An Introduction to Lowcountry Cookin’
For African-Americans and the Gullah Geechee, food has always been an important part of culture. A cook shares some history — and some delicious recipes from home.
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Article and recipes by Amethyst Ganaway. Photos by Brittany Conerly
I grew up in a truly unique part of America, immersed in a very specific southern and creole culture that many people aren't aware of. Recently however, there has been a resurgence of love for the place and its food that I have always called home. That place is Charleston, South Carolina. It’s known as the Lowcountry for the low-lying, marshy land that sits below sea level. It's been enriched by the Atlantic Ocean over thousands of years and also by its residents, making the Lowcountry extremely suitable for growing all sorts of food and the perfect home for fresh seafood and wild game.
While the area is extremely scenic, has been ranked America’s number-one travel destination for many years, and is well known for its restaurants and hospitality, there is a much more nuanced and painful history that often gets overlooked in order to focus on the picturesque vacation areas and Southern charm that tourists love so much.
South Carolina, and Charleston specifically, was the largest slave port for many, many years during the Transatlantic Slave Trade when America was in its early years. Enslaved peoples were brought from West Africa specifically to work the humid, buggy land and grow crops like rice and indigo, making the city, state, and country extremely wealthy. The enslaved peoples, throughout all the extreme hardships they endured, would become an amalgamation of the colonized peoples, the Indigenous peoples, and the various tribes of their homeland. These folks became the people and the culture that we now call the Gullah Geechee.
A culture with a rich culinary heritage
The Gullah Geechee have maintained their cultural practices — art, music, language, religion, and more, but most notably, their food — for hundreds of years. Today the Gullah people span the Gullah Geechee Corridor that runs from the southern coastlines of North Carolina, down the coasts of South Carolina and Georgia, to the northern coast of Florida. Much of the food served in the restaurants in the Lowcountry (and truthfully, in many places around the United States), has roots in southern food, and that’s especially true in Charleston, where much of the techniques and meals that are most loved have roots in African and Gullah Geechee culture.
Braised and long-cooked meats and stews, seafood boils, okra, peanuts, rice, and so much more all owe recognition to the enslaved Africans and their descendants. The following are just a few recipes that remind me of home, ones that have endured for centuries, pay homage to those people who came before me, and make me who I am.
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Ingredients for Lowcountry cooking
Ingredients for Lowcountry cooking, including fresh okra, oysters, sweet potatoes, benne seeds, and crabmeat
There are a few ingredients you’ll commonly see in Gullah cuisine. Okra is a must — many people grow their own and prepare it by freezing or preserving it so that they can have it all year round. Fresh seafood is a must! Water is a huge part of recreational and daily life for anyone in the Lowcountry, and the oceans and streams have always provided an abundance of fresh food.
• Okra. Fresh is always best, but frozen works just as well! If you can get fresh okra look for brightly colored pods that are small; anything bigger than your index finger will probably be dry and woody, and not very good to eat.
• Oysters. In the Lowcountry fresh oysters typically come from the nearby marshes and ocean. They've always been a little sweet and very briny to me, and I love them freshly shucked with hot sauce or lemon juice. We always only ate oysters in months with the letter “R” in the end, so that during the warmer months the oysters could spawn and continue to grow. If you can't find fresh oysters, either refrigerated jars or canned oysters and their liquor will do.
• Crabmeat. Crabbing is one of the first things many people in the Lowcountry learn to do, and while many people use nets or boxes to catch them, most start out learning to catch crabs with a piece of meat tied to string! Blue crabs are the preferred crab of choice in the Lowcountry, and learning to cook and pick one clean is a right of passage. In other parts of the United States, you may have access to fresh Dungeness or snow crab meat (break up very large pieces). Or you can substitute canned crabmeat.
• Benne seed. A type of sesame seed native to West Africa that’s a bit sweeter and more nutty than regular sesame, benne is used as a thickener in soups and gravies and also to add depth of flavor to many of your favorite dishes. You can buy it online from Anson Mills.
• Sweet potatoes. The sweet potatoes we're now used to in southern cooking aren’t the same “yams” commonly used in African cooking, although we often use the terms interchangeably. A hearty vegetable that reminded our ancestors of the tuber they grew at home, sweet potatoes are amongst the favorite starchy sides in most homes. I look for darker colored sweet potatoes with beautiful orange flesh — I even give my mashed sweet potatoes a taste before adding any sugar to them, because they often have enough sweetness on their own.
Let’s start with fried okra
Ingredients for Pecan Crusted Fried Okra, including pecans (shown in pieces and ground with flour and cornmeal), beaten eggs, and fresh okra.
Okra’s origins are disputed, but its roots in Africa are strong. A family member of hibiscus, cotton, and other mallow plants, okra was brought to America by the enslaved Africans who were brought here to build the country. In South Carolina, rice and indigo were the main crops grown for export, but the enslaved peoples grew okra in their personal gardens, ensuring they ate meals similar to what they would have at home. Okra for many people isn't appetizing — its slimy properties tend to turn people away from the green pod — but for me and many people in the Lowcountry, it is just as much loved to us now as it was to the people before us.
