She-crab soup, shrimp and grits, benne seed wafers and the lowdown on Lowcountry cuisine
January 20th, 2012
04:00 PM ET
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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.

Yes, it's cruel to talk about this right now, so let's move on to a few less weather-dependent Lowcountry delights. And oh, right - Lowcountry. That's roughly the southeast segment of the state along the coastline (there's a certain degree of dispute about borders, but let's say south at the Savannah River in Georgia, north to Pawley's Island and 80 miles inland from all that), mostly at or below sea level, hence the "low country" moniker. Imagine boot-sucking salt marshes and live oak trees draped spookily in Spanish moss and you're definitely in the right state of mind.

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
The Junior League of Charleson – Charleston Receipts
Nathalie Dupree with Marion Sullivan – Nathalie Dupree's Shrimp & Grits Cookbook

And yes, there's plenty of barbecue in South Carolina, but that's a whole 'nother article.

See all South Carolina Primary coverage on CNN Politics and all campaign trail food on Eatocracy



soundoff (75 Responses)
  1. Pan seared salmon
    May 13, 2013 at 1:14 pm |
  2. RyanH

    As a lifelong SC resident and a 15+ year Lowcountry resident, just reading this article makes my mouth water. However, I offer one minor correction: chicken bog is good down here but the best, truest chicken bog in the state is made in the Pee Dee, not the Lowcountry. (The Pee Dee is basically the northeast part of the state (including Myrtle Beach), centered on Florence, and borders the Lowcountry.) It's actually pretty difficult, in my opinion, to find proper chicken bog in the Charleston area.

    January 23, 2012 at 1:49 pm |
    • JP

      I'd have to agree with you there. The Pee Dee has some epic chicken bog.

      January 23, 2012 at 4:04 pm |
    • MNE9581

      Ryan,
      As a Pee Dee area native, I couldn't agree more.

      January 24, 2012 at 4:00 pm |
    • Kat Kinsman

      Duly noted! My parents are about to move to South Carolina. I will have to do some exhaustive research.

      January 25, 2012 at 10:13 pm |
  3. Rebecca

    I grew up on Wrightsville Beach in North Carolina and we are kissin cousins to our 'South". This article is right on, except you did leave out southern iced tea and South Carolinian crab salad. You also made me think of the many many times through all these years that I have spent in the low country sharing great food with great friends. Thank you.

    January 23, 2012 at 1:30 pm |
  4. Kathy Stumm-Bogale Calgary Alberta

    Always interested in trying a new soup recipe!

    January 22, 2012 at 5:50 pm |
  5. Dan

    Nice work:
    moniker*
    aficionados*
    aforementioned*

    January 22, 2012 at 12:30 am |
    • Schoolmarm

      I am so, so sorry that you never got to go to the prom, Dan.

      January 25, 2012 at 11:47 pm |
  6. One Armed Paper Hanger

    Oh Great, Now I have to worry about She Crabs too.

    January 21, 2012 at 6:59 am |
  7. Johnny Orlando

    Pick any state in the South and you will get good food.

    January 21, 2012 at 2:58 am |
    • Booger

      Yeah, like liver mush.....

      January 21, 2012 at 3:03 am |
    • Dan

      🙌

      May 13, 2013 at 1:25 pm |
  8. Booger

    Ah, shoot... I wasn't gonna post, but I'll bet the size of the can shrank (from 10.5 oz) while the price went up, it's LOADED with salt, the recipie calls for a TON of butter, lard and heavy cream, a la Paula Deen.... just leave out the crab meat, save yourself some money and eat the fat... you won't taste the crab even if it WAS in there.

    January 21, 2012 at 2:57 am |
    • MrsFizzy

      Ever had it?? And as usual the best doesn't come in a can.

      January 23, 2012 at 12:25 pm |
    • playfair

      Booger....just like Paula Deen said....you're not suppose to eat it every day. Moderation.

      January 23, 2012 at 2:03 pm |
  9. Rocktex

    Who needs a restaurant?
    I"m lucky enough to live on the edge of the swamps down here in the heart of it all
    We're in the peak of oyster season, now (any month with an 'R' in it), and my 60 quart home-built steamer wagon makes the trip from the shed to the house every weekend, at least once
    Not to mention the steamed-spiced shrimp on the odd evening in between

    January 21, 2012 at 2:19 am |
    • Rocktex

      OH yeah...
      Ron Paul 2012 !!!!!!!!!!!!!

      January 21, 2012 at 2:22 am |
  10. Lin

    Toast in downtown Charleston is a great place for She-Crab soup but there are a ton of Mom and Pop restaurants around Folly Beach and Mt. Pleasant that are equally as good! As a Charleston native who will never leave, I'm SO proud that our food is getting recognition! It's the best!

