"When Charleston chefs were out cooking, it was a deliberate thing: 'this is going to be our drink.'"

The Fingers interview with Hanna Raskin, editor/publisher of The Food Section

  
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You know how moonshine used to be illegal but these days liquor stores sell fancy-looking Mason jars of the stuff right next to all the other booze, but in the rare event that you buy it just as a novelty, it still tastes terrible? Me too. Why is that?

So glad you asked. Today on The Fingers Podcast I’ve got an interview with friend, former editor, and fellow Charlestonian Hanna Raskin. Hanna is a James Beard award-winning reporter and food critic who worked for the past eight years at the local newspaper here in the Holy City. (She and I actually worked there together for about a year before I got laid off last August.) She’s had journeywoman’s career in the newspaper game, with stops at dailies and alt-weeklies in Mississippi, Seattle, Dallas, Asheville, Tucson, and probably some other places she’s never even bothered to tell me about. But suffice to say: Hanna be newspapering.

Except: not any more. A couple months ago, she left the Charleston newspaper to strike out on her own with a new project. It’s an independent newsletter called The Food Section, launched in September 2021 to “serve eaters across the American South by providing them with the information and analysis they need to enhance their food and drink experiences.” That’s a big goal, but if anyone is up to the task, it’s Hanna.

She and I caught up for a wide-ranging interview (conducted 9/24/21) that covered everything from her Amtrak-abetted summer whistle-stop tour of the Southeast, to her vision of regional food criticism and its importance, to how she’s enjoying life beyond the hidebound world of print publishing. And of course, this being the official podcast of your favorite boozeletter, we also talked about South Carolina drinking rituals of yesteryear, Grand Marnier shots, “legal moonshine,” and more. Hope you enjoy.

Editor’s note: This newsletter is long, so it may get cut off in your inbox. If it does, click the link at the bottom that says “view entire message,” or just read it on the website. This transcript has been edited and condensed. The podcast version of the interview has more in-depth discussion, so listen to that too, if you’re interested. For a complete archive of Fingers interviews, click here.


Meet Hanna Raskin, editor/publisher of The Food Section

As a food critic, Hanna prefers not to show her face in public photos, so she can avoid special treatment from restaurants looking to juice their reviews. Hence: that’s her hiding behind the seafood tower.

Dave Infante, Fingers: Hanna Raskin, editor of The Food Section, taking this podcast call from about a mile from Fingers headquarters. Welcome to The Fingers Podcast.

Hanna Raskin, editor/publisher, The Food Section: Thank you. It's great to be here.

How is your day going, Hanna?

Oh, my day is going really well. It's colder outside than I would like, but that's my only complaint.

That is not a valid complaint. It’s September in South Carolina and we just got out of 95 degree weather and 100% humidity. We are in like, perfect fall crispy boi weather right now. You have to embrace it.

I’m not going anywhere near my sweater drawer. I am not ready for this.

So! Hanna Raskin. You're a James Beard award-winning journalist, and after eight years at the local Charleston newspaper where we both worked, you struck out on your own to launch an independent newsletter called The Food Section. How is it going so far?

I think it's going great. It's been amazing how supportive people have been. Because—I know you know this—you just don't know what's gonna happen when you start telling people “give me money, and I'll give you stories.”

It's a total black box. People say they like your work and seem enthusiastic about it. And then when you're getting ready to flip the switch, the thought occurs to you, or at least it occurred to me, Oh, it's possible that no one pays me any money for this. Thankfully that hasn't happened in my case, and it sounds like it hasn't happened in your case. Tell us a little bit about your vision for The Food Section.

Well, ideally, I would love for it to serve as a platform for food journalism from all across the region, but for the meantime, it's just me. So the idea, the kind of the motivation behind this publication was to provide rigorous, independent, and original features journalism in places across the South that don't have local food journalists covering and serving them.

The South is the “sweet tea district”—anywhere you can expect there to be sweet tea pre-made.

There are a lot of those.

There are a lot, yeah. It's funny, I sent out a press release to legacy media explaining what I was doing, and I won't name names but somebody responded to the press release saying like “Well I think I'm doing a very good job.”

Oh no! Someone took it as a judgement of their work.

Indeed. The South contains multitudes and it is quite possible that there are cities that do have decent food journalism, and cities which do not, but this food editor chose to read it as all about [them.] Not intended.

