Lowcountry classics: 5 iconic cuisines born in and around Charleston
On Sunday, Parade magazine celebrates the stories behind 12 all-American classic foods in a story, “What America Eats: Born in the USA.”
From corn dogs to Whoopie pies and chimichangas, food writers Jane and Michael Stern reveal the interesting past of where and how many of these foods originated.
But not one Lowcountry dish made the cut. So we've come up with our own list of five iconic local dishes and how they came to be.
A stew with a intriguing name like Frogmore is bound to attract attention. So what's the story behind the sausage, corn and shrimp boil?
Frogmore, a community on St. Helena Island in Beaufort County, was abolished as a postal address in the 1980s. The name lives on for locals as well as for the stew, although the stew goes by other names, too: Beaufort Stew or just plain Lowcountry Boil.
It's not a particularly old recipe, going back no more than 60 years ago and more likely 40 to 50, according to the Beaufort County Library.
Richard Gay of Gay Seafood Company takes credit for inventing Frogmore Stew. He claims that when on National Guard duty in the early 1960s and flush with fresh shrimp, he began boiling the shellfish with corn and sausage. It was easy, tasty and would feed a crowd quickly. Fellow guardsmen teased Gay about being from Frogmore, and the name became attached to the stew.
There are variations in ingredients but most often the stew is prepared with chunks of big link smoked sausage, corn on the cob, fresh shrimp in the shell and a spicy seafood seasoning mix.
Shrimp and grits gets the glory, but the she-crab soup created in Charleston has the “guts.”
Jack Denton Scott penned an article about the soup for a pamphlet given out by Everett's restaurant circa 1960. The soup became Everett's signature dish because the restaurant had hired its inventor, William Deas, as chef. Deas' special touch was adding the female crab's roe to the pot.
Crab roe isn't likely to be found in modern-day versions of this cream soup. But do expect a generous amount of crab and don't settle for soup that's too thick or pasty.
In other words, treat the lady with respect.
Hoppin' John is a Lowcountry tradition that goes back to at least the early 1800s. The dish is served on New Year's Day to ensure good luck for the year ahead.
It's a combination of field peas with rice, usually seasoned with some form of pork. Food historians say it's a dish with African roots, possibly with French and Caribbean connections.
As for the funny name, some speculate it came from the old custom of inviting guests to eat with the request to “hop in, John.” Academics suggest “Hoppin' John” is a corruption of foreign words, such as “pois de pigeon,” French for “pigeon peas.”
At any rate, it's not wise to start the new year without Hoppin' John. Now, to make it Charleston-proper, DO NOT substitute black-eyed peas (pictured) for field peas. Or don't breathe a word to a native if you do.
Benne wafers are sold all over Charleston. Dating back to Colonial times, they are seldom if ever seen anywhere else.
Sesame seeds are the star of these very thin, crispy cookies. The seeds have a nutty, sweet aroma and a milky, buttery taste. When toasted, their flavor intensifies and gives the cookies notes of caramel.
Planted extensively throughout the South, benne gave rise to a number of local specialties that have disappeared. Thankfully, the wafers live on.
There are few ingredients, only butter, brown sugar, eggs, baking powder, flour, benne and vanilla. Still, the texture can be vexing for bakers.
Shrimp and grits
To non-natives, the Lowcountry's most famous dish seems like an odd couple at first. Shrimp, America's most popular seafood, with grits, the South's most maligned food. But the pairing works amazingly well.
Where did shrimp and grits come from? It may have been circumstantial, as some suggest, a custom born on boats when fishermen were hungry for breakfast and shrimp was at hand. At least one Charleston chef theorizes the genesis was with native Indians, way before the white men arrived from Europe.
The most basic recipes call only for small, sweet shrimp sauteed in butter and served over grits. Recipes now favor adding ham, mushrooms, tomatoes, garlic, Swiss cheese — the whatever-fancies-the-chef approach.
The important point about shrimp and grits is to always let the main ingredients speak for themselves, above all else.