Our destination spotlight on Charleston features some of our favorite Lowcountry dishes, but that’s not all: Stay tuned this week for a slew of fun Charlestonian giveaways across all our social media channels—follow #EYWCharleston to find them! Our first one is here: Leave a comment to enter to win a package of benne wafers, Charleston’s signature sesame-seed cookie, courtesy of Southern Sisters Bakery. [Contest is now closed; see comments for winner!]
Charleston is a real pleasure to eat in. It’s a pleasure for the other senses, too—the gorgeous 200-year-old homes; the long, flat, ideal-for-strolling coastlines; the salty, swampy breezes—but food is a definite draw down here, and it’s no surprise why: It’s delicious and honest and, when you look a little closer, it tells some of the richest stories that food can tell in this country. It is food that has traveled from West Africa to Charleston’s port in the worst way imaginable, but has lived to tell the tale. It is food built from an iconic mix of hyper-regional and adopted ingredients, from local seafood and grits to field peas and rice, the staple that came to define the area. It is soulful and deep-rooted; it’s refined and creative. But whether you are at the city’s top-rated restaurant or diviest lunch counter, it’s always respectful of the past. This alone is unique in America, and it’s one reason we were so jazzed to eat our way around Charleston a few months ago.
The other 16 reasons you’ll find in our newly completed Charleston food guide (there’s a Kindle version too). Here’s a quick taste of some of our favorites. Which one would you most want to try in Charleston? Tell us in the comments below for a chance to win our favorite benne wafers! See rules at bottom.
This rich, creamy, bisque-like blue-crab soup is on nearly every Lowcountry menu, not a bad thing at all: It is slurp-worthy decadence in a bowl. Its name comes from the star ingredient, female crabs, whose orange roe are swirled into the soup, giving it its color—which is not to detract from the rest of its delicious components, including lump crab meat, butter, cream, and sherry. Blue crabs have traditionally been plentiful in coastal Carolina, and no dish makes better use of them than this one.
Read more about she-crab soup in Charleston
These crispy cookies, made with toasted sesame seeds, have a long and well-traveled history: Benne, or sesame, seeds reached Charleston’s shores some 300 years ago by way of West African slaves, who planted them here for good luck and used the seeds and oil for cooking. It is unclear where and when the recipe for these wafers was created—we did spy “benni cakes” on the streets of Sierra Leone, though they were quite different—but it’s said that their popularity spread fast, and they quickly became the good-luck parting-gift of choice for guests at plantation parties. Nowadays they’re synonymous with the Lowcountry, and delicious to boot—a light and nutty, addictive local treat.
Read more about benne wafers in Charleston
A rice and bean pilaf—with Carolina Gold rice and field peas, traditionally—seasoned with pork, hoppin’ John is a one-pot peasant dish with a long history. Its exact origin is murky, not surprisingly, but it’s generally agreed that its components came from West Africa, where the beans in question are native; most likely they were brought to North America by slaves centuries ago. Since both rice and legumes proved good matches for Carolina soil—and were cheap to produce—it is probable that the slaves who cultivated these crops in South Carolina were also cooking with them for their fellow countrymen, creating a dish that eventually moved out of the slaves’ kitchens. Nowadays, hoppin’ John is traditionally eaten for good luck on New Year’s Day in Charleston (and elsewhere in the South), but you can, fortunately, find this tasty historic dish on menus at other times of the year, too.
Read more about hoppin’ John in Charleston
Another rice dish with deep ties to the area, shrimp or chicken bogs are like stews with rice, calling to mind Louisiana’s jambalaya but typically wetter—or boggier, it may be, a fitting name and texture for a traditional dish in the marshy Lowcountry. The bog is really a type of pilaf, known colloquially as a pilau, a purloo, or even prioleau (depending on whom you’re talking to); it just requires more stock to achieve its extra-moist texture. Sadly for visitors to Charleston, bogs are not super common outside of people’s homes or potluck suppers, but there remain a few good restaurants in town serving it up.
Read more about shrimp/chicken bogs in Charleston
Its history isn’t clear—perhaps it originated in the kitchens of Lowcountry farmers—but it’s said that tomato pie has long been a local staple here, making good use of the area’s abundant tomato crop, the season for which peaks in the spring. Sliced red tomatoes are layered with grated cheddar cheese, onions, and basil in a pastry shell; the simple, savory baked result is a beloved local lunch and dinner.
Read more about tomato pie in Charleston
Lowcountry soul food
It’s no surprise, given this region’s history—the rice plantations, the West African slaves, the Gullah culinary tradition—that soul food plays an essential role in Charleston’s modern culinary landscape. Some components, like rice and okra and cowpeas, were direct imports from Africa; some, like corn, tomatoes, and lima beans, were crops native to the Americas; and others were the cheap, undesirable castoffs given new life in slave kitchens across the South, from turnip greens and yams to chitterlings and chicken gizzards. Over time, those recipes expanded to include certain delicious dishes enjoyed by Southern whites, like fried chicken and macaroni and cheese. All of these foods remain popular in Charleston today, with some greatest hits in this category including okra soup, hoppin’ John, red rice, lima beans with ham, fried chicken, fried pork chops, collard greens, pigs’ feet, and cornbread. These dishes are your best living link to the region’s past, and you’ll find them at the city’s Lowcountry soul-food restaurants—honest, unpretentious spots that are deeply rooted in tradition. If you can have just one meal in Charleston, this should be it.
Read more about Lowcountry soul food in Charleston
This quintessential Charleston dessert has nothing, it seems, to do with the Huguenots, the French Protestants who left France for South Carolina in the 17th century, seeking freedom from religious persecution. Rather, culinary historians believe the dish is descended from something called Ozark pudding, a custard with apples and nuts, and that it was created in its current form by a cook in Charleston, in the 1930s or ’40s, after she’d had an Ozark pudding in Texas (or Arkansas, depending on whom you’re talking to); the name comes from Huguenot Tavern, where she worked. The more important information, of course, is how it tastes, which is delicious. Crisp and meringue-like on top with a gooey pecan-and-apple bottom, it’s like pecan pie meets apple pie meets smashed meringue.
Read more about Huguenot torte in Charleston
Lowcountry boil, a.k.a. Frogmore stew
This one-pot dish, a seasoned mix of unpeeled shrimp, corn, potatoes, and smoked sausage, goes by a few different names—Lowcountry boil, but also Frogmore or Beaufort stew, after the Frogmore community on St. Helena Island near Beaufort, where it’s said to have originated. Never mind that Frogmore itself is about a 90-minute drive south of Charleston—this dish is pure Lowcountry, found all along the coast and widely viewed as representative of the cuisine’s back-to-basics, local-ingredients simplicity. Like southern Louisiana’s crawfish boils, Frogmore stew is best eaten in someone’s backyard on a newspaper-covered table. But if you can’t make that happen in Charleston, a few good restaurants step up to the plate.
Read more about Lowcountry boil in Charleston
Time to win some of those delicious benne wafers! Here’s how:
1. Tell us in the comments which Charleston dish YOU would most like to try. That’s it!
2. We will choose a winner using random.org at 12pm (EST) on Saturday, December 6, 2014, at which time the giveaway will close. The prize is a 3 oz bag of benne wafers, courtesy of Southern Sisters Bakery.
3. On Monday, December 8, the winner will be announced in this post, and he/she will be contacted via email if possible (check back on Monday to be safe!). If the prize is not claimed by Wednesday, December 10, we will select another winner.
4. Note: The winner must have a U.S. mailing address.