South Carolina's coast is home to one of the country's richest culinary traditions.
The names of native Lowcountry dishes are almost as colorful as the fresh local ingredients that go into them: she-crab soup, Frogmore stew, and hoppin' John, for instance.
But just what, exactly, is Lowcountry?
According to John Martin Taylor―author of Hoppin' John's Lowcountry Cooking and arguably the foremost authority on the region's cuisine―this area stretches along the South Carolina coast from the Savannah River in Georgia north to Pawley's Island. Inland it encompasses about 80 miles of low-elevation land.
Think saltwater marsh and Spanish moss hanging from live oaks and you're thinking Lowcountry.
The Lowcountry teems with aquatic life, and for centuries local cooks have turned to the water for culinary inspiration. Crabs, shrimp, fish, and oysters form the basis of any traditional menu, and seafood dishes are offered at every meal.
Rice, grits, and the produce of the coastal plain also play an instrumental role in Lowcountry cooking. Rice was introduced by happenstance in the late 17th century and immediately began to thrive in the lush climate. Although rice cultivation ended after the Civil War, it has reemerged in the past two decades. Whether served as a simple side or cooked with tomatoes and other vegetables to make pilau (pronounced PER-low), rice is integral to the region's meals.
The next time you're in Charleston or any of the small towns and islands along the coast of South Carolina, be sure to try one of the following dishes and enjoy a taste of the Lowcountry.
Despite its title, this dish does not contain frog―it gets its name from the tiny coastal South Carolina town of Frogmore. Also known as Lowcountry boil, this stew is a one-pot dish of shrimp, corn-on-the-cob, and spicy sausage all boiled together and then served up on a plate.
Considered by many to be Charleston's quintessential dish, the soup is so named because eggs from the female crab give it a unique taste. This creamy delicacy is almost always flavored with a generous helping of sherry.
Rice cooked with black-eyed peas and a few other basic ingredients make up this essential regional dish. Although it's consumed without fail on New Year's Day in order to bring luck, it can be found on any true Lowcountry menu year-round.
Shrimp and Grits
Whether you're in the mood for a hearty breakfast or a simple one-course dinner, turn to a plate of shrimp and grits. Natives enjoy their grits creamy, topped with shrimp, and smothered in a simple, rich gravy. You will, too.
When French Huguenots came to the Charleston area in the late 17th century, they brought along a favorite dessert. The cake was quickly given a makeover with local ingredients and remains one of the best ways to top off a Lowcountry meal.
If you're interested in delving deeper into the mouthwatering world of Lowcountry cuisine, we recommend the following cookbooks: the widely acclaimed Hoppin' John's Lowcountry Cooking by John Martin Taylor, and Sallie Ann Robinson's Gullah Home Cooking the Daufuskie Way , which includes a forward by Pat Conroy―the Lowcountry's favorite native son.