Contrary to my Southern Appalachian roots, I believed grits to be a tasteless cause. But I suspected there might be more to rice than gravy. I was proved both wrong and right in the Lowcountry.
This area was once ruled by rice, and vestiges of the plantations where it grew remain today. Combined with tomatoes, onions, herbs, and chicken or seafood, rice here becomes pilau (PER-low, a derivation of the word pilaf). Cook the grains with cow peas or black-eyed peas, and you have hoppin' John. Corn milled into grits and flavored with plenty of cream turns into a luscious pillow for fresh shrimp.
Charleston, South Carolina, set me on my gastronomic journey. Right after my first taste of she-crab soup, the city's quintessential dish, I knew I'd been living in the wrong place. I envied John Martin Taylor, who can't think of a time he didn't know how to throw a cast net to catch shrimp and mullet. "My mother used to hand me a net and say, 'Go get lunch,' " recalls the area native.
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A cookbook author and self-described Lowcountry culinary preservationist, John is an authority on the area's cuisine. He says, "You can trace some of the recipes going from Malaysia to India, to Madagascar to South Africa, to West Africa, and straight to Charleston with the slave trade." Asked about gumbo, he says, "People think of it as a Louisiana dish, but both the dish and the word were here before Louisiana was settled."
The word gumbo is derived from the African word for okra. I remember that when I step inside a roadside store and listen to Pink Brown tell a customer what she needs to make okra soup. I watch as she helps weigh tender green pods to go with the onions, tomatoes, and bell peppers on the counter.
Fresh and Simple
Pink and her father operate George & Pink Fresh Vegetables, which has been an Edisto Island, South Carolina, fixture for 30 years. And chef Philip Bardin is one of their top customers.
Philip is coproprietor, along with David Gressette, of The Old Post Office, a fabulous nearby restaurant. It's worth the hour drive to get there from Charleston. The menu includes Firecracker Flounder and the best shrimp and grits this side of heaven. "You don't have to use 15 new ingredients that come from all over the world," Philip says. "You can use what's right here."
Melon Bluff Party
Frogmore stew, or what some call Lowcountry boil, is a simple one-pot dish that features shrimp and corn on the cob along with various other ingredients that depend on the cook. It fits perfectly into the salt marsh setting at Melon Bluff Plantation, south of Savannah. Laura Devendorf and daughter Meredith welcome overnight guests to Melon Bluff, part of which has been in their family since 1735. They also put on a great Lowcountry boil, which includes a side of hoppin' John made with Seminole peas, an old-fashioned, indigenous pea that they grow and sell.
Down Daufuskie Way
Sallie Ann Robinson, who grew up on remote Daufuskie Island, South Carolina, also keeps it simple. She says, "I like plain salt and pepper, because that's how we grew up. We didn't have all those extra spices." Friends convinced Sallie Ann to write a cookbook, Gullah Home Cooking the Daufuskie Way, and her former teacher, author Pat Conroy, penned the forward. "I love to cook," she says. "And I love sharing it."
This article is from the Favorites 2005 issue of Southern Living.