The real lowdown on Low Country

Cuisine: South Carolina cooking style reflects the traditions and tastes of colonists and others who settled in Charleston.

April 25, 2001|By Marlene Parrish | Marlene Parrish,LOS ANGELES TIMES SYNDICATE

Real Low-Country cooking is hard for a tourist to experience. If you don't get invited into a private home, you might never taste this unique cuisine of South Carolina, except for perfunctory renditions of shrimp, rice and grits on restaurant menus.


It is a casualty of modern society and its homogenized tastes. Blame television and the food chains, and blame the bridges for allowing trucks to cart nonlocal foodstuffs into an area that for many years was set apart.

But Low-Country cooking is as much a state of mind as a regional cuisine. And if you look hard enough, you can find it. I learned a little about Low-Country cooking from John Martin Taylor. He's considered by many to be the foremost spokesman for the cuisine and the native foods of the area.

Taylor, also known as "Hoppin' John," is a slight man, energetic and charismatic. He's the only person I've ever met who can drawl "aw, shucks," and be taken seriously. You'd hardly suspect that he's a historian, linguist, author and food scholar as well as teacher and entrepreneur. His first cookbook, "Hoppin' John's Lowcountry Cooking," published in 1992, is already a classic.

First, look at a map. The South Carolina Low Country is unique among the Atlantic coastal regions. The subtropical area is a narrow coastal plain that runs inland about 80 miles, bordering on Georgia to the west. With Charleston as its capital, the area is rich in history. American plantation society began in the Low Country, where it flourished.

The Low Country is a fusion of populations. The seaport of Charleston was settled by English and French colonists. Mediterranean, Creole and West Indies people added their traditions and tastes to that mix. Slaves from West Africa arrived, bringing seeds, plants and a knowledge of marsh cultivation of rice. Because the blacks did all of the cooking on the plantations, the developing cuisine reflected West African seasonings and stewpot cooking. It's the nuances of these combinations that make up the character of Low-Country cooking.

The market basket holds many foods, but mostly it's a cuisine of the water - shrimp, oysters, crabs, porgy and catfish. There are also chicken, duck, game birds, pork, sausage and smoked ham plus rice, grits, corn, greens, melons, okra, beans and root vegetables, along with fragrant peaches, figs and melons. A vast array of condiments, pickles and relishes is the hallmark of the cuisine. Salad greens are hardly ever served, and except for frozen creams in desserts, dairy products are conspicuous by their absence.

"You won't find a dizzying array of courses in a Low-Country meal," says Taylor. More often than not, it's a plate of seasonal foods with a spoonful of condiment. Breakfast and supper foods are interchangeable. Many of the foods can appear as either sweet or savory. Sweet potatoes and peanuts, for example, are all found in soups, main dishes and desserts.

"Shrimp are the backbone of Low-Country cooking. We have shrimp all year round. While the rest of the world eats pasta and potatoes, we eat grits or rice with every meal. In the days of the rice plantations, the Low Country was rice. Most soups and stews are poured into bowls holding a mound of rice. And there are countless recipes for rice snacks, breads, salads and desserts."

Hoppin' John, Taylor's namesake, is the "national dish" of Charleston. It's made of cowpeas - dried local field peas - and rice. It's served with a plate of greens cooked with a hog jowl and plenty of corn bread.

Marlene Parrish is a cookbook author and food writer based in Pittsburgh. She is a 2000 James Beard Foundation Journalism Award winner.

Skillet Corn Bread

This corn bread is typically Southern, with no sugar and no wheat flour. No self-respecting Southern cook would make it in anything but a never-washed, well-seasoned, cast-iron skillet to obtain a golden-brown crust.

Makes 8 to 10 servings

1 large egg

2 cups buttermilk

1 3/4 cups cornmeal

1 1/2 to 2 teaspoons bacon grease

1 scant teaspoon baking powder

1 scant teaspoon salt

1 scant teaspoon baking soda

Mix egg and buttermilk in medium bowl. Add cornmeal and beat it well into batter, which will be thin. Place enough bacon grease in 9- or 10-inch, cast-iron skillet to coat bottom and sides with thin film. Place skillet in cold oven and begin preheating oven to 450 degrees. When ready, bacon grease should be just at point of smoking.

Add baking powder, salt and baking soda to batter and beat well. Pour batter all at once into hot pan. Bake 15 to 20 minutes or until top of corn bread just begins to brown. Turn out onto plate and serve with lots of fresh butter.

Adapted from "Hoppin' John's Lowcountry Cooking" by John Martin Taylor, Bantam Books

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