To describe our growing up in the lowcountry of South Carolina, I would have to take you to the marsh on a spring day, flush the great blue heron from its silent occupation, scatter marsh hens as we sink to our knees in mud, open an oyster with a pocketknife and feed it to you from the shell and say, “There. That taste. That’s the taste of my childhood.”
Pat Conroy, The Prince of Tides
For years, my family’s was one of three sailboats on Hilton Head Island, now nine marinas and twenty-five golf courses strong. My mother would send me off in the dinghy with a bucket, at low tide if possible, to bring back our lunch. In the summertime I might simply empty the crab trap, but I always cleaned the crabs live before cooking them, still my preferred method, which saved space and time in the galley. In the fall I would cast the shrimp net until I had a pound or two, filling the bucket with clean creek water in which Mother would cook them, with no other seasoning. Once the water came to a boil, she threw in the shrimp for just a moment, until they began to blush, then drained them into a colander. Under the colander was a folded towel that she would then wring out, lay steaming on the counter, sprinkle lavishly with salt and then the shrimp, and roll up for ten minutes or so while we munched on “relish” of raw carrots, radishes, and celery. The shrimp would finish cooking in the steaming towel, and the salt would melt and magically recrystallize on the inside of the shrimp shells, popping them away from their sweet flesh, the shrimp never having left their environment and literally moments out of the water.
The colder “r” months saw me on the salt-marsh banks of pluff mud (so called for the sound that it makes as you sink into it), choosing eight-and ten-inch oysters—all “singles.” Mother would toss back any clusters or smaller ones. Garnished only by the glint of a January sun, May River oysters were then close to perfection—and better than most I’ve had since. Yankees talk about cold-water oysters being the best, but I have eaten American oysters in Rhode Island, New York, Massachusetts, and Washington state; abroad, I’ve eaten oysters in England, France, Portugal, and Spain. And nowhere have I tasted a meaty, juicy, salty oyster to compare with our uncultivated varieties here in the South Carolina Lowcountry, where they are continually washed by the incredible flow of our eight-foot tide, one of the largest on the East Coast of America.
That tide flows in and out of our vast marshlands, which sit up behind the barrier islands that run down the coasts of South Carolina, Georgia, and northern Florida. The South Carolina Lowcountry is unique among these Atlantic coastal regions. Settled in the late seventeenth century, when all of the land south of Virginia was granted to a handful of Barbadian planters who had restored Charles II to the throne, the Lowcountry is an area as rich in history and culture as the land is lush.
Geographically it includes the coastal plain of the state from Pawleys Island, near the North Carolina border, southward to the Savannah River, which is the Georgia state line. The Lowcountry extends inland about eighty miles to the Fall Line, a geographical divide not unlike the Mississippi River, which when crossed reveals a dramatic change in flora and fauna.
The Fall Line, where rivers falling to the sea make their last dive, is the first appearance of hills as you move inland from shore. It’s easy to imagine those hills as sand dunes on the ancient shore; our soil, very sandy, was once ocean floor. We have palmettos and live oaks dripping Spanish moss, but they won’t grow north of the Fall Line. Beavers won’t come down across it into the Lowcountry, and water moccasins and gators won’t go up above it. The area is at once tropical and not, with backyard banana trees sometimes bearing fruit and winter frosts sometimes killing them to the ground.
As the watershed of the entire eastern half of the Blue Ridge Mountains, which have the heaviest rainfall in the country, the subtropical Lowcountry has a growing season three-and-a-half months longer than the region of its water source. This climatic contrast is sufficient to account for its vast array of plant life. Indeed the South Carolina Lowcountry in its ten thousand square miles has more species of plants than all of Europe in its 10 million. Among the early settlers here were many planters who manipulated this land, took advantage of its waters and tides, and produced rice, indigo, and cotton on a scale unequaled today.
In the three counties into which modern Charleston, the capital of the Lowcountry, sprawls, there are more than five hundred thousand acres of wetlands—salt marsh, rivers, swamps, ponds, creeks, lakes, and former rice fields. That’s an acre per resident! The people of the Lowcountry—Sand-lappers—have lived off those waters, played on them, and made them their lives for three hundred years. For two hundred years the economy was based largely on rice: to know Charleston was to know rice and rice culture. When early colonists arrived, they found a low, flat coastal plain dotted here and there with pine thickets and hardwood forests, sinuous black rivers banked with acres of marshland, now full, now empty, then full again, and the great flow of that tide bringing into its grasses to feed and spawn the crabs, shrimp, oysters, shad, and sturgeon that entered the cuisine early on.
