The misconception that southern cooks have always overcooked their vegetables continues, despite a large amount of evidence to the contrary. The overcooking and oversalting that are often associated with the South in fact arrived along with poverty after the Civil War, when the Lowcountry lost many of its farms and its people began to depend on bland dried and canned goods. But antebellum cookbooks, diaries, and farm journals note in no uncertain terms precise gardening techniques and short cooking times for nearly all the green vegetables. I dare say there’s not a vegetable grown today that early Sandlappers did not themselves cultivate, and with relish.
The Deas family daybook, in the collection of the Historical Society of South Carolina, was written in the Lowcountry sometime prior to 1749. Its precious yellowed pages mention several varieties of cabbages and beans, spinach, salsify, black salsify, onions, beets, melons, cucumbers, peas, strawberries, artichokes, leeks, radishes, cresses, various greens, peppers, turnips, carrots, and virtually every herb.
In no season is the Lowcountry table without fresh local vegetables. Green beans grow a full ten months some years. Collards are available in all but the hottest months. Our subtropical climate produces two seasons of summer vegetables such as beans, corn, and tomatoes. Yet in many of the older cookbooks, and particularly in unpublished private manuscripts and journals, vegetables—like seafood—are conspicuously absent. It was assumed that you already knew how to prepare this daily fare.

Salads are absent as well, but both household inventories and shipping records in Charleston indicate a long love affair with olive oil. In spite of British embargoes that prohibited the colony’s trade with other nations, earthen jars from the Mediterranean have been discovered in several archaeological digs here, belying their success. When John Bartram, the great naturalist, visited the home of Henry Laurens in 1765, he found a “fine growing young olive tree, very luxuriant, 15 foot high; the diameter of the bows 15½ foot; circumference of the bole 13½ inches,” but the soil would prove too rich for the trees to produce.

Lemon juice or sherry vinegar traditionally complements the olive oil as the dressing for salad greens. I finely slice freshly dug sweet radishes, then leave them to marinate in olive oil, lemon juice or vinegar, and salt and pepper, adding them to a bed of clean, crisp lettuce leaves just as they are served. Salad greens must be washed and perfectly dried before dressing, or the oil will not cling to them. The modern-day salad spinner is one of the kitchen’s best tools. Buy the centrifuge kind that has a string pull; it washes and dries the greens at the same time: a hole in the top lets running water in; holes in the bottom allow the water to run out.

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