Duck Decoys, Hot Mustard & Celebrity Chefs: Welcome to the Southeastern Wildlife Expo
Our columnist visited Charleston to check out this annual event that attracts 45,000 people over three days.
In an exhibit hall at the Gaillard Center in Charleston—a ballroom sectioned into corridors by folding tables, cheered up by extravagant backdrops—I stood near the giraffe paintings, but I was eyeing the shotguns at Westley Richards.
A beautiful wooden display box held a seductive blued steel barrel with high-polished walnut stock complete with intricate filigree. Even from across the room, I knew it was out of my league (and price range), but I wanted a closer look. I was headed that way, when I heard the fellow manning the booth tell a potenial buyer that one of his shotguns cost $175,000. I’ve looked at houses selling for less than that. I turned on my heel and walked back out into town past the welcome table, with its complimentary dog treats.
Every year 45,000 people descend upon Charleston, South Carolina, for the Southeastern Wildlife Exposition (SEWE), and most of them, it seems, bring their dogs. If you are looking for a weekend getaway that involves socially acceptable day drinking, browsing around a beautiful and historic town, and more or less constantly booping dog noses, this is the place.
There are multiple levels of ticketing—you can go VIP and spend your evenings enjoying oyster roasts and going to things called soirees or you can buy a general admission pass—three days for fifty bucks.
When you get there, you’ll find everything from hacking jackets to hand-made knives on display. There were Clemson-themed fire pits and tables designed specifically for oyster roasts. There were paintings of birds and paintings of bird dogs. There were at least two exhibits of duck decoys, and an auction where prices for antique carvings of waterfowl soared well into the six figures.
If you want a Sherp hunting vehicle (basically an amphibious little tank), an African safari, a beautifully carved landing net, some new deck chairs, a blazer in mossy oak camouflage, a snazzy bow tie, a super absorbent dog bed, a wooden hand-carved replica of a feather, or a t-shirt that says “I just want to drink wine and pet my dog,” SEWE is for you.
A lot of my time wandering around was spent in a state of recognition: “Oh, this is where that comes from.”
At Marion Square there were raptor demonstrations, and there were lectures about turtles and litter. At Brittlebank Park there was a competition where dogs jumped off a dock into a pool after a toy to see which of them could jump the farthest. I saw one dog jump 23-and-a-half feet, and another stop at the end of the platform and look around at all the people while his owner laughed and tried to cajole him to jump—no dice.
There’s a heavy focus, obviously, on South Carolina. Lowcountry Collectibles, Lowcountry Creamery, Lowcountry Marine Mammal Network, Lowcountry Olive Oil, Lowcountry Oyster Company, and Lowcountry Shuckers all had exhibits.
In the middle of all of this was a tent sponsored by the South Carolina Commission of Agriculture, which was run by cookbook authors and brothers Matt Lee and Ted Lee. (The Lees are also Daily Beast columnists and had invited me as their guest to the festival.) I ducked in and found what amounts to a three-day, live-action cooking show.
“Aside from using the cheek meat, what do you do with the head?” came the first question from the audience for apparently unflappable barbecue master Rodney Scott. Some people make souse, he explained, or headcheese, but he doesn’t. He’s working on a recipe for crispy pig ears, but mostly “it’s decoration,” he said with a sly grin. He was having a good day, to say the least: United States Senator Kamala Harris had come to lunch at his place on King Street.
The format for these demonstrations was loose. A chef was joined by a producer or a farmer— Greg Johnson of Geechie Boy Milling, for instance, cooked rice with Chef Jason Stanhope of Fig. Matt and Ted worked the crowd, and the space was intimate and casual enough that people felt good making jokes and asking questions. Trays of samples were passed around—everybody liked the rice. The next day I saw a woman scrunch up her face and exclaim “no, no, no, no, no, no, no” over a ramekin of pickled collard greens. She didn’t like them, but I thought they were so good that when I got home I made them from the recipe that the chef handed out.
Next to the stage, South Carolina foodie treasures were displayed market style. Walking around a tent full of food, tasting Bloody Mary mix and barbecue sauce, and feeling the weight of a new Smithey cast iron pan in your hand is a great way to spend an afternoon. At events like this, as pleasant as they are, I wait for the moment when the lights go out. When I taste something that grabs my attention so hard that everything else in the place disappears for a moment. I had such a moment standing in front of the Burnt and Salty table.
Bob Cook and Cris Miller started the company in 2015, and their flagship product is their Korean mustard, which is solid. Their coconut suka, however, is out of this world. Made of fermented coconut water, ginger, chiles, and fish sauce it is funky and bright at once, with a good hit of heat (but not so much that I couldn’t try it straight out of a cup). I want to eat it in coleslaw; I want to dip slices of pork belly in it; I want to douse fried chicken in the stuff. It’s magic. And they ship. So I promised myself I’d buy a hat (they have a wonderful logo) and some suka, and I walked back over to the stage.
I was just in time for the Lee brothers’ radish showdown…