Politically and culturally the Carolina Lowcountry was different from other colonies from the start. Even neighboring Georgia, geographically similar, shared little history with South Carolina. Samuel Gaillard Stoney wrote, “Charleston was not only the capital of the Province of Carolina, but also its ‘mother-settlement,’ its seaport and town of trade, the heart and soul of the pioneer settlement of all the Southeast. Charleston has more historic architecture now than Williamsburg ever had even when it was truly new.”
The English philosopher John Locke had written for the Carolina colonists a constitution that established a proprietary government based on an aristocracy of landgraves, caciques, and lesser nobility. But land ownership proved to be the basis of the real Lowcountry aristocracy, and land-owners continued to make law and shape the culture long after the Revolution. American plantation society was born to the Lowcountry, where it flourished.
The colonists’ knowledge of plantation life had been garnered in sugar production in the West Indies. Lowcountry planters relied on native American corn as a staple crop for both master and slave, but it was rice, then indigo and cotton, that built Charleston mansions and Lowcountry plantations and necessitated cheap labor. Slaves were brought into the area by the tens of thousands, and with them came plants from West Africa and knowledge of marsh cultivation of rice.
Early colonists found the woods full of peaches, pomegranates, and figs, all brought a hundred years earlier by Spanish settlers who left them abandoned to naturalize into the environment on their own. It was a land of panthers and bison and wolves, now almost completely gone. And it was a land of alligators, bears, deer, and huge snakes and birds, all very much still here.
Out of that subtropical jungle the slaves carved the vast rice plantations along the banks of the Lowcountry’s many rivers, named for the native Americans who at first welcomed the white man. Eventually the Indians of the area would all but die out in their fights against enslavement, loss of land, and newly introduced Old World diseases. Their trade routes to the interior were taken over by white men financed by Charleston merchants, so that even the wild hinterlands became the domain of the Lowcountry aristocracy. Virtually owned and operated by the plantation system, the Lowcountry was different not only from the South Carolina Upcountry but from the rest of the nation as well. Charleston’s archivist and novelist Harlan Greene wrote, “By 1708, so many African slaves had been brought into Charles Towne and the surrounding lowcountry that they had already achieved a black majority. The delicate interplay of black and white that would write Charleston’s history began quite early. The overlapping chronicles are as connected and fretted as the coils in the sweetgrass Gullah baskets sold in the city Market.”
Gullah is the language of the descendants of slaves in the area. Often mistakenly called a pidgin English, Gullah is filled with Africanisms from several West African languages. It was the spoken language between master and slave and among slaves themselves on the plantations, where they were not allowed to learn to read or write. The language lingered the way the art of sweetgrass weaving has; neither exists in America outside the Lowcountry.
Lowcountry blacks, also called Geechees, clung to their patois long after the abolition of slavery, well into the twentieth century. Isolated as they often were on the Sea Islands south of Charleston, where their forebears had slaved on cotton plantations, their culture remained little changed until bridges to those islands began with midcentury development. Just north of Charleston, near Mount Pleasant, a community of basket weavers still makes the sweetgrass fanner baskets that were used to separate the rice from the chaff on the rice plantations. Most of the traces of Africanisms in their language are gone; they no longer speak pure Gullah. But the baskets that they weave are identical to ones woven in the rice-growing regions of West Africa, and if you buy one along U.S. Highway 17—the Ocean Highway—you are likely to be given some “broadus,” Gullah for something extra, at no charge.
Nowhere in America did the cooking of master and slave combine so gracefully as it did in the Lowcountry kitchen. You will see decidedly English and French recipes in this collection, but they will have been seasoned through the years by black hands. Hoppin’ john, our bean and rice pilau, which we eat on New Year’s Day, is daily fare in the rice lands of West Africa. Black cooks in plantation kitchens taught their mistresses about the dish, in much the same language as that of Verta Grosvenor, who began her Vibration Cooking, or the Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl, with the following recipe for the dish:
It is not European, African, or West Indian dishes specifically that characterize Lowcountry cooking; rather, it is the nuances of combination and a respect for the past that make the cuisine unique. Sweeping generalizations about the South and southern food simply don’t apply to this distinctive area. Lowcountry food is Creole cooking, but it is more heavily influenced by Africans than is the cuisine of Louisiana. Country French traditions abound, reflecting the heavy populations of Huguenots here, but soups in the Lowcountry might contain okra or the water in which rice is cooked as thickeners rather than a roux. The cooking is often more closely akin to the stewpot cooking of West Africa, with its benne (sesame seeds), okra, and eggplant. Sephardic Jews from Portugal and Spain brought tomatoes to Charleston years before they were accepted elsewhere in the colonies, and Mediterranean traditions such as sun-drying tomatoes and making pasta appear in early Charleston cookbooks.
