Have you ever had the pleasure of she-crab soup? Crab bisque, crab chowder and the like are surely not to be sneered at, but they are just handmaidens to the lady crustacean's Lowcountry delicacy.
A liberal splash of sherry cuts a swath through the heavy cream-drenched, crab-studded fish stock, which itself is riddled with a buckshot of tangy, coral-colored crab roe (hence the emphasis on the "she"). It's rich. Good gravy, is it rich and sumptuous and understandably, something of a Charleston obsession.
It's not especially easy to come by, seeing as it's so tightly tethered to blue crab spawning season off the South Carolina coast. So unless you can find a local to take pity on you and ship you some of their stash of Harris cans they've been hoarding for the off-season, you'd be well advised to book a trip to South Carolina in the summer or fall (or both) and consume your body volume in this creamy, dreamy, orange-tinted soup.
The food (ohhhh…the food) has underpinnings in Southern cooking, but is heavily influenced by Carribean and Gullah (Lowcountry natives of African descent) techniques and flavors, as well as its proximity to the water. Crab, shrimp and oysters abound, as do grits and rice and one or some of those are likely to turn up in almost any dish you'll come across.
For instance, there's Frogmore stew, which for better or for worse, contains no actual frog, but rather is named after the low-lying South Carolina town of Frogmore. The eponymous stew - which is also sometimes called Lowcountry boil - is a roil of shell-on shrimp, split crab, corn on the cob and sausages in a peppery seafood stock. Newspaper tablecloths, empty bowls and extra napkins are de rigueur, because sucking, shucking and picking the shellfish is a messy, essential part of the ritual.
You'd be well advised to stumble into a chicken bog or pilau during your Lowcountry rambles. The "bog" in question isn't a swamp full of barnyard fowl, but rather a stew containing long-simmered poultry, sausage, onions and the rice that grows so plentifully in the wetlands. It's thick, seasoned with salt, pepper and bay, and a good deal soggier and "bogged down" with ingredients than the pilau, which is also quite prevalent in the region.
Pilaus aren't just cooped up with chicken; they can have a shrimp, oyster, squab, tomato, okra or other ingredients as a base, and boast a fluffier, drier rice than the standard bog. Some aficionados argue that a bog is a pilau made on a large scale. Others say that's bunk. Some also maintain that it's called perlow, pilaf, perloo or perlau. Consider piping down and eating until everyone's too full to fuss about it.
Shrimp and grits is the stuff of legend, story, sonnet and song, kissed by every culture with foodholds in the corn fields and coastal waters. Grits, if you aren't fortunate enough to have come across them, are hard, dried corn, (often dent or flint corn or hominy) ground into pieces, sifted to remove the cornmeal, and then simmered and stirred, stirred, stirred into a starchy mass not unlike polenta.
Grits are (or "is"; as there exists a long-running debate about the singular or plural nature of the word) a totem of the South. They're served alongside all manner of barbecue, ham, eggs and vegetables throughout the region, and swirled with cheese and butter, or sometimes spiked with hot sauce, sugar or potlikker. They could surely stand alone, but often just happen to come with whatever you happen to dining upon.
And in the Lowcountry, they're for swaddling shrimp. Breakfast, lunch, fishing trip or fancy white linen dinner, there's a place for shrimp and grits, and there are as many variations as there are cooks. One may favor a simple meld of butter, hot sauce and lemon, or sprinkle their bowl with benne seeds (that's the African term for sesame) or a slather of gravy. Others may add in shards of country or fancy up a souffle, but no matter how they're served, the combination of sweet, briny shrimp and creamy grits is just a knockout.
The aforementioned benne seeds pop up all over the menu, but they're given a star turn in the form of benne wafers, which are crisp, sweet, nutty-tasting little cookies sold by the heap around Charleston. They're far too easy to eat by the fistful, and perhaps the only way to stave off an overdose is to preemptively stuff one's face with either a pecan and apple-crammed Huguenot Torte, or bushels or oysters roasted over oak and served on the half-shell with crackers. You'll still want benne seed wafers after that, but perhaps one or two fewer.
Can't make it down right now? That's a pity, but you can go right ahead and get your Lowcountry on at home with these tried and true cookbooks:
Matt Lee and Ted Lee – The Lee. Bros Southern Cookbook: Stories and Recipes for Southerners and Would-be Southerners
Next entry »5@5 - Eat your greens
« Previous entryBox lunch: Colorful appetites and phenomenal parsnips