Not Your Grandmama’s Grits
Strolling down Main Street, I tried to put my finger on the Southern city that Columbia, S.C. most resembles. A view centered on the state Capitol hinted to a scaled-down Washington, D.C., while cool breezes courtesy of nearby rivers and cheerful potted plants and lampposts raised thoughts of Savannah, Ga. and nearby Greenville, respectively. Less familiar is the concept of handing my keys to the hotel’s valet and not needing them again until I’m headed home days later. Rather than hands on the wheel, I would try to grasp as much of the city on foot, enjoying serendipitous stops such as a new hairdo from Glowout or a handcrafted cone at Sweet Cream Co. Next to the creamery, The Nickelodeon Theatre’s glowing marquee heralded my own motivation for coming to town: The Indie Grits Festival. Its flourishing, and the greater creative community it represents, is one way Columbia proudly stands out from the crowd.
There’s a dedicated group of individuals working to expand the city’s art scene, and “The Nick” as it’s affectionately called, is one of its success stories. Originally founded in 1979 by students at the nearby University of South Carolina then moved to its current location in Aug. 2012, The Nickelodeon is the gathering place for lovers of film and critical dialogue, from near and far.
The Nick’s quainter, quirkier take on a night at the movies starts with settling into the plush red seats and ordering refreshments from offerings scrawled on a chalkboard. As South Carolina’s only nonprofit, art house theater, The Nick also serves as headquarters during Indie Grits. Propelled by a far-flung vision, festival organizers sought to create exhibition opportunities for work often overlooked elsewhere. So in 2007, the festival was born, charging passionately onto the scene with a do-it-yourself attitude.
The proximity of the university undoubtedly plays a role in the launch of local initiatives like Indie Grits, and while its continued success has required grassroots support, you could also say nature intervened.
Each year, the festival picks a theme. For its 10th anniversary, the directors specifically wanted to honor the Broad and Saluda River’s confluence to form the Congaree River, and the way these have consequently shaped its development. That was before historic rainfall and failed dams resulted in a nightmarish flood in Oct. 2015. In the wake of trauma and healing, the original concept evolved, challenging more than 200 local and regional artists to reconsider their relationship with “Waterlines.” The result was a goosebump-raising tribute to the recent disaster and a celebration of recovery.
Combining this emotionally charged spirit with a grant from the Central Carolina Community Foundation made the 2016 Indie Grits completely free to the public. Not a festival for student films, nor limited to portrayals of the designated theme — or even film for that matter — Indie Grits has become a staple of cultural life in Columbia with live music performances, comedy, Puppet Slam, children-friendly Kindie Grits and a showcase for independent gaming and interactive media enthusiasts called Indie Bits.
During the 2015 weekend, I was one of 10,000 attendees that took in tunes from nationally touring acts at the River Concert, rolled with laughter at the Weekly Revue and screened “Overalls and Aprons” – a fi lm that surveys some of our country’s greatest chefs on the sustainability of farm-to-table dining by French-born, Charleston-transplant Thibaut Fagonde.
SPOON AND FIST, KNIFE AND FORK
Inevitably, all this talk about “grits” is going to make a girl hungry and there’s no shortage of old school, country cooking like Pawley’s Front Porch or Lizard’s Thicket to be found. However, in keeping with the weekend’s theme of exploring alternatives, we followed fellow film fans to some of the trendiest tables in town. The punchy-meets-industrial interiors at The War Mouth filled quickly; proving locals are welcoming the newer kids on the block, too.
Clocking in less than four hours from Atlanta’s Northside, I discovered a previously unheard of popular menu item when I sat down for lunch at The War Mouth. Raw fries – a Columbia staple I’m told – is a slightly different take on the more expected side dish: not exactly “raw” but not fully cooked yet either. Festivalgoers at Indie Grits won’t go hungry for satisfying stories or local spots to dine. Just take a close look at the festival’s branded logo. Designer Michael Powelson drew from cultural paradoxes, colliding past and present as well as genteel society and rugged independence with the visual of a tough guy’s knuckled fist clasping an heirloom spoon and somebody’s great-great grandmama’s silver.
On the Capitol’s side of Main Street, Atlantans will find more vaguely familiar, yet pleasant surprises at The Oak Table, part of Steve Palmer’s The Indigo Road Restaurant Group (Oak Steakhouse, Colletta, O-Ku) or Bourbon, a warm and rustic whiskey bar – more than 150 varieties in stock – and Cajun-Creole restaurant. Housed in the historic Brennen Building dating back to 1870, Bourbon is helmed by Chef Frank Bradley who got his start as a former line cook at Decatur’s Iberian Pig. Over a cocktail or coffee from Drip, plenty of tables inspire a setting for democratic debate, whether recapping the latest movie or political views. If you dare delve deeper into the local rumblings, go underground to “North America’s Greatest Dive Bar,” The Whig. Just steps from the senators’ offices, The Whig gained national attention as the unofficial headquarters for protestors and patrons who fought to remove the Confederate Flag from statehouse grounds last year.
Columbia is a place where conversations are started, and we are listening. Indie Grits has already announced the 2017 festival theme as “Visiones” in response to the explosive growth of the Latino population in South Carolina and across the Southeastern U.S., and has received grants from the National Association of Latino Arts and Cultures, the Surdna Foundation and The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts.
It’s not Main Street, Anywhere U.S.A. This is Main Street, Columbia, S.C. – and it’s either experiencing a unique cultural moment, or we finally took a moment to notice.
[written by COLLEEN ANN MCNALLY | photos courtesy of BOURBON | FORREST CLONTS; THE NICKELODEON; COLUMBIA, S.C. CVB | a version of this article originally appeared in Points North Atlanta magazine]