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Friday, April 3, 2015

Getting High on Low Country Cuisine

Shrimp & Grits is one of the Low Country's signature dishes

I have been in the East Coast’s “Low Country” for the last week with a Wine-Knows tour.  There’s a whole world of flavor packed into the nearly 100 mile area (known as Low Country) between the cities of Charleston and Savannah.  While I had visited both destinations recently, this time I hired local foodie experts and chefs to lead us through a tasting of the best of these two delectable cities.  Here are some fascinating details our group learned about the effect Africa has had on their intriguing regional cuisine.

African slaves had a profound influence on today’s Low Country gastronomy.  Charleston was ground zero for America’s slave industry---40% of enslaved Africans brought into this country came through the Charleston Harbor.  While these slaves were sold around the entire South to supply the plantation industry with cheap labor, many remained in South Carolina and adjacent Georgia. 

Slaves were the cooks on plantations and in private well-to-do homes.  They also tended their master’s gardens.  As the African climate was similar to that of the Southern colonies, slaves were well versed in what types of foods grew best in the heat and humidity.  Furthermore, slaves brought some food items with them that were unknown to the colonists.  Peanuts, for example, were brought on slave ships and became an important staple for slaves.  Americans had never seen them and the legumes weren’t well received.  Used as food for the slaves, the poor and for animals, peanuts were only used by the general public after the Civil War. 
Below are other foods, synonymous with today’s Southern cuisine, that have slave roots:

~ Black-eyed peas:   widely used in Africa, these legumes were brought on ships with slaves.  Thriving in intense heat and requiring little water, they adapted beautifully to the South’s climate.

                       Black-eyed pea salad made during our cooking class at the Forsyth Mansion

~ Greens:  A variety of wild greens were prevalent in Africa where they were cooked with meat.  American slaves had meager rations of food and often had to make the most of discards…or turn to wild greens (e.g. collards).  Beets and turnips were grown in most gardens but their greens were thrown away.  Thus, the invention of one of the South’s greatest dishes.

~ Grits:  While grits are pure American (made from dried corn), it is very similar to an African dish that is dried and ground.

~ Gumbo:  Gumbo is a slave word for “okra” (which is native to Africa). 

~ Rice:   Evidence indicates that Africans have grown rice since 1500 BC.  Slaves were often stolen from African rice fields to be sold in America where their skills of water management, soil and milling techniques were invaluable to the colonists.  The Low Country’s tidal flow with islands and inlets were perfect of rice growing.  So perfect, in fact, that South Carolina’s economy was second only to Massachusetts prior to the Civil War.

                               An ethereal pudding made from “Carolina Gold” rice

~ Yams:  These important vegetables were used on slave ships to provide sustenance for the arduous voyage at sea. 

~ Watermelon:  Ancient Egyptian tomb paintings show that this fruit has been cultivated since prehistoric times.  Native to Africa, watermelon was used as a source of water in the dessert.  Slaves planted them in the New World to survive the South’s intense heat during summers.

~ BBQ:  Last but not least, tantamount to modern day “soul food” is BBQ.  Slaves brought with them the African tradition of roasting a variety of meats over wood, and then serving them with a thick dipping sauce.

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