Arts & Culture
Lowcountry Cuisine – It’s History and What Defines It
The South Carolina Lowcountry is part of what’s known as the “Gullah Corridor”, a strip of coastline stretching from North Carolina to Florida. The Lowcountry includes the coastal regions of South Carolina and Georgia. There is a dispute as to what constitutes the South Carolina Lowcountry. It is most often used to describe the coastal area of South Carolina that stretches from Pawleys Island, South Carolina to the Savannah River at the Georgia state line 10,000 square miles of rich marshland flush with oysters and seemingly endless plant species. Others argue that the Lowcountry extends father north and west to include all of the Atlantic Coastal Plain of South Carolina and Georgia.
The geography has a great deal of influence on Lowcountry cuisine distinguishing it from Southern cuisine because of the rich estuary system that provides an abundance of shrimp, fish, crabs, and oysters. Also, the marshlands of South Carolina are conducive to growing rice, which became a large part of the diet as well as the economic system. Rice became known as “Carolina Gold”.
Enslaved Africans worked on coastal plantations along this strip where they maintained their native cooking traditions. When they came to America, they brought their knowledge of farming and vegetables with them such as rice, tomatoes, okra, watermelon, peas, peanuts, greens, sweet potatoes, etc. The Lowcountry extends 80 miles to the Atlantic Seaboard Fall Line and has a subtropical climate that make the growing season longer which the early settlers took advantage of by producing rice, indigo, and cotton in mass quantities.
For 200 years, the economy was based largely on rice which was brought here with the slaves along with their knowledge of how to grow it in the marches. Rice made the plantation owners rich and gave life to what is known as Lowcountry Cuisine. It is one of the main ingredients used in shrimp pilau, Hopping John, beans and rice, and various stews that were concocted by the slaves. Lowcountry cooking arose out of the combination of the cooking of the master and the slave.
Charleston, South Carolina is considered the capital of the Lowcountry due to its 500,000 acres of wetlands, salt marshes, swamps, creeks, lakes, ponds, and former rice fields. Charleston is a Lowcountry city which means that it is below sea level on the Southeastern coast. The lifestyle in Charleston is gracious, welcoming, a little slower at times, and the Lowcountry cuisine of local rice, grits, seafood and produce is celebrated with over 400 Lowcountry restaurants.
The region’s history of plantations and enslaved West Africans has shaped the Charleston of today with the apparent influence of the Gullah culture of their descendants, as well as their local cuisine. There is a large Gullah population in the outlying areas. The Gullah are African-Americans of West African heritage which dates back to the late 1600s when the transatlantic slave trade brought slaves to the south. The African Americans in the area formed a tight-knit community and culture that is still alive today in the Lowcountry of South Carolina and Georgia.
In the 17th century as the rice crop was introduced to Charleston and began to flourish, more slaves were brought into the Lowcountry which brought even more African culture, and the Gullah culture grew and strengthened. As the rice crop boomed, yellow fever, a life-threatening disease also grew and became more prominent during the humid months.
As the summer months approached, the white plantation families and many of the plantation managers would move inland to avoid the yellow fever leaving the “Drivers” in charge. The Drivers were trusted slaves who were put in charge while the plantation owners and managers were away. With very little European influence around, the African culture remained intact and the Gullah culture continued to grow and expand. From art to cuisine, and language to rituals and customs, the slaves continued to uphold their African traditions.
One of the most popular art pieces which is now considered a symbol of Charleston is the sweetgrass basketry created by the Gullah people and is one of the most popular souvenirs for visitors to Charleston. “Gullah artisans create the sweetgrass baskets by utilizing a traditional weaving technique found in West Africa, as well as other regions throughout Africa. They bundle dried sweetgrass and weave it into a basket, using palmetto leave strands to bind the sweetgrass bundles.”
An interesting piece of folklore is that the Gullah people would paint the ceilings of their porches a shade of sky blue to ward off evil spirits or “haints.” This particular shade of blue became known as “Haint Blue” or “Gullah Blue” because it was used to the confuse the evil spirits by making them think the ceiling of the porch was the sky. The haints would fly up through the ceiling and continue upwards instead of entering the house. This tradition of painting the ceiling blue is still seen in the Lowcountry on the porches of houses and restaurants.