Oops! Let’s talk a little bit about your experience covering the food and dining scene in the American South. Most recently you were covering Charleston's food scene over the past eight years, but that's not the only market in the in the region that you you’ve covered as a journalist. Where else have you worked?

My first job out of college was not a food-writing job, it was just a standard newspaper reporting job. I was living and working in Columbus, Mississippi, so that's where I started my newspaper career and then bounced around a bunch and ended up falling into food-writing while I was in Asheville, North Carolina. I was at the alt-weekly there.

There were some stops in between outside of the South as well, right?

Right. I mean, we can debate whether Dallas is in or out [of the South] but I was in Dallas.

What’s your take? Is Texas the South?

I don’t think that’s a Southern city. I believe Texas is Texas. That's sort of a country unto itself.

This is something that you specified when you first launched The Food Section. What are the boundaries of the American South, in your view?

I mean it's really it's kind of the “sweet tea district.” Anywhere where you can expect there to be sweet tea pre-made and they don't just bring you you know, a canister of sugar with your tea. It's those states. It’s 9 or 10… you're taking in a little bit of Maryland a little bit of Florida and then the entirety of you know, the Deep South. I really just wanted Florida because I want access to the sunshine laws there. The Freedom of Information Act in Florida is the gold standard. I thought it’d be nice to cover a place where you can get any information you want.

So The Food Section is going to be doing some FOIA work.

Yeah, for sure. I mean, it seems too easy but I think that's a lot of where folks aren't looking. We don't need to go through everything that's happening in local journalism, but you know, everyone is stretched thin resources are scarce. And so what that means is folks who are in the business that are on the metro desk might not be looking in you know, the most basic government documents and things that involve, say, bars and restaurants.

I mean, one of the reasons I took the job at a local newspaper was to learn more of that reporting skillset. A lot of digital media folks like myself never got that experience.

Right. That was my idea, the idea about integrating food journalism across the South. When I was involved with the Association of Food Journalists, which is sadly no longer we sponsored workshops in various places to help exactly the people you're talking about: folks who came up through digital [food journalism] that never had an opportunity to learn those skills.

Reviewing court documents and knowing who to call in the police department… that’s information can shape stories in a way that social media posts simply cannot.

Right. I’ve found, and you’ve probably found to in some of your reporting, like a lot of the folks who are working in F&B are shocked when we do [that kind of reporting.] They’re like “how did you know this? I didn't put out a press release!” It's really stunning.

You and I met in the context of a very particular drinking culture that you had actually documented in a freelance piece way back when. Can you give me a quick rundown of what you found when you reported on Charleston’s Grand Marnier craze?

So Grand Marnier was the signature drink of Charleston, and certainly the Charleston food and beverage community for quite some time. It's really faded just in the last couple of years. I think now a lot of young drinking Charlestonians aren't even aware of it. But South Carolina was in the middle mini-bottle era for a long, long time. Grand Marnier was sort of a workaround, because, you know, restaurant kitchens could stock it in big old jugs, I guess. It became the drink. Whenever Charlestonians went anywhere, whenever Charleston chefs were out cooking in other places, or people came to cook here, it was a very deliberate thing: this is going to be our drink.

The flavor is obviously totally different, but in terms of the use case, it reminds me of the way you used to see Fernet Branca be passed around in the F&B community as kind of like an insider’s handshake type of thing. Grand Marnier sounds like it was a little bit more of a regional precursor to that here in Charleston.

It's exactly that. I think that's a perfect analogy. Because remember, there was that period, as you say, like six, seven years ago, if you ordered a Fernet, it immediately established that, like you knew what you were you were doing.

The boss didn't trust the worker to pour out of a bottle, and the customers didn't trust the bartender.

You mentioned the mini bottle era. We’re both broadcasting from Charleston, which is deep the Deep South. Blue laws are rampant in this part of the country, and South Carolina had a very specific one that lasted a very long time, and it gave rise to two curious phrases: “one two ways” and “two three ways.” I was hoping that you could explain what those things mean.

I don't think that I can! [Laughs] This finished out before I lived here. I mean, I used to come and visit Charleston during the mini bottle era, but I did not live in South Carolina. But basically, people ended up drinking more than they would have because you're taking a whole mini bottle, and you’re just [making drinks with] one mini bottle after another. So it had the opposite of the intended effect. People got very, very drunk.

