Charlestonians say that their harbor is located where the Ashley and Cooper rivers come together to form the Atlantic Ocean. Their chauvinism notwithstanding, Charleston is an important port, which sits above the thirty-second parallel, like other famous ports: Nagasaki, Japan’s westernmost harbor; Tel Aviv and Tripoli on the Mediterranean; Casablanca on the Atlantic and San Diego on the Pacific; and Shanghai, with whom she has traded for three hundred years. Seafood is quite naturally an important food.
Fish has come to mean a lot more than it did in early Charleston, with the advent of offshore and deep-sea fishing and with flash-freezers aboard the fishing vessels that now bring denizens of the deep to shore after several days out. It also means farming, so that freshwater catfish, trout, and bass, once enjoyed only by fishermen (strict state wildlife laws prohibit the sales of game—even “farm-raised”—and freshwater fish), are now available to both the home cook and restaurants. Though we have seen the numbers of some fishes decimated, particularly the anadromous species such as sturgeon and herring, the modern world has literally brought formerly unknown fish to our shore, iced and fresh enough that we might enjoy it raw, as sashimi, rather than overcooking, which was the norm in the days before refrigeration and internal combustion. According to publications of the South Carolina Wildlife and Marine Resources Department, the commercial value of finfish has exceeded that of blue crabs, clams, and oysters combined since 1981, largely because of the establishment of a resident fleet of offshore snapper-grouper vessels in 1976.
These are the most contemporary of my recipes, because fish cookery has evolved a more sophisticated, yet simpler style as the varieties available have proliferated. Cobia, for example, is not even mentioned in most fish cookbooks. Taken at offshore buoys, these thirty-pounders have elongated bodies and flattened heads like catfish and shark. I’ll never forget my first sight of a cobia off Edisto when I was nine years old, cabin boy to my father and his cigar-smoking, beer-drinking buddies: tossed about and lightheaded from the roll of the boat, the engine fumes, and tobacco smoke, I immediately sobered in view of that sharklike cobia. The previous summer I had first tasted marlin in Panama, cubed and simply pan-fried in butter. The white, firm flesh of my first cobia was cooked in imitation of that marlin every night that week, and to this day I remember its nutty, sweet richness. This local “crab eater,” a treat to be shared with the finest of friends, is occasionally available.
© 1992 All rights reserved. Published by UNC Press.