Anna Pinckney, the granddaughter of a slave and an accomplished cook, has pointed out some of the things that define Lowcountry food: “Yard eggs. Pure vanilla. Coconut juice. Grated nutmeg. Clabber. Cooking longer on a wood stove. Bringing some broadus. Sorghum. Rice.” Philip Simmons, Charleston’s octogenarian blacksmith famous for his wrought-iron gates and fences, grew up on Daniel Island, just across the river from Charleston; he has said that Sea Islanders can be identified by what they eat: “Well, Geechee [people] mostly like rice and most of the people come in see you eating a lot of rice, they call you Geechee. So I’m a colored, black Geechee.” He fondly recalls his favorite dish, his grandmother’s okra soup with dried shrimp served over rice, “Geechee style, so dry that each grain fall apart.”
But Mary Ann Foy, who grew up white and middle-class in Hampton, near the Savannah River, thought everyone ate rice with every meal. She remembers calling home crying as a young child because no rice was served with lunch at the home of the friend she was visiting. Lucille Grant, Anna Pinckney’s catering partner, says Lowcountry blacks and whites “eat the same thing. . . . You see, it’s all boiled down. You eat butter beans, you eat okra, you eat tomato . . . you eat greens.”
An area that has seen its population increase by a third in the past ten years, the Lowcountry is a haven for fishermen, sailors, hunters, farmers, and outdoorsmen of all sorts. When the shrimp are up in the creeks, I will stay up half the night pulling them in off the Battery in downtown Charleston, even when I have to go to work in the morning. And while some families have been worshiping in the same churches since their foundings, the men are likely to arrive on Sunday in their deck shoes and khakis, either on their way to or from a hunting or fishing expedition.
The Lowcountry is a land where the women have two first names. Like the early Charlestonians who first built vacation cottages there, Mary Edna Fraser takes off for the mountains at the first hint of fall to stock her larder with crisp apples and sourwood honey. There’s Mary Clare Ulmer of Four Holes Community, whose pantry skills could fill an entire volume and whose caramel cake was one of the very few foods allowed in our house that was not prepared by my mother. These women are as likely as the men to be involved in the hunting, fishing, and crabbing parties that often feed us in the Lowcountry; and they are more likely to maintain the kitchen and herb gardens reminiscent of those of eighteenth-century Charleston, only recently revived here.
Here in the Lowcountry one can meet many a grown man—black, white, rich, or poor—whose name or nickname is Bubba (even my family calls me that), and many of them have what we call jonboats, the preferred flatbottom boat used both on our lazy rivers up near the cypress swamps and in the marshlands in search of oysters, clams, marsh hens, and shrimp. Or they might own a sailboat and stock an expensive wine cellar, like early plantation owners and Charleston merchants.
At oyster roasts and Frogmore stews and barbecues and cotillions, at Hibernian Hall and museums and fish camps and plantations, and in fine old Charleston town houses, in suburbs, beachhouses, and condos, the Bubbas and the Mary Catherines meet to eat and drink. For three hundred years we have absorbed the rich cultural heritage of the Lowcountry, with great respect for all things historical and truly Charleston. It is a sort of wacky sense of pride that we have, and it often surfaces at these social gatherings that have always been an important part of Charleston’s heritage. Few of us today are “bon yeuh” (born here) Charlestonians, but most of us live here by choice and are passionate about our region.