Sorry to put you on the spot! So the law dictated, in broad terms, that you couldn't serve more than a certain amount of a foolproof spirit for on-premise consumption at one time. In practice that meant bartenders couldn't do free pours from large bottles, which… I mean, it's hard to even imagine what we're talking about. But “one two ways” and “two three ways” were vernacular for how to order drinks, you would ask for a mini bottle, which is a little bit more volume-wise than a standard shot, and you would get two shot glasses. So you would order one mini bottle. two ways. That was the law of the land until I think the early 2000s [it was 2006, actually.]

I think it's worth pointing out that, not surprisingly in a state with pretty engrained conservative tendencies, that after the law allowed free pouring, there were still many bottle bars who would not change.

They wouldn't give it up! Change is hard, right, and that was something that defined people's drinking lifestyles here in Charleston in here in South Carolina, and you don't want to give that up, especially not if it means a lot to you and the way that people sort of created this language around it and these practices around it.

Right, and also I mean, part of the culture here is suspicion. The boss didn't trust the worker to pour out of a bottle, and the customers didn't trust the bartender.

If it's a sealed mini bottle, you can't cut it with water. And you can't skim shots off the off the bottle and then up charge them and take it out of the till, or whatever the whatever the grift is. But one of the problems with the mini bottles—I mean, there were many, it was inefficient—but it was also a tremendous amount of waste.

Yeah that never came up. [Laughs.] That was back before people knew about the earth, I think.

So let's talk a little bit more about your experience with The Food Section. You've been publishing for about a month now, and before you started publishing, you went on a sojourn across the South by rail. Can you tell me a little bit about your whistle-stop tour?

I had not been traveling since before the pandemic. So while I know the South pretty well, I hadn't seen it in a little while. Amtrak was running a deal, it was $299 to get a pass to just kind of go where you want, when you want. My plan was to take in the major cities. I started out here in Charleston, and I finished here in Charleston. In between I went Atlanta, Birmingham, New Orleans, Memphis, Chicago (“up South”), Nashville, Charlotte, and back.

What was the best stop?

I always love being in New Orleans. New Orleans is great.

New Orleans really is great. What was the best thing you ate? Or I guess, what was one of the best things you ate?

Gosh! I don't know if it's the best thing I ate, it’s probably not. But one of the cool experiences I had in New Orleans is there is an old steak house there, like a really old working-class steak house. During the pandemic was taken over by a guy who's like a pretty furious young chef who didn't touch the menu, and I don’t think regulars would even know he was back there, but everything just got a little bit better. And it's great. I am really a sucker for old-school steak houses. But you know, I sat at the bar, and they were watching… if remember this summer, there was a young woman from New Orleans who won the National Spelling Bee. That had happened days before, and I think they'd been watching it every night since.

Awww.

Yeah, it was really sweet.

That's really awesome. Can you shout out the name of the steakhouse?

Charlie's!

So back to The Food Section. You’ve worked in newspapers for your whole career. Newsletters are different beasts. How's the adjustment process been for you?

Hard! I mean, I know I'm putting out good work, and I don't want to discourage people from subscribing, but in terms of my own mindset… I had an interesting exchange this week with my consulting editor this week. I asked him to read a story that I thought was like, pretty strong, and his response was like, “Well, this just reads like a newspaper story.”

And you were probably like “Yeah man, that’s what I do.” That is interesting! I mean, you’re an accomplished reporter, and your instincts gathering and packaging news are, in my opinion, almost unparalleled on this beat. But putting yourself into stories is a new and challenging approach. Tell me how that feels.

I am so not accustomed to this. But I should credit the editor, his name is Steve Fennessy, he was at Atlanta Magazine for a long time, he edited Bill Addison there who's now the [food] critic at the LA Times. He’s certainly worked in this world. What he told me was “Look, people are giving you money because you're the authority on this topic. Like if you withhold your perspective, basically people aren't getting their money’s worth.” Coming from a newspaper background, I feel like there's so much subjectivity just in the process of story selection. Like, if I'm writing about this, that tells you something. But apparently, it doesn't tell you enough.

What defines a dive bar is lack of foresight.

Let's talk a little bit about subjectivity, specifically with regards to your food criticism. You are a critic. That’s based on inherently subjectivity, right? I would love to hear you spell out for listeners what the role and responsibility of a food critic is, as opposed to just a reporter and how that applies to the work you'll be doing at The Food Section.