The language spoken by the Gullah people came about by the African ethnic groups linking with indigenous Americans to create the unique Gullah language and traditions from which later came “Geechee”. It is often referred to as Gullah Geechee. According to Wikipedia, “They developed a creole language, the Gullah language, and a culture rich in African influences that makes them distinctive among African Americans.”
The Lowcountry is most famous for its cuisine which according to John Martin Taylor, “is a hodgepodge of international influences: African, French, English, and Caribbean alike.” He describes it as Creole cooking with a heavier African influence (as evidenced by the okra, eggplants, and benne used in dishes) than that of other Creole locales. John Martin Taylor, also known as Hoppin’ John, is an American food writer and culinary historian, best known for his expertise on the cooking of the American South, and, in particular, the foods of the lowcountry–the coastal plain of South Carolina and Georgia.
Taylor says, “If you look back at old cookbooks, you’ll see recipes for broiled squirrel, possums, and potted birds. Those dishes are long gone from modern Lowcountry cuisine, but the philosophy remains the same: “If you got it, you cook it,” Taylor says. “There’s a focus on good, locally used ingredients”. This includes Jerusalem artichokes along with hard local pears, okras, and peaches. “It’s hard to translate Lowcountry cooking into recipes for this reason.” Taylor says. “It’s more about using what you have.”
Due to the climate in the Lowcountry, pickling and canning evolved as the way to preserve the bounty of produce. Taylor explains, “The real hallmark of the cuisine is the vast array of condiments,” Taylor says. “Because of the subtropical climate, you have to find ways to preserve things. Virtually every meal has chutneys. You serve it with roast game and meat. There are all sorts of mixed pickles and relishes. There’s always some type of condiment at nearly every meal”
Grilling is the most preferred method of cooking fish in the Lowcountry, with a light sprinkling of salt, pepper, and olive oil. Fried fish is done with freshwater varieties like catfish. Lowcountry cuisine means fresh ingredients with a lot of local food such as rice, seafood and fresh vegetables. “If shrimp are the backbone, then crab and oysters are the heart and soul of Lowcountry cooking.” Taylor writes.
Lowcountry cuisine includes such dishes as fresh chopped tomato on grits, shrimp and red rice, Hoppin’John, which is black eyed peas and rice with pork, gumbos made with shrimp and chicken in a stew of tomato and onions and thickened with okra, and oyster stew. Frogmore stew is another popular Lowcountry dish and has nothing to do with frogs, but was named after the town it was created in. Frogmore stew is basically a shrimp boil with sausage, potatoes and corn on the cob with various seafoods added to the mix.
“Benne wafers” a thin cookie of sesame that is a specialty around Savannah and Charleston is also considered Lowcountry cuisine as well as boiled, long-grain Carolina rice, chicken bog (a stew of a whole chicken, lots of black pepper and salt with brothy rice), sweet potato pone, corn bread, and spoonbread (small, short biscuits — not too greasy with sorghum or molasses). In short, this cuisine was heavily influenced by the culture of the West African slaves integrated with their master’s cooking and became ingrained in the daily life of South Carolina and Georgia.
To get a good idea of what Lowcountry cuisine is, you have to separate it from good old fashioned southern cuisine. For example, you will find fried green tomatoes in lots of restaurants that serve Lowcountry dishes, but that is just southern cuisine and not limited to the Lowcountry. “One way to classify it might be the use of ingredients that came to North America through the low country (whether it be via colonialists or African slaves) that then served as staples for the regions inhabitants. Some of these ingredients may be widespread in their use today but because of the historical connection will always be associated with the Lowcountry. So, a dish that used rice as its primary ingredient, such as a chicken bog, would be considered low country vs. southern because rice was such a staple for the low country throughout history.”
