Large gatherings have seem to become a thing of the past. Most conferences, festivals, events and weddings are now cancelled, as the pandemic looms. It was surprising then, to discover that the city of Columbia, South Carolina held a socially distanced Food and Wine Festival in August 2020.
“We decided to host the festival despite COVID for two reasons,” says Chase Heatherly, one of the organizers. “First, Columbia Food and Wine Festival operates with the primary goal of recognizing and supporting the local food and beverage talent in the Columbia, SC region. In the time of COVID where restaurants and hospitality partners are struggling more than ever, we felt that if it could be done safely, we needed to recognize our local talent and connect them to potential patrons who can support them during this difficult time. Unlike most food festivals, participating chefs were reimbursed for their food costs so participating in the events were not a financial burden for them. Secondly, CFWF is only in its third year of operation (founded in 2018). Given the infancy of the brand, we felt that it was important to host some level of programming under the festival brand even if it was not the initial schedule and offerings we planned pre-COVID,” he adds.
Clearly, businesses in the south are drastically impacted because of the lockdown, and are facing economic difficulties. The restaurant industry, in particular, has received very little relief. So, to be able to support the community, while have a fun evening out, sounded like a good idea.
Gathering in Summer 2020
There were two main events during the Columbia Food and Wine Festival. First, was a socially distant dinner held on the grounds of two of Historic Columbia’s properties. Normally, each of the event venues could accommodate approx. 400 guests, but they were reduced in capacity to less than half. Also, the organization took several safety precautions. There was a temperature check point on the street and PPE handed out to each guest. Everyone had to wear a mask until seated at the table. Even though the event was held outdoors, people kept distance and obliged to face covering mandates.
A second registration table for each zone had color coded stickers you could pick. Red meant ‘keep distant’, yellow ‘be cautious’ and green signified ‘serve me as usual.’ These were cues for other guests and servers to keep the acceptable distance from you.
The Grand Dinner
I sat at the Hampton-Preston Mansion and Gardens, a beautiful historic home with three acres of well appointed gardens filled with native and exotic plantings. I strolled through the pathways and enjoyed the warm evening sun in the garden, before settling down for dinner.
A cocktail station dedicated to each zone offered a house drink, especially prepared by local mixologists.
Tables were 6+ feet apart, and each tables had no more than 6 seats, so you need not interact with fellow diners. There was a pre-set four-course dinner. When purchasing tickets to the festival, you could pick which of the four zones you wanted to sit in, based on the menu preference. We started with a refreshing Caprese tower prepared by Chef Nelson De Hoyas of Halls Chophouse; followed by a delicious seafood Cioppino by as seen on Masterchef, Daniela Savone. The third course included a charred octopus over ricotta gnocchi by Chef Josh Rogerson from Saluda’s. Finally, we had a ricotta cream filled cannoli by Brian Glynn of Village Idiot Pizza for dessert. Overall, the food was “ok” in terms of quality and taste. Given the hot and humid climate of Columbia, the cannoli cookie was soggy, and featured table wines served warm. Still, it was nice to be outside in the garden and be part of a “normal event.”
The next morning, I return to the same venue for a second event as part of the Columbia Food and Wine Festival. Sunday brunch was a lot less crowded and my husband and I had an entire table to ourselves. There was a simple mimosa, Columbia craft beers, and a house cocktail for drinks. Mixologist Andy Haddock from Terra restaurant (a must for dinner) created Blood and Sand, a lively cocktail with Oban 14 single malt, Cherry Herring, Punt e Mas vermouth and orange.
A three-course brunch included salmon appetizer, pork sandwich and a flaky Latin style camembert and honey pastry. Chefs Javier Uriate (formerly of Hendrix), David Grillo from Cantina 76, and Charley Scruggs from Terra, did their best in putting forward unique dishes, but you really need to visit their restaurants to enjoy their best cooking!
I felt CFWF made a great effort in putting together this event despite the circumstances. Many people still don’t feel comfortable leaving their homes, let alone attending a large gathering. I felt completely safe at the event, knowing all the precautions they had taken.
The participating chefs were grateful to the guests for attending, and reinforced how they had been impacted by the pandemic. To be able to cook and serve people, made them feel normal again. They encouraged us to dine in or take out from their restaurants.
The chefs came from different background which explains the variation in the dishes served. Columbia has a rich southern food tradition with staples like pimento, BBQ, grits, crawfish and seafood boils. I would have liked to see more southern and Lowcountry inspired dishes in the menus. Nevertheless, you should make it a point to taste these dishes when you visit Columbia, aka Soda City!
If you missed the festival, or plan to attend next year, make sure to check out other things to do and eat in Columbia. You can truly see the melting pot of cultures at the weekly Soda City Market, a street event held every Saturday morning. Here you can shop for fresh produce, olive oil, cheese and baked goods, as well as try flavors from all over the world. Local vendors serve Brazilian cassava bread, Thai curries, Spanish paella, Mexican corn, Belgian waffles, Jamaican patties, and Louisiana grits, to name a few.
Market on Main is a vibrant gourmet food market in downtown Columbia, where you can grab coffee, ice cream and lunch. Check out the City Market Development for other sit down dining establishments. Finally, hit a few pimento cheese spots (my favorite was Di Prato’s pimento cheese sandwich). Columbia has claim to one of the oldest recorded pimento cheese recipes, first written in a fundraising cookbook in 1912!
Columbia has several sites that offer an authentic portrayal of this Southern city’s past – including slavery, the Civil War, progress during the reconstruction era, Jim Crow and the Civil Rights Movement.
A walking tour is a great way to orient yourself and discover the many historic buildings around downtown Columbia. Stroll the peaceful walking paths of the South Carolina State House and visit the African-American History Monument. Historic Columbia offers historic home tours where you can enter the Woodrow Wilson Family Home (The Museum of Reconstruction) and the enterprising African-American women owned Mann-Simons Site, among others.
The Columbia Museum of Art recently went through a major, multiphase renovation to offer a more inclusive collection. The current blockbuster exhibit – Black Is Beautiful, features the photography of Kwame Brathwaite. Here you can see photos of the Grandassa models (that promoted African-inspired fashion and black nationalist beauty principles) taken in Harlem in the 1960s.
Besides great food and American history, there are also spectacular natural sites in Columbia. Rent a kayak or boat from Better Boating on Lake Murray, located only 30 minutes outside the city. You will see many lake houses around the shoreline, passing through Dreher Island State Park.
Congaree National Park has the largest intact expanse of old growth bottomland hardwood forest remaining in the southeastern United States. Explore the wilderness, canopy of champion trees, and marshlands walking along the wooded boardwalk or one of the trails. You can spend as little as an hour, to an entire day hiking, fishing or canoeing at the 26,000-acre Congaree National Park.
To experience true southern hospitality with a sustainable twist, stay at Hotel Trundle located in the heart of the Main Street District. This eclectic, 20s-era Art Deco style boutique hotel is filled with local art and photos in a lofty environment. The historic building was restored to support the community and the city. Not only will you enjoy spacious room and the tastefully decorated common areas, but you will also be within walking distance to most attractions in downtown Columbia.