SULLIVAN'S ISLAND, S.C. – You’re at a beachside tavern honoring a literary icon whose classic tales are immortalized in gourmet burgers.Do you order based on your favorite story – or let your tastebuds decide?
I’d been anticipating a visit to Poe’s Tavern ever since our oldest daughter moved to suburban Charleston earlier this summer. She’d raved about the pub on Sullivan’s Island, where Edgar Allan Poe was stationed during his 1827-28 stint in the Army.
For such a tiny place – "its breadth at no point exceeds a quarter of a mile," Poe wrote of the 3-mile strip of sea sand – the island has seen its share of history, from pirate lore to a major Revolutionary War battle to its role as the port of entry for nearly half the Africans who arrived in this country destined for slavery.On the drive down we’d listened to "The Gold Bug," which chronicles an apparent mad man’s search for Captain Kidd’s treasure on the island. Though its fascination with secret codes and invisible ink doesn’t seem as incredible now as it did to pre-Civil War readers, it was Poe’s most popular and lucrative story during his lifetime – as well as the inspiration for Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic, "Treasure Island."
You can’t enter Poe’s Tavern without stepping on a giant gold bug inlaid into concrete, offering a taste of all the Poe-related memorabilia inside. But when our menus arrived, I was disappointed to discover "The Gold Bug" was just a glorified cheese burger. I kept looking.
"The Tell-Tale Heart" sounded interesting, with cheddar, applewood bacon and an egg on top apparently representing the victim’s offending eyeball. But when one of my daughters announced that was her selection, I decided to try something else.
It was surprising how many of the burgers were based on stories or poems I hadn’t read. "The Black Cat" featured bacon, onions, pimento cheese and "Edgar’s Drunken Chili." The "Annabel Lee" was topped with a Charleston-style crab cake and remoulade sauce.
I finally settled on the "Amontillado," with jalapeno Jack cheese, pico de gallo & chipotle sour cream. I’m not much of a carnivore. To be honest, I was probably more excited about trying the bacon bleu cheese cole slaw.
But I was stunned by this sandwich. Halfway through I found myself thinking, "Could this be the best burger I’ve had in my life?"
My son, who at 18 may have already consumed more burgers than I have in half a century, was raving about his "Sleeper" slider, which came encrusted with roasted garlic bleu cheese and Buffalo fried shrimp.
There was no danger of bias on his part; he’s not much of a Poe fan. But while I’d been distracted by gawking at portraits, playbills and the wallpaper in the bathroom – pages gleaned from vintage books – he’d been reading the fine print on the menu.
"It’s not just the toppings," he said. "They grind their meat in house. And this burger is grilled to perfection."
What I wasn’t prepared for was the belated case of indigestion after reading "The Cask of Amontillado" later that night. While horror stories from previous centuries aren’t nearly as gruesome as modern fare, I was startled by the intensity of the narrator’s vengeance.
Was the victim really so irritating that he deserved such a horrific fate? And why would a person of wealth and prestige want to live in a mansion with such a creepy basement?
Maybe I would’ve been better off with "The Tell-Tale Heart," which is more suspenseful but less creepy – although it could be that I simply read that one so long ago it’s lost its shock value.
Or maybe I’m just overly squeamish.
"I’d eat a ‘Texas Chain Saw Massacre’ burger," shrugged my son. "It would probably just be really meaty, with lots of sauce."
Maybe so. But if such a restaurant exists, it’s not going on my bucket list.