It’s that time of the year again! There is a slight nip in the air and the smells of autumn fill up mornings. Diwali has just gone by but that really hasn’t put a stop to all the festivities. The... Read more
The marshy coastal lowlands of South Carolina and Georgia, known as the Lowcountry, is an area as distinct in cuisine as it is in geography, and Charleston, the Holy City—called so for its preponderance of churches—puts you smack in the middle of it all. It is a place where the history is long and difficult, marked by a slew of natural disasters, the devastation of the Civil War (which started here, at Fort Sumter), and decades of postwar decay and poverty—hard to imagine in the glorious, impeccably restored Charleston of today. Its story cannot be told without recounting that era of United States’ history during which the slave trade dominated the South; it is from those slaves—about 40% of which entered the U.S. through Charleston Harbor, many from West Africa—that many aspects of the region’s cuisine were born, from masterful deep-frying and one-pot cooking to the rice that’s come to define the area, which Africans brought and cultivated here. Fortunately, 150-plus years after the end of slavery, the Gullahs, direct ancestors of those rice-plantation slaves who continue to reside in the Lowcountry, have kept their unique culture alive, via storytelling and handicrafts, an English creole language (similar to the Krio spoken in Sierra Leone, where many of the rice-growing slaves are thought to have come from), a strong sense of community, and, of course, food. There were other cultural culinary influences in and around Charleston—from the English settlers, the French Huguenots and Sephardic Jews who came later, the West Indian slaves who preceded the Africans—but the African connection in the kitchen is by far the most obvious.
What else besides this immediate link to West Africa makes so-called Lowcountry cuisine different from that of the rest of the South? Geography and ingredients, both native and imported (mostly from Africa): Local seafood like shrimp, fish, oysters, and crab figures prominently, but also tomatoes, okra, collard greens, sweet potato, grits and rice, chicken and (snout-to-tail) pork, sesame seeds, black-eyed peas and field peas. Unfortunately, some deep-Lowcountry dishes no longer exist on restaurant menus in and around Charleston—you’d be hard-pressed to find hobotee, a curried-beef casserole, outside of a cookbook or a home kitchen these days—while others, such as she-crab soup and benne wafers, seem to be just about everywhere. In between are dishes like shrimp bog and Huguenot torte, not very prevalent but still trackable, for now. Hopefully they too don’t disappear from restaurants, where visitors can readily appreciate them. Because just as much history can be found in a cup of okra soup as in those elegant 200-year-old homes with the soaring piazzas—but you can only eat one of them.
The marshy coastal lowlands of South Carolina and Georgia, known as the Lowcountry, is an area as distinct in cuisine as it is in geography, and Charleston, the Holy City—called so for its preponderance of churches—puts you smack in the middle of it all. It is a place where the history is long and difficult, marked by a slew of natural disasters, the devastation of the Civil War (which started here, at… Read more