybe I should go buy a lottery ticket, because I can't stop nibbling on these crispy little nuggets of deliciousness! These toothsome wafers hit a beautiful balance of salty and sweet, with a delicate nutty flavor from the sesame seeds, a touch of caramel depth, and a really satisfying crunch... the closest flavor comparison I can come up with is some serious bomb-diggity peanut brittle, but that doesn't really do them any justice. So, would I buy? In a heartbeat, and I'm also super-curious about some of the other confections available on the website... Pecan Peachies? Leila's Lemon Snaps? Razzberry Sassies? Yep, this will probably warrant a visit to the Olde Colony Bakery next time I'm in town.
  • Blackjack Barbecue Dry Rub (5 oz., $4.95): Okay, please don't revoke my Southern citizenship, but I am really just not a fan of 99% of the barbecue genre. (Disclaimer: before you run me out of town on a rail, please know that of the barbecue dishes I have liked in the past, darn near all of them were of the Carolina vinegary mustard-based variety.) Anyway, given my general barbecue-related disdain, as soon as I laid eyes on this spice blend, I was planning on passing it on to my dad. First, though, I cracked it open to take a perfunctory sniff for reviewing purposes... and then I had to take a little taste... and now I think I'll need to keep it and try it on some chicken soon! While the ingredient list doesn't really contain anything unexpected in a barbecue blend (chili powder, paprika, cayenne, etc.), the garlic flavor is more potent than in a lot of other blends, so since garlic is like crack to me, I'm kind of digging it. Also, I don't detect any cumin, which is a flavor note I just don't like, so that's a check mark in the "pro" column. So, would I buy? Jury's out... I mean, I kind of doubt it, since I've got other garlicky seasonings that I love, but I have been surprised before!
  • Artistic Aperture Charleston Letters Photo (~$5.00?): First, please do your best to ignore the big white oval that's censoring my last name... not that I think you're going to become an obsessed blog fan and stalk me down, but still. Anyway, I'm no stranger to this whole "architectural letters" thing; I'd actually seen them before in several Charleston-area shops, although I don't think those were by this particular individual. (I've also seen them here in my hometown of Louisville, which means that they lose some of their Charlestonian uniqueness in my eyes.) I do think that the idea is clever enough, but the execution here leaves a bit to be desired. In her "About Me" section, the photographer describes herself as an amateur, and it does show; some letters are represented MUCH more effectively than others. Anyway, the item included here is a 4x6" glossy print that spells out "HOME" and is personalized with my last name. It's not to my taste, but my mother liked it and immediately snatched it up for herself. Given my druthers, I'd much rather have had a single-letter print of my initial, which would suit my more graphic tastes. Oh, and for the record, I'm estimating the value of this item based on the website's stated price of $4.00 for a 4x6" print, plus a dollar for the extra smidgen of time it took to type in my last name. So, would I buy? No... it's just not my jam.
Overall, this first Charleston Epicurean experience was a mixed bag (mixed box?) for me. The value of the box rings in at $31.48, give or take a bit for my estimate on the photo print. I signed up for a three-month subscription for $99 (shipping included), which works out to $33 a month (a single month is $35), so from a dollar-for-dollar standpoint, did I get my money's worth? Not quite. But as with most subscription boxes, part of the value is in the experience. I may not have been thrilled with everything in the box, but I'll pass my unloved items on to someone who will enjoy them... and regardless, I definitely got a taste of the Lowcountry that I love! This may sound silly, but I think part of the reason I'm not in love with this box is that to me, it somehow seemed to skew "masculine." In fact, if I hadn't opened almost everything to try, this box would have made a pretty solid Father's Day gift next week! The May box (which I sadly missed out on) seemed much more "me" with the inclusion of more confections and little toiletries, and I hope to see some more bits and bobs like those in my upcoming boxes.

If you're interested in checking out Charleston Epicurean for yourself, the subscription page can be found here. While I realize that my review of this particular box wasn't exactly glowing, I do want you to know that I'm not at all disappointed in my choice to subscribe, and I'm absolutely looking forward to seeing what surprises my next two boxes have to offer as Charleston Epicurean continues to grow!

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