50-year-old birthday celebrants flock to Charleston to eat and drink in bachelorette style | Food

Cathy, a successful Etsy merchant who prefers to use just her first name, has never been to Charleston. She would very much like to visit the city, though. She’s heard the downtown streets are beautiful.

While Cathy is based in Miami, she knows plenty of women who’ve taken Charleston trips. They’ve bought shirts from her to commemorate them.

Among the items in Cathy’s AirportCandy shop are T-shirts emblazoned with splashy slogans that match tourist destinations with special occasions, such as “It’s My Wife’s 50th Birthday Cruise,” “Sweet Sixteen London Trip” and “Mother Daughter Trip New York City.”

To come up with the most in-demand combinations, Cathy pokes around online.

“Basically, I get information from Google,” she says.

Her own sales also function as market research. And she’s noticed a few Southern cities stand out for their popularity with small groups of travelling pals.

“I sell a lot of Nashville shirts, and a lot of New Orleans shirts,” she says.

She also sells a good number of Charleston shirts, particularly to women who converge upon the city to celebrate a 50th birthday.

What her orders show is “the average group is three or four girlfriends, or like max five, going for fun outings,” she says. “It’s a popular place, but not for teenagers. It’s a more mature crowd. And I think they like wine.”

Indeed they do, according to Charleston area hospitality professionals. Private chefs and restaurant representatives alike prior to the pandemic attested to seeing a growing number of middle-aged women in selfsame T-shirts announcing their intentions to party with Prosecco.

Before COVID put the kibosh on standard wedding procedure, nearly half of brides prepared for their nuptials with an out-of-town bachelorette party, according to the Brides 2018 American Wedding Study reported. It’s a stunning figure for a custom that barely existed when women now turning 50 reached marrying age (or the median age of first marriage, as the U.S. Census Bureau puts it: 50-year-old women who conformed to their statistics would have wed around 1993.)

FOMO is another concept that has emerged in the intervening years. Yet many women who have notched a half-century on earth aren’t about to waste time on fear of missing out. Instead, they’re throwing themselves the Charleston bachelorette parties they never had.

Getting crazy

Charleston is not the bachelorette capital of the South, although Explore Charleston Vice President Doug Warner says, “I know anecdotally that we do get an awful lot.” That honor belongs to Nashville, Tenn., which has the added distinction of being the bachelorette capital of the world, at least in CNN’s estimation.

Still, anyone who has stalked King Street has a pretty good idea of what bachelorette-ing involves, even if the Holy City is short on amphibious party barges and bride-to-be sessions at shooting ranges, among other amenities available in Nashville.

A bachelorette party typically consists of half a dozen women, although Charleston pedestrians in a rush will inevitably encounter a bigger group occupying the full width of the sidewalk while having one. You can pick out the bride by her crown or headband veil; all of the revelers are usually outfitted in meant-to-impress outfits, plus dangly necklaces with penis-shaped pendants.

Before there were bachelorette parties, there were bridal showers. In her book “Something Old, Something Bold: Bridal Showers and Bachelorette Parties,” Beth Montemurro notes they date back to Holland in the 1500s, when women who had the bad luck to fall for a man who couldn’t come up with the proper dowry were doomed to a life without stoneware tankards and ceramic jugs.

“The shower is a ritual that implicitly and explicitly socializes women into the hyper-feminized wife role,” Montemurro writes, alluding to tea sandwiches and lingerie games.

The bachelorette party is something else entirely. Based on rowdy and raunchy bachelor parties, it materialized around the turn of this century. Montemurro found a 1998 self-published guide to putting on a bachelorette party, which might well involve strippers and strong drink.

Many strong drinks, in fact. A pair of researchers in 2014 published a cautionary study in Journal of Substance Use showing bachelorette partygoers on average consume five drinks during a day of festivities.

Those binge drinking patterns are likely responsible for other attributes of the typical Charleston bachelorette party, equally noticeable to passers-by, such as a woman crying because she feels left out of the party’s dominant clique or a woman falling down as she tries to navigate stairs.