I wasn’t much of a fan of fried okra myself for a long time. Maybe it was because it was always under-seasoned and overly breaded, but the first time I had freshly made, super hot fried okra, I became a convert. Cooked until crunchy on the outside and tender (with no slime!) on the inside, then tossed in salt and pepper right when it comes out of the pan, is my personal favorite to enjoy it.
Pecans are another favorite snack in the Lowcountry. I fondly remember friends of the family bringing by bags full of pecans from their yards to share with neighbors. I grew up learning to easily crack the thin shell with my teeth (which in hindsight probably wasn't the best idea), and eating the nutty flesh on the porch when the weather cooled.
I combined my love of both okra and pecans into one easy-to-make snack or appetizer (or meal, if you want!), that is sure to please even the most staunch okra-hater.
Seafood: a way of life
Ingredients for Crab and Oyster Soup, including celery, oysters, cream, chives, crabmeat, and benne seeds
The Lowcountry is a coastal area in the southern part of South Carolina. Barrier islands border the state, acting as shields for the inland parts of the state during hurricane season, and helping with erosion and other environmental issues. All throughout the area are beaches, and salt marshes full of nutrient-rich “pluff” mud, rivers, and streams. Water is everywhere and seafood is a way of life in Charleston and in the Lowcountry. Everyone knows how to pick crab, clean shrimp, shuck oysters, and fry a proper piece of fish.
Shrimp and grits is probably the most popular dish associated with the Lowcountry, and with Charleston in particular, and with our local shrimp and freshly stone-ground grits, it’s no wonder why. Another popular dish is she crab soup, made with local blue crab (only the females), and their delicious bright red roe. This next recipe, however, is one of my own.
Growing up, cooler weather meant oyster season: Oyster roasts over huge kettles of fire, with friends and family, were one of the best ways to bring an end to crab season and marked the beginning of the holidays. Oyster soup, however, has also always been a traditional meal in the Lowcountry, although not in my Rolodex of recipes until relatively recently.
Doing research to dig deeper into our culinary heritages brought many, many recipes of crab and oyster soups, and they were always very similar, so I decided to combine two delicate types of seafood and make some adjustments to fit a modern person's palate.
Benne is a type of sesame native to West Africa, also brought by the enslaved to the Lowcountry, and it was once commonly grown in Gullah Geechee gardens. Today benne seed has seen a resurgence as Chef BJ Dennis and Anson Mills founder Glenn Roberts have championed its growth. It’s used in a multitude of ways, but especially as a thickener in soups and gravies. To me, benne is a bit sweeter and a bit more nutty than the average sesame seed you’ll find on the grocery store shelf. And when it is toasted, the flavors of the tiny seeds seem to make a huge impact, adding umami to any dish it’s in while not being overbearing. Here, they are used simply as a garnish along with chives to help round out and brighten this otherwise dairy-heavy but delicate seafood dish. But feel free to finely grind some benne seeds and add more to the soup for a more powerful punch of flavor.
BBQ chicken without the barbecue
Ingredients for chicken bbq sauce, including brown sugar, blackstrap molasses, ketchup, garlic powder and black pepper, and paprika and cayenne
Barbeque chicken always reminds me of the South. Whether it's summer and the air is sticky with humidity, or whether it’s winter and there’s a chill in the air (it never really gets cold in the Lowcountry), barbeque is one thing that brings friends and family together around the dinner table. South Carolina is known for its mustard-based barbeque, but for me, nothing is better than sticky sweet, smoky, smothered spicy chicken made with a little molasses and tomato. However, it wasn't until very recently I obtained a kettle grill, and when the weather gets cooler, I’m not much of a fan of going outside to fire it up. So over the years, I perfected my own barbeque sauce and figured out a way to make my favorite chicken in the oven, for a meal with a lot less mess and work.
While this is not a Gullah recipe, barbeque has always been a part of not only Gullah Geechee heritage, but of all Black Southerners' experiences, especially our communal way of eating and gathering. This bbq is quick and easy, and will fill your house with wafting smells of smoky barbeque that will hopefully remind you of cookouts with your friends and family the way it does for me.
A new spin on a southern sweet potato dessert
Ingredients for Sweet Potato Pone Souffles, including sweet potatoes, cinnamon, eggs, and butter
In the South, sweet potato pie is the pie of choice during the holidays, and everyone in every southern state claims to have the best recipe out there. The Lowcountry is no different. Only certain people whose pies have been deemed worthy are allowed to bring a pie to the house for the holiday — making one is a right of passage, and everyone has some secret trick to their pies to make them unique. For me though, most pies are too stringy and either way too sweet, over-spiced, or underwhelming and not sweet enough. And I wanted to have something similar on the table for the holidays without all of the work.
Growing up I always heard my grandmother talking about “sweet potato pone,” known by her mother as “sweet potato poon.” At some point, pone (a kind of a buttery dessert casserole, if you’re not familiar with it) was mostly known as its own thing made separately from any pie, but in my family, it was always the leftover sweet potato pie mixture baked in a dish.
Now that I'm older, I figured out how to combine the spiced flavors I love in a sweet potato pie filling with the ease of a pone, and add some whipped egg whites to create individual souffles. While souffles have an intimidating reputation, I assure you, this version is easy to pull off and will rise to any occasion.
Explore the stories and flavors of the South
If you enjoyed learning about the heritage and delicious flavors of Lowcountry cooking, how about a helping of some more southern favorites?