It can be argued that we are excessively proud here and that there is much in our history that warrants remorse. When I lived in Italy among Roman Catholics, I was often reminded that pride is, to them, a mortal sin. It is a horrible truth that the sophistication and wealth of Charleston were built at the expense of human dignity. Slavery and its crippling, longstanding effects should always be remembered as the evils that they are. Indeed one of the reasons that the great antebellum food of the Lowcountry has yet to be fully realized again is that we simply do not talk about things the way they were back then, when that great “civilization” was begot through slavery. The first study of slaves’ diets has only recently been completed at a Lowcountry plantation site. By the same token, when Sherman set out on his march to destroy the South, his real goal was the sumptuous Ashley River plantations of Charleston. Some of the buildings were spared and are studied as great works of architecture. But the cuisine is only now being unearthed and restored to life.
Charlestonians have a long history of wars, floods, earthquakes, tornadoes, and hurricanes. The city has been very nearly destroyed several times and has always been rebuilt. But the Civil War threw the area into such poverty that former master and slave alike ate poorly, and the cuisine was nearly lost. Overcooked vegetables, oversalting, and fatty stews, often mistakenly identified as southern cooking, may have come to the Lowcountry in the stark poverty after the Civil War, when farms and rural traditions were lost here, but they are a reflection of that poverty, not the culinary heritage.
In the fall of 1989 a hurricane of unprecedented might fell on the land, with Charleston as ground zero. Eighty percent of the trees in the neighboring national forest were destroyed. Seventy-five percent of all roofs in the area were damaged. Pluff mud, the black, living slime from the marshes, poured into all areas that were landfill and many places where water had never gone before. Church steeples collapsed. Deer were blinded by flying pine needles. Sixty thousand of us were put out of our homes. Hundreds of businesses were destroyed, some never to be revived.
But a year after the storm the city almost appeared, at least to the newcomer, to be none the worse for the damage. And, like the horrible specter of slavery, none dare mention its name: we mostly refer to “the storm,” or even “the recent unpleasantness.” If we are too proud, then we deserve to be proud even of that, for to have witnessed the soaring communal spirit in the aftermath of the hurricane is to know that this part of the country has long ago overcome the racist brand we are often given by outsiders. Visitors to the city often comment on the lack of racial tension here. In spite of social segregation, blacks and whites are culturally bound in the Lowcountry. Nowhere is it more evident than in the kitchen.
The Lowcountry is people like Skip and Margaret Madsen of Johns Island, who are growing as extensive an herb garden as Martha Logan, who wrote her Gardener’s Kalendar in 1751 in Charleston. And Dick and Tricia Schulze, who grew the first Carolina Gold rice since flooding, storms, and out-of-state, mechanized competition finally killed rice in the Lowcountry at the outset of World War I.
The Lowcountry is Middleburg Plantation, the oldest house in South Carolina, which sits on the east branch of the Cooper River, where former rice fields brim with alligators and turtles for stews, prepared in time-honored Creole fashion at neighboring Rice Hope Plantation, much the same as when the area was first settled in the early eighteenth century. The Lowcountry is also the Barnes sisters of Smoaks, a railroad hamlet fifty miles west of Charleston where trains no longer go. They grow much of their food—butter beans and field peas and corn and peanuts—and their backyards are full of figs and pears and scuppernongs. Their brother Russell stirs the big iron kettle of pig fat with his oarlike lard paddle all day during butchering, bringing each of his sisters—mostly in their seventies—a bucket of the whitest lard to use in RuRu’s angel biscuits, Lessie Rae’s fried chicken, and Erlene’s piecrust.
The Lowcountry is also the other side of the coin—the music crowd and the art matrons, Charleston’s Old Guard and very wealthy new property owners downtown. They are often the very crabbers and hunters at church in deck shoes, but they might well spend the evening in tuxedo and patent pumps, raising money for wildlife or the arts or celebrating their heritage at a society ball. Much of the economic revival in Charleston has centered around the critically acclaimed Spoleto Festival USA, and once again Charleston’s homes are resplendent and her halls full of music and drama. There is a healthy community of writers, and, like the Bubbas and Deborah Annes, all these Sandlappers share an unparalleled sense of place. You might overhear a Geechee and a Brooklynite exchange she-crab soup recipes at the grocery store. A good ol’ boy will identify a pre-Columbian pottery shard from his backyard. We all partake of a ritual julep once a year and go crabbing with a child. And we love this place we call home.