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Women who come to Charleston to celebrate milestone birthdays in bachelorette style will tell you they’ve outgrown that nonsense.

Charlene Jones' 60th birthday party

Charlene Jones’ 60th birthday party. Provided

Taking it easy

“I know Charleston is the prime destination for bachelorette trips, so when I was thinking about this, I was like, ‘I’m going to be the oldest person in Charleston having a celebration,’ ” says Charlene Jones of Dallas, who arranged for six of her friends and her daughter to join her here in 2019 for her 60th birthday.

82 Queen frequently hosts all-women 50th birthdays

Biscuits at 82 Queen. File/Grace Beahm Alford/Staff

On the contrary, Trista Hoffman of 82 Queen says Jones’ crew would have fit squarely into one of the restaurant’s newer customer demographics.

“I have noticed more groups of women joining us to celebrate a birthday girl’s weekend in Charleston,” she says, adding that their ages generally range from 40 to 60.

Even before bachelorette parties were supplying inspiration, Charleston Place was marketing what The Baltimore Sun in 2004 termed “girlfriend getaways” for a travel trend story.

Charleston Place has a full-time employee who works with "girlfriend getaway" groups

Palmetto Cafe is at 205 Meeting St. in the Charleston Place Hotel. File/Staff

Back then, a $2,000 package included a welcome basket with a copy of Cosmopolitan magazine and Crabtree & Evelyn toiletries, spa treatments, dinner at Charleston Grill and never-ending beverage service.

“We do not have that particular package still available,” spokeswoman Alex Bailey clarifies, but the hotel is entertaining an increasing number of bachelorette-like groups beyond the traditional “20-30 somethings.”

Rather than stay at a hotel, Lynn Brinkley of Raleigh last year found a short-term rental on Folly Beach to share with her two cousins, 23-year-old daughter and four best friends from high school. The hashtag they adopted for her 50th birthday weekend was #keepitonthelow, because “whatever happened in the house, stayed in the house,” and because they hired chef BJ Dennis to prepare Lowcountry dishes, including grilled oysters, conch fritters and okra soup.

BJ Dennis with Lynn Brinkley at her 50th birthday party

BJ Dennis with Lynn Brinkley at her 50th birthday party. Provided

“At this point in life, you can splurge a little bit,” Brinkley says. “So we had a personal chef, we had a maid, and we had a driver. I wanted everybody to be spoiled.”

For her party, Jones rented a house on Isle of Palms.

“In my head, I wanted us all to be together,” she says. “I wanted it to be a slumber party, where we could just get in our pajamas and open up a bottle of wine or drink coffee on the porch.”

Initially, Jones was nervous that her friends wouldn’t get along.

“I was a little bit anxious about how the personalities were going to work out,” she says. “But it was fantastic.”

One of the ways that Jones kept her group cohesive was to present each friend with a gift bag containing a beach towel, a picture frame and a wine flask, engraved with the recipient’s name. She also sketched out an itinerary that emphasized good food and drink. Their Saturday started at Callie’s Hot Little Biscuit and on Sunday they brunched at Husk.

Pimento cheese was a recurring motif.

“We went to this little restaurant the first night and it had the best pimento cheese,” Jones says. “And this sounds really weird, because I didn’t know pimento cheese was a thing in South Carolina, but we were ordering it in every other restaurant, asking ‘does this compare?’ Now, even when we’re at home, we’re checking out different pimento cheese.”

When Jones and her friends were getting married, none of them had the money for the kind of trip they took to Charleston, or the time to fully savor it. Nor would they have given as much thought to the area’s history and culture. While here, Jones made a point of signing up for Middleton Place’s tour exploring slavery, and Brinkley went to Sunday services at Emanuel AME Church. 

Now, though, the model makes perfect sense for the women and their social circles.

Jones, who put together a party based on what she could glean from Instagram and Pinterest, this winter got an inquisitive text message from a friend. She was thinking about inviting a group of women to Charleston for her 50th.

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