The American Lowcountry embodies the coastal regions of South Carolina and Georgia—10,000 square miles of rich marshland flush with oysters and more plant species than all of Europe, says John Martin Taylor, culinary historian and author of Hoppin’ John’s Lowcountry Cooking. And from this fertile territory is a subset of Southern cooking rich in one-pot stews, heaps of seafood, and an abundance of long-grain rice.
A South Carolina native, Taylor has been studying the region for the last three decades, but his initial draw to its history was by complete accident. “Living in the Caribbean during the ’70s was when I first became aware of the similarities of the cooking there and in South Carolina,” he says. “And when I came home to the States, I found that the food of my childhood had begun to disappear, and I began doing culinary research. It wasn’t that I set up to be a champion of the cuisine. I just had a column in the local paper and started writing about it, and before long, others started to catch up.”
Like most branches of Southern cuisine, Lowcountry is a hodgepodge of international influences: African, French, English, and Caribbean alike. Taylor describes it as Creole cooking with a heavier African influence (as evidenced by the okra, eggplants, and benne used in dishes) than that of other Creole locales.
To make sense of it all, we asked Taylor to break down the key characteristics of South Carolinian Lowcountry cuisine, parse out its origins, and explain how chefs like Sean Brock are preserving its legacy.
Illustrations by Albert Hsu
The Lowcountry extends 80 miles to the Atlantic Seaboard Fall Line, where rivers falling into the sea make their last dive. The subtropical climate gives it a longer growing season than its neighbors, and early settlers took advantage of that by producing rice, indigo, and cotton in mass quantities.
Taylor’s focus is on the South Carolinian portion of the Lowcountry—specifically Charleston—which is indisputably the capital of the Lowcountry (thanks to its 500,000 acres of wetlands, salt marshes, swamps, creeks, lakes, ponds, and former rice fields). Generally speaking, the food is based in French and English cooking traditions, but the subtropical environs allows for the integration of plants and ingredients that can’t be found in either of those. The African influence, Taylor notes, is integral as well. Slaves carved the rice plantations along the banks of the Lowcountry’s rivers.
“Nowhere in America did the cooking of master and slave combine so gracefully as it did in the Lowcountry kitchen,” he writes in his book. “Hoppin’ John, our bean and rice pilau, which we eat on New Years’ Day, is daily fare in the rice lands of West Africa.”
Of all the crops in the region, none is as important as long-grain rice. “Slaves were brought into the area by the tens of thousands, and with them came plants from West Africa and knowledge of marsh cultivation of rice,” Taylor writes.
For 200 years, the economy was based largely on the grain, and the ingredient is evident in some of the region’s most iconic dishes like shrimp pilau (or pilaf), Hoppin’ John, beans and rice, and various stews.
“Rice was what built the fortunes,” Taylor says. “Rice wasn’t just for dinner either. Traditionally, it was eaten for breakfast.”
If you look back at old cookbooks, you’ll see recipes for broiled squirrel, possums, and potted birds. Those dishes are long gone from modern Lowcountry cuisine, but the philosophy remains the same: “If you got it, you cook it,” Taylor says. “There’s a focus on good, locally used ingredients.”
Jerusalem artichokes are popular, along with hard local pears, okras, and peaches.
“It’s hard to translate Lowcountry cooking into recipes for this reason.” Taylor says. “It’s more about using what you have.”
Because of the climate in the Lowcountry, pickling and canning evolved as ways to preserve the bounty of produce.
“The real hallmark of the cuisine is the vast array of condiments,” Taylor says. “Because of the subtropical climate, you have to find ways to preserve things. Virtually every meal has chutneys. You serve it with roast game and meat. There are all sorts of mixed pickles and relishes.”
Fruits are also widely used. Figs, which established themselves in the Lowcountry after the Spaniards brought them there in the 16th century, make delicious sweet fig conserves. Peaches are spiced and used in place of cranberries. Tomatoes are popular, as well as watermelon lime preserves.
“There’s always some type of condiment at nearly every meal.” Taylor says.
Oysters and Seafood Culture
The seafood culture is strong and continues to flourish with the advent of off-shore fishing. Grilling is the most preferred method of cooking fish in the Lowcountry, with a light sprinkling of salt, pepper, and olive oil. Fried fish is done with freshwater varieties like catfish.
“If shrimp are the backbone, then crab and oysters are the heart and soul of Lowcountry cooking.” Taylor writes.
Taylor calls Lowcounty oysters the best in the world. “The oysters here grow in clusters because they aren’t cultivated. They’re wild,” he says. “You throw them on top of a roast until the hinges are loosened.” They’re eaten with cocktail sauce or melted butter, and the roast is a do-it-yourself affair. Everyone is expected to bring his or her own oyster knife and gloves.
Another iconic dish, Frogmore “stew,” was named after a Sea Island settlement. “In the early 20th century, Frogmore was the site of booming caviar and diamondback terrapin businesses,” he writes. “This seafood boil is usually served on paper plates around newspaper-covered picnic tables.”
Like most Southern cuisines, Lowcountry is comfort food, best eaten in the warm familiarity of someone’s home. It’s centered around large, one-pot meals like gumbos, catfish stew, shrimp and grits, benne-oyster soup, and seafood boils.
“The national perception of what Lowcountry cuisine is determined mostly by what people eat in Charleston,” Taylor says. “But what is done in restaurants in Charleston is very different from what’s done at home. It’s hard to do one-pot dishes like shrimp pilau at a restaurant because the shrimp will overcook. The versions at restaurants will often involve finishing the shrimp off on the grill at the very last minute and putting it on as garnish. Customers want a beautiful plate.”
When Taylor first started writing about the Lowcountry food scene, it had nearly diminished. Today, quite the opposite is happening.
“There used to be 30 Lowcountry restaurants in Charleston and now there are 400,” he says. Taylor cites chef Philip Bardin of The Old Post Office Restaurant and Sean Brock of Husk Restaurant as major players in its revival.
“I’m glad to see more of the condiments coming back into play,” Taylor says. ”The chefs today are also making a concerted effort to use fresh local and traditional ingredients. To understand the Lowcountry, you have to know what is available and what has always been there. Fresh and local are terms that are always going to define the cuisine.”