I honestly think the two roles are pretty close. I've always approached restaurant reviewing journalistically, which means you know, the facts are incredibly important. It's not just about my opinion, and in fact, I feel like that's what I owe the most to readers. I feel like a critic’s job is to help connect readers with memorable dining experiences. It’s my job to make sure that they feel like they spent their money well, that they feel like they learned something, gained something, that their life is a little bit better because they had a specific experience. I don't think it's my job as a critic to necessarily say, this is the place where that's going to happen for you, or like, this is the only place that can happen.

So are you planning to do criticism with The Food Section?

I am. I do think it’s a way of building reader trust, and demonstrating to readers not only that you're looking out for them, but that you're saying what needs to be said. I think that it's just a very important part of the relationship with readers. As we monitor the pandemic, I did wonder for a little bit, Do I want to do [criticism]? What persuaded—because again, we have concerns, especially with the transmission rate here [in Charleston] about people inside dining rooms—but two parts. One is the news that food and bed workers are eligible for booster shots. And beyond that, I had an awful meal on my trip in Chicago. A terrible, terrible, terrible meal.

Obviously, we're all sympathetic to what small businesses have faced over the course of the pandemic. And we know a lot of them are having to originate new staffing models, and let's give credit to the folks who are even paying what they should pay. We know what the labor market looks like right now. [But] take all of that into account, and it was still in unforgivably bad experience. My feeling was: we’ve all been pretty generous to restaurants over the course of a pandemic. But now we're at a point where these poor school teachers and healthcare workers who deserve nothing more than a decent dinner are out, they’re spending their money, they need some relief after this damn pandemic. So it’s like: if I can help those people figure out where that's going to happen then I think I am doing a service again.

So I'll be making my first review visit in like a week or so, and when I say first I mean first since prior to the pandemic. It's been a while.

This is a little bit of inside baseball, but I think it's important to spell out to listeners who may not understand the mechanics of this. Food critics don’t just show up once, order some stuff, and write a review. There's a process, right?

Yeah, so no less than three [visits] had been my rule here in Charleston. The reality is covering a region is big as I'm covering [with The Food Section], I think this is going to be a two-visit deal. Also it's on my dime now; the paper used to pay for those review meals. I do plan to be totally upfront with readers about that. I went this many times, I was able to order this much stuff. I'm gonna do as much as I possibly can. But I think the reality is when you're covering places from New Orleans to Richmond, Virginia, two visits is probably more realistic as a benchmark.

Let's bring it back home: there's a new business here in Charleston that is actually under the banner of a very old business here in Charleston. I'm talking of course about Big John’s Tavern. Anyone outside of Charleston, this probably means nothing to you, but Big John's Tavern was, decades and decades, since the ‘50s or so, a beloved dive bar in downtown Charleston. It was run by Big John Cannady, who was a former pro football player. It was a very popular bar for Citadel cadets, for pedicab pedallers, for the horse carriage guys, anyone sort of in—

The teenagers! [Laughs] Did you mention the teenagers?

Right, the underage teens! Plus people who loved Grand Marnier, too: one of the things that Big John's was popular for, you wrote it up in your story, was they did a Christmas tree with all the ornaments were Grand Marnier bottles. Anyway, Big John’s closed for good last decade. But just recently here in Charleston, Big John's reopened in the same location under new management and ownership.

The menu is quite a bit different than what it used to be (to the extent that there was one.) There's candied bacon and some other things that would be much more familiar at a higher pricepoint “new American” restaurant than they would be at a beloved, well-worn dive bar. My question is: can dive bars be raised from the dead?

No, no, no. No, because I think what defines a dive is lack of foresight. That's what makes it a dive bar. Also the whole point is they're kind of timeless: there's no past, there's no future, it’s just kind of the same thing. I think when you get a couple guys who are like “Let’s invest to do what it was and make money on it,” I think that cannot possibly be a dive bar.

It's sort of antithetical to the enterprise! It’s like legal moonshine, which is a bit of a a novelty industry here in South Carolina, and in other states throughout the southeast. “Legal moonshine” is a contradiction in terms: moonshine is inherently illegal. As soon as it's legally allowed to be sold and taxed, it’s no longer moonshine, by definition.

Right. All it means when you say “legal moonshine”—this is unaged white liquor—it’s just bad. [Laughs]

We’ve progressed beyond this!

We don't need to do this anymore. To call it you know, “legal moonshine,” or call it [ anew bar] a “dive bar,” you're just wanting clearance to do a bad job, and not put work into it.

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Subscriptions to Hanna Raskin’s independent newsletter, The Food Section, are available for purchase now.