Low Country Cuisine
Food is a major part of a culture’s heritage. It is a way of bringing families together and carrying on traditions. West African influences on African American cooking have not only survived the slave trade they’ve influenced American cooking as a whole. That’s especially true with the regional Low Country Cuisine so popular in Charleston. The food is a mixture of African, Caribbean, European, and Native American influences. These days it’s served in five-star restaurants all over South Carolina. But many patrons of the cuisine don’t know the African history behind it.
When West Africans first came to this country, some of the food items they brought with them included: okra, beef jerky, collard greens, yams, peanuts, rice, black-eyed peas, watermelon, and cornmeal. In fact, “gumbo” is an African word for okra, and “goober” is an African word for peanut.
African slaves mixed the foods they brought over with what was available to them in the low country. Their meals were rice-based – another main food item brought with them from Africa. Thousands of slaves were brought from Africa because of their expertise in rice cultivation. Rice was THE agricultural export of South Carolina during slavery, making it the richest state in the Union behind Massachusetts.
Seafood is another main staple, since Charleston is so close to the coast. The most popular low country breakfast includes shrimp and grits. Many Black natives of South Carolina say low country cooking is really Gullah cooking or their unique version of Soul Food. Which makes sense, when you think of items like corn bread, hoppin’ john, and fried green tomatoes that help make up the cuisine. It’s said that Gullah cooking started out healthy because slaves didn’t have access to much meat, so they ate more fruit and vegetables. But as the pig became more available to them, the cuisine began to increase in fat. In fact, the tradition of deep frying foods came from Africa.
Years ago, Gullah, Geechee, Soul Food and Southern cuisine were served at the Patio Tea room in downtown Charleston. Today, chefs from some of the fanciest restaurants have added their own twists to Low Country dishes like shrimp & grits, red rice & beans, she crab soup, frogmore stew (similar to gumbo), and bread pudding to make it popular with the mainstream. But the majority of chefs who carry on the Gullah tradition are in smaller restaurants where it’s said you’ll find a more authentic version of Low Country cuisine. And if you’re lucky, you might even be invited into a Gullah native’s home for some sho’ nuff Low Country food for the soul!