Charleston, South Carolina, is a city of many firsts, and it may well be the first place in America to have developed a distinctive regional cuisine, however elusive that cooking might be today. Founded in 1670, it entered the world at a very exciting time, culinarily speaking: Dom Pérignon had just become cellarmaster at Hautvillers where Champagne was first bottled; French bread as we know it today was allowed on the market; and pineapples were first successfully grown in England that year. And though restaurants would not appear for another hundred years, coffeehouses, all the rage, had been around for about twenty years. It was the hedonistic time of good King Charles, restored to the throne by the planters he made lords and to whom he granted a territory as large as what was already settled in America by the English. Charleston, his namesake, was founded to re-create a miniature aristocratic London in the subtropical world that is the Lowcountry.
And so they came from upper-crust England, second sons of the aristocracy who settled along the Ashley River; and from overcrowded Barbados, with their plantation knowledge. Later, because there was so much land, it was offered to the religious fugitives of Europe; by the mid-eighteenth century 45 percent of the white settlers were French Huguenot and Charleston had the largest Jewish population in the New World. (Charleston is often called the “Holy City” because of its many denominations.) The heaviest influences would come from the tropics, where so many had lived before coming to Charleston, and from West Africa, the homeland of the tens of thousands of slaves who outnumbered the white people two to one and ran the rice plantations that were synonymous with the Lowcountry.
Modern Charleston affords us once again the opportunity to demand, as did its once grand and aristocratic society, the finest the culinary world has to offer. Charleston has always had the port necessary to support those demands. During the Republican period (between the Revolutionary and Civil wars), Charleston was sophisticated in its imitation of British royalty, well traveled and educated, a shopper’s paradise, and, off and on, the richest city in America.
Not unlike today’s “gourmets,” Charlestonians imported the finest olive oils and wines, exotic fruits picked a few days before at the height of ripeness in Cuba, and pickles and plants from the Orient. Salsify and scorzonera and hyssop and sorrel were common garden plants. Many plantation owners grew oranges and lemons, some even building orangeries to house them in winter rather than risk losing them to our occasional hard freezes.
When Sarah Rutledge wrote The Carolina Housewife in 1847, she included German egg dishes, Italian pasta dishes, and fancy French fare in her collection of Carolina foods to be made by the black cooks in the open hearths and brick ovens of the plantations and town houses of the Lowcountry. But she also included the dishes that the black cooks had taught the mistresses of those houses, such as “hopping john” and “bennie soup,” which they probably took for granted. The Carolina Housewife is really a preserving guide aimed at economizing on the bountiful foods of the region. But here we see coconuts, fresh from-the West Indies, entering the vernacular and pickles spiced with Southeast Asian flavors being made from melons, cauliflower, green beans, and peaches. Inventories of the extensive personal libraries kept by Charlestonians at the time reveal many contemporary cooking and gardening titles. By the mid-nineteenth century, when the city was at a building peak rivaled only by that of today’s developers, Charleston had had well over a hundred years of sophistication: by 1754 it boasted the best bookstore in America, with more than fifty thousand volumes (enormous even by today’s standards).
In her classic book on the food of Morocco, Paula Wolfert gives four prerequisites for a great cuisine: a rich land with an abundance of ingredients, a variety of cultural influences, a great civilization, and a refined palace life, where royal kitchens challenge the imagination of cooks. Charleston, as the capital of the Lowcountry, developed a cuisine that would match its grandeur in architecture. That cuisine, possibly alone in America, passes Wolfert’s test. Lowcountry cuisine is inventive and extravagant, and it plays on the incredibly rich bounty of the lush natural surroundings. The cuisine can be seen as a forerunner to many of today’s most popular culinary ideas, with its unprecedented combinations of flavors and ingredients afforded by the spice and slave trade. West Africans in the kitchens threw hot peppers into otherwise bland Scottish soups. Peanuts were combined with shellfish. English preserves took on Caribbean influences, and chutneys were made from all sorts of previously unknown fruits and vegetables here in our subtropical world.
It is a cuisine of the water—of the ocean and marshes and ponds and swamps: delicately smoked mullet and eel; heavenly light crab cakes that are practically all crab, ringed with a sauce reduced from the whole crabs themselves or served with a port-scented tomato catsup from a recipe that is as old as Charleston itself. And it is a cuisine of the Sea Islands, separated for centuries from mainland culture by the salt marshes and rivers, where the fertile former cotton fields now support truck farms of greens, corn, melons, peppers, potatoes, tomatoes, and onions.
