With Thanksgiving just around the corner, Lowcountry tables will be filled with locally-sourced food traditions, from briny oysters and shrimp to Hoppin’ John and red rice. Here’s a look at some food history and traditions from Chapter 7 of our new book, 350 Facts About Charleston.
Lowcountry’s oysters are a briny delicacy
Connoisseurs of oysters often believe the salty, just-right-sized clusters hammered from the marshes of the Lowcountry are among the world’s best. Culinary wizards Matt and Ted Lee say they’re the flavor of the Lowcountry, describing roasting oysters over a wood fire as the quintessential Charleston experience — “the outdoor, rustic-as-heck, shuck-your-own roast is the thing, and it says a lot about Charleston’s paradoxes and contrasts that the same ease and grace will be brought to an oyster roast as to high holidays with family.” The Lowcountry Oyster Festival tentatively is scheduled for the end of January.
The Lowcountry’s long history of oystering
Visitors to the Holy City in recent years have been able to enjoy both “R” month oyster roasts and year-round singles at area raw bars and restaurants. The wild oyster population is not what it once was, though. From the late 1880s to just after World War II, the oyster industry had its heyday and was South Carolina’s most valuable fishery — in 1902, oysters were responsible for 45 percent of the value of all South Carolina fisheries. From 1900 to 1935, oyster canneries grew in number, employing thousands of workers and processing most of the state’s oysters to then be shipped to many parts of the world. The primary oyster industry centers were located in Bluffton, Beaufort, Port Royal, Folly Beach, Awendaw and McClellanville.
Hoppin’ John is more than rice and peas
Hoppin’ John means two things to Charlestonians. First, it’s a rich mixture of two Lowcountry kitchen staples — rice and black-eyed peas — that reflects the region’s culinary heritage, which stemmed from the pots and traditions of enslaved Africans. The dish is often flavored with spicy sausage, bacon, ham or pork fat, with some recipes adding onions, fresh tomatoes and seasonings. Residents of Charleston also know “Hoppin’ John” to be a nickname for culinary writer and historian John Martin Taylor, who ran the culinary bookstore Hoppin John’s in Charleston from 1986 to 1999. Taylor played a crucial role in educating people across the South about the importance of traditional Southern dishes and high-quality, authentic ingredients. Today, he operates an online store.
Charleston’s Gullah cuisine offers more than red rice
Charleston is smack dab in the historic Gullah Geechee Corridor, which spans from North Carolina to Florida. This National Heritage Area has been designated by Congress as a place where “natural, cultural, and historic resources combine to form a cohesive, nationally important landscape.” The foodways of the Gullah Geechee, intrinsic to Lowcountry history, started in West Africa. The Gullah Geechee people are descendants of Africans who were enslaved on the plantations growing rice, indigo and Sea Island cotton. The enslavement on the region’s isolated islands helped the men and women to maintain and transform a distinct culture of food, art, music, and language. Today, those visiting the Holy City can eat true Gullah food at restaurants like Bertha’s, Hannibal’s and Ravenel Seafood. These establishments are known for dishes like fried shrimp, garlic crabs, red rice, fried chicken, baked macaroni, lima beans and cornbread.
Charleston’s 18th century denizens ate beef, not turkey, for the holidays
While most modern Thanksgiving and Christmas meals involve some kind of large cooked bird, a nice cut of beef was just the thing in the 1700s for wealthy Charleston families. According to Drayton Hall’s Wood Family Fellow Jenna Carlson, “calves’ heads were often the fare of 18th century elite in both the Lowcountry and Chesapeake.” Carlson reported that the wife of a planter, Harriott Pinckney Horry, included a recipe for dressing a calf’s head in her recipe book. It called for “placing half of the head in the center of the platter and dressing it with a stewed concoction made with the other half of the head.” Yummy?
How barbecue tasted in colonial times
Though there aren’t many references to barbecue in the early days of the Carolinas, by the early 1770s, Charleston merchant William Richardson encountered his first taste of the low and slow cooking at a horse race in Camden, S.C. In a letter to his wife back home, Richardson wrote about his experience, which was apparently unlike anything he’d been privy to in Charleston: “I absolutely saw one lady devour a whole Hog head except the bones, don’t tell this to any of your squeemish C Town ladies for they will not believe you, had some of them been near our feast & their appetites Gorged with what you in town call delicases (but what we Crackers dispise) they perhaps might think us cannibals & with some propriety they might think, if the could suppose a half rosted hog, with the blood running out at every cut of the Knife, any thing like human flesh but ye squeemish C Town ladies I would not have ye think our buxom Cracker wenches so degenerate!”
Charlestonians have always loved to drink wine
Martha Zierden, curator of historical archaeology at the Charleston Museum, has uncovered archaeological proof over the years that Charlestonians have always been in good spirits. Literally. Excavations along the waterfront were “particularly loaded” with shards of green glass and remnants of heavy glass bases and hand-formed necks. Sealed wine bottles told an even greater tale of who was sipping: the museum’s 2008 South Adger’s Wharf dig produced a bottle with a “Laurens” seal, which Zierden says likely came from the cellar of wharf co-owner John Laurens. And as for the content of the bottle? Most likely Madeira wine, hailing from the Atlantic island of Madeira, “ideally situated for the trans-Atlantic trade.”
Former food editor Mary Scott Hardaway and publisher Andy Brack contributed to this story.