It is important to note that the “use of many of these ingredients was popularized by the African slaves that influenced so many other aspects of our culture. Oysters, shrimp, crab, and many of the low-end cuts of meat that make low country cuisine so distinctive would likely not be nearly as popular today if the African slaves had not introduced them to the dinner tables of the plantation owners.” (Chowhound, May 27, 2008)
Although anything north of Pawleys Island, South Carolina is considered too far north to be included in the Lowcountry Region, we still have quite a few restaurants along the Grand Strand where Lowcountry cuisine is served. Below are a few that you might want to try:
Chestnut Hill located at 992 North Kings Highway, Myrtle Beach, South Carolina is an upscale restaurant serving steaks and seafood with a great waterfront view. Some of the Lowcountry food served here is Shrimp & Grits (Carolina shrimp with smoked sausage in a seafood stock, served over stone ground cheese grits), She Crab Soup, Crab Cakes, and Fried Green Tomatoes (layered with a roasted red pepper sauce and goat cheese). If you would like to check out the menu, go to chestnuthilldining.com.
House of Blues located at 4640 Highway 17 South, North Myrtle Beach not only has a great concert hall with entertainment, they also serve Lowcountry cuisine. The menu features Lowcountry items like Cornbread with Maple Butter, Chicken Gumbo, Voodoo Shrimp (sautéed jump shrimp simmered in Abita Amber beer reduction, on top of housemade jalapeno cornbread), Shrimp & Grits, Southern Fried Chicken, Loretta’s Meatloaf, and the Pulled Pork Sandwich. For more information, go to www.houseofblues.com/myrtlebeach.
Prosser’s Bar-B-Que located at 3750 U. S. 17 Business, Murrell’s Inlet, South Carolina is right across from the MarshWalk. The lunch buffet includes Lowcountry staples like Carolina-style BBQ, Fried Chicken, Fried Flounder, Pork Chops, Mac and Cheese, Green Beans, Collard Greens, Rice and Gravy, Chicken Bog, Sweet Potato Soufflé, and more. The dinner buffet boasts all of the lunch items plus Seafood, BBQ Ribs, BBQ Chickens, and yummy desserts. For more information, go to prossersbbq.com.
Simply Southern Smokehouse located at 1913 Mr. Joe White Avenue, Myrtle Beach, South Carolina is a restaurant that is usually packed, with a wait, but the wait is worth it. Guests here fill their plates with Lowcountry dishes like Fried Chicken, Chicken Bog, Carolina-style BBQ, BBQ Chicken, Sweet Potatoes, Collards, Biscuits, Cornbead, Sweet Peas, Pickled Okra, Mac and Cheese, and many other delicious foods. For more information, go to simplysouthernsmokehouse.com,
Sweet Carolina’s BBQ located at 1207 Celebrity Circle, Myrtle Beach, South Carolina is another great eatery with mouthwatering food and friendly service. Guests at Sweet Carolina’s will be greeted by the sweet smell of burning hickory and pecan wood from the smoker, as well as the site of traditional Lowcountry dishes being brought out to patrons patiently waiting for their meals. Order up Lowcountry favorites such as Shrimp & Grits, Gumbo, Crab Cakes, Ribs, Chicken, and Carolina-style Pulled Pork. For more information, go to http://www.sweetcarolinasbbq.com/.
The Parson’s Table located at 4305 McCorsley Avenue, Little River, South Carolina is a very unique dining experience because the restaurant is inside a converted historical Southern Church. Start off your meal with a Lowcounty appetizer such as Local Fried Green Tomatoes, Sautéed Jumbo Lump Crab Cake, or the Charleston She Crab Soup. The entrée section of the menu includes a variety of steaks, and seafood, with the Broiled Seafood Platter, the Crab Cake, the Shrimp & Grits, and the Little River Shrimp and Scallops standing out as awesome Lowcountry picks. For more information, go to parsonstable.com.
Now, that you know what all about the Lowcountry and its mouth-watering, comfort food, the next step is to try it. If you live in the Myrtle Beach area or are visiting the Grand Strand, check out some of the above restaurants and see how you like Lowcountry dining.