It is the food of gardeners who were pioneers of good cooking here and who were growing many items in their Charleston kitchen gardens before Thomas Jefferson is credited with importing them for the first time, years later. And plants that wouldn’t grow north of here, like pomegranates and loquats. And plants that came from here, like Sieva beans (pronounced “sivvy”—the tiniest, most delicious of the butter beans and quite unlike any lima grown elsewhere). It is a cuisine that reflects the many nationalities of settlers who came here seeking religious freedom when Carolina was the most religiously free place in the world (for a white man), and it is a cuisine that draws from the nations visited by the ever-traveling Charleston elite, many of whom were not only friends of Jefferson but also avid gardeners, amateur botanists, and often themselves foreign ministers.
Charles Cotesworth Pinckney, for example, was appointed minister to France in 1796, the year after Monroe. His brother Thomas was minister to England; his wife sent melon seeds to Martha Washington in 1799. El Dorado, his Santee River plantation house north of Charleston, was designed after a French château of the period and was surrounded by orange trees, whose fruits figure heavily in Lowcountry condiments, sauces, and desserts. And many other wealthy and curious Charlestonians such as the Manigaults, the Rhetts, and the Alstons spent years abroad, especially in Italy and France, and their letterbooks are spiced with culinary anecdotes.
The oft-quoted list of supplies for Mrs. Charles Alston’s ball in Charleston in 1851 indicates both the decadent grandeur of the society and the culinary skills of the Lowcountry:
18 dozn plates—14 dozn knives—28 dozn spoons—6 dozn Wineglasses—As many Champaigne glasses as could be collected—4 wild Turkeys—4 hams 2 for sandwiches & 2 for the supper tables, 8 pâtés—60 partridges—6 pr of Pheasants—6 pr Canvassback Ducks—5 pr of our wild ducks—8 Charlotte Russes—4 Pyramids 2 of crystalized fruit & 2 of Cocoanut—4 Orange-baskets—4 Italian Creams—an immense quantity of bonbons—7 dozn Cocoanut rings—7 dozn Kiss cakes—7 dozn Macaroons—4 moulds of Jelly 4 of Bavarian cream—3 dollarsworth of Celery & lettuce—10 quarts of Oysters—4 cakes of chocolate—Coffee—4 small black cakes—
This was fancy party fare that was also served at the many hotels that appeared in the city until the eve of the Civil War. Charleston’s many social, religious, and ethnic organizations—as often as not mere ancestor worship groups—frequently held their banquets and balls in the grand public buildings that had been built after the great fire of 1838. Consider the menu (given verbatim here) offered at the Thirty-Seventh Anniversary Dinner of the New England Society given at the MillsHouse on December 22, 1856.
The grandiose lifestyle of the Lowcountry aristocracy, however, would not last. Harlan Greene has written that “in the twilight of the antebellum era, the city was beginning to resemble the Greek City State, whose role she was fulfilling. She would, with her fall, lead the Carolina Lowcountry and the whole South on to doom, like a heroine in Greek tragedy.” Where there had been this vast wealth and decadence, there was absolute poverty after the Civil War. Nearly everything about Charleston changed, except the ancestor worship and the magnificent buildings that managed to survive. The Lowcountry stayed poor for the better part of a century. After the war and the subsequent abolition of slavery, rice cultivation was gradually eliminated by storms, floods, the silting caused by upriver cotton farming, and the introduction of the grain into other states where rice-harvesting machines too heavy for our soil proved too competitive for our hand labor. Salt marshes reclaimed much of the land. Ricebirds (bobolinks), once common fare on every Charleston table, left the state, seldom to be seen again. And many people as well left the state after the Civil War, seeking opportunities elsewhere. In 1880 Charleston County was 30 percent white. In 1930 it was half white. And by 1970, only 30 percent of the population was black—a total reversal of the former ratio.
We sacrificed our agrarian roots and rural values to the twentieth century, modernization coincidentally appearing as we lost our farms and wealth. We lost the craftsmanship of the kitchen and pantry, along with techniques of smoke-curing and pickling and cow milking. And since printed recipes follow only many years after popular usage—if at all—many of the great antebellum Creole recipes have quite possibly been lost forever. When the Writers’ Project of the Work Projects Administration published its book on South Carolina in 1940, the chapter on cooking began: “Though South Carolina is widely noted for good food, and pride in old recipes is traditional, unfortunately it is hard to find many dishes of local renown on the menus of public eating-places. Only in private homes and at barbecues, turtle suppers, catfish stews, and oyster roasts can one, as a rule, sample the distinctive cookery of the affluent past.”
Nowadays even the turtle suppers have disappeared. To find real Lowcountry food the tourist in Charleston would have to know a hunter or farmer or fisherman or someone here whose family has had a plantation in the area and still does. In other words, only where there has been no break with the past—with the land or the water—do the culinary traditions continue. As I have worked to revive the great food of the Lowcountry, I have often been dismayed by octogenarians who have given me recipes that “have been in the family for generations” and that include such modern bastardizations as margarine—even as they hand me eighteenth-century manuscripts of pudding, pickle, and sauce receipts.
There have been some rather valiant attempts since the “late unpleasantness,” as some Charlestonians still refer to the Civil War, to document Lowcountry cuisine—to get the recipes down on paper before they disappeared forever. They tell a sad tale. The Centennial Receipt Book of 1876 has been attributed to Mary Joseph Waring, from one of the colony’s oldest families. In it we see meat pies, groundnut cakes and candies, myriad puddings, tea cakes, and pickles. But neither pilau—the “national” dish of Carolina—nor hoppin’ john, favorite of master and slave alike, was included in this cookbook, which appeared a mere dozen years after the end of the Civil War.
By the turn of the century some prominent citizens had organized the South Carolina Interstate and West Indian Exposition, hoping to attract worldwide attention to Charleston and to revive its moribund economy, particularly through trade with the Caribbean. Mrs. Samuel G. Stoney compiled the Carolina Rice Cook Book, a hundred-page booklet featuring classic Lowcountry rice recipes that was sold as a souvenir for 25 cents. Some dozen rice brokers and grocers advertise in its endpapers, but rice culture as a way of life and the Carolina Rice Kitchen Association, which published the cookbook, would not last another ten years. As Walter J. Fraser, Jr., has written in Charleston! Charleston!, “A severe hurricane crashed ashore south of the city on August 28, 1911, causing a ‘night of terror’ for Charlestonians. Two people were killed and property losses exceeded $1 million. The winds drove salt water into the lowcountry rice fields and, after more than 200 years, ended forever most of the local cultivation of rice.”
Still, the homemakers persisted. Anne Sinkler Fishburne, writing anonymously as was the custom for Charleston ladies prior to the Nineteenth Amendment, assembled Old Receipts from Old St. Johns around 1919. Her foreword reads:
As the swift shuttle of thought brings before me scenes from the past, there are none that I more love to recall than those which have St. Johns Berkeley for a background. United to one another as we were by the ties of blood and tradition, the outstanding feature of our neighborhood was the true spirit of “hospitality sitting with gladness”! The exchange of delicacies and first fruits of the season was one of the gracious and kindly customs and much skill went into the concocting of dishes sufficiently delectable to tempt the most jaded palate, such as strong chicken and beef broth, real calf’s foot jelly and rusk as defies modern short cuts.
An Epicure sighingly remarked that one of the serious calamities brought about by the surrender at Appomattox was the disappearance of Southern Cookery. Surely this is an exaggeration, but lest it should come true, shall we not endeavor to preserve the recipes which would otherwise soon be but a memory?
A homemade booklet, its covers hand-sewn, of recipes from antebellum plantations in St. Johns Parish in Berkeley County, just north of Charleston, it is filled with actual photographs of some of the plantations in the area, but no chapter on seafood or vegetables!
When the Junior League put together its famous Charleston Receipts in 1950, it did not include any of the thirty recipes (or “receipts,” as they’re still often called here) for rice bread that had appeared in The Carolina Housewife a hundred years earlier. And marsh hens, or clapper rails, a local favorite for three hundred years, appear not at all in the new Junior League cookbook issued in 1986.
Every recipe in this book does not have a written historical antecedent; this is not a definitive book that offers the entire repertory of Lowcountry dishes; they are legion. In my version of Lowcountry cooking I use the philosophies from a bygone era with the traditional foods of the area. I prefer to think of myself as the Lowcountry’s culinary preservationist. And still, there are limitations: as Anne Mendelson has pointed out, “The most important factor in giving food a valid local character—faithful use of good locally raised ingredients—can’t be translated into recipes.” With that in mind, I hope you will get a strong sense of place as you prepare these dishes. I know no better food.