    January 21, 2012 at 2:11 am |
  11. Markus

    I am a Connecticut Yankee who spent every summer as a child not in the tourist hell of hilton head, but rather the immediate sea islands around charleston, st.john's kiawah, st james bohicket road, these were all seeringly haunting memories I will never forget and the tastes of the lowcountry will haunt me forever too, from pig roasts by the wetlands, shucking roasted oysters, eating she crab soup at one of the great cafes in charleston, benne sees by the market, fresh fish at every turn, this article got it right. As far as I am concerned, Low Country cooking is superior to Cajun/Creole. does anyone remember the old restaurant called "The Fish Market"? It had all these wonderful old paintings all over the walls and was white brick and so beautiful!

    January 21, 2012 at 12:43 am |
    • Australian for Beer

      tourist

      January 21, 2012 at 1:15 am |
    • Sarah

      Yes, The Fish Market was wonderful!

      January 21, 2012 at 9:47 am |
    • bud in NC

      Low country grub is real good. But better than Cajun? Those are fighting words.

      April 9, 2014 at 10:49 pm |
  12. Jenny

    Crabs... funny in soup...not so much when you get them from Beth Wiehe on The Warner Bros. Lot in Burbank!

    January 21, 2012 at 12:32 am |
  13. Zick Boone

    Good article, but these are things that simply must be experienced first hand. Everyone who lives within 500 miles know this, whether they are generous enough to share the information, but no worries, South Carolinians have been known for their hospitality forever. The folks of the low country always have room at the table for more.

    January 21, 2012 at 12:13 am |
  14. naomiow

    That all sounds delicious, but first I'd have to get over the fact that "pilau" in Hawaiian means "dirty".

    January 21, 2012 at 12:13 am |
    • One better

      Kokomo in Korean means nostril.

      January 21, 2012 at 3:09 am |
    • RyanH

      "Pilau" and its variations are, I believe, a derivation of "Pilaf" (as in rice pilaf) if that makes you feel any better.

      January 23, 2012 at 1:58 pm |
  15. the rooster

    Shrimp is the fruit of the sea....... you can sautee it, broil it, fry it, bake it.... there's coconut shrimp, shrimp scampi, shrimp kabob, shrimp creole, shrimp gumbo, pineapple shrimp, lemon shrimp, shrimp soup, shrimp stew, shrimp salad – I think that's about it.

    January 21, 2012 at 12:02 am |
    • Fauthal

      How dare you sir; forget Shrimp cocktails both the simplified version and the true blue Mexican Shrimp cocktail thats more like a bloody mary with a shrimp salad stuffed inside a glass. There shrimp toast, ceviche, minced shrimp purses, shrimp boils, shrimp pizza, shrimp and crab spread and...mmm that may be about it.

      January 21, 2012 at 2:22 am |
    • It's not either "about it"

      You need to see Forrest Gump.

      January 21, 2012 at 3:10 am |
  16. tif31

    ?

    January 20, 2012 at 11:41 pm |
  17. bobcat2u

    Man, thinking about all that good food, has got my tongue slapping my brains out waiting to get to it.

    January 20, 2012 at 11:40 pm |
  18. Erisian

    Mmmmmm, crab juice.

    January 20, 2012 at 11:30 pm |
  19. Mags

    I was in Charleston for the first time last summer, and discovered the wonder that is she-crab soup. I pretty much lived in the restaurant Toast (on Market St.) for three days, eating she-crab soup and fried green tomato sandwiches. Best soup I've ever had, with the exception of the French onion soup I once had in Paris. Honestly, the soup is worth the flight fare.

    January 20, 2012 at 11:29 pm |
    • sharon

      I totally agree with you, Mags. Went to Savannah and Charleston for my honeymoon 6 years ago and lived off of the she-crab soup at every restaurant we went to. Had it last year in Key West but it just wasn't the same. I would fly back to Savannah or Charleston just for the she-crab soup!

      November 26, 2012 at 1:28 pm |
  20. Kam

    Oh man all of that sounds delicious. Where is the best restaurant to have She-crab soup?

    January 20, 2012 at 11:22 pm |
  21. Hippo

    Below sea level? Please tell me where there are New Orleans style dikes.

    Another thing, stop giving the lees attention. Without it, hopefully they'll just shrivel up and blow away.

    January 20, 2012 at 11:17 pm |
    • vintage274

      Chcck your geography. Below sea level does not necessarily mean dikes are needed. The permanent salt marshes are there because the land is lower than ocean level, and the ocean overflowed into them permanently. It's why we don't have basements in Charleston - water seeps in.

      January 22, 2012 at 10:57 am |
      • wisertime

        Not true. As a civil engineer in the Charleston area, I can speak from experience that you won't find anywhere here in our area below sea level. Downtown ranges about 6-8' above msl and it goes up from there. (I live in the Mount Pleasant area and my house is at about 13') The "below sea level" stuff is a myth perpetuated by carriage operators that I wish would go away. Actually, I'd imagine probably half of what they ramble on about is false.

        January 23, 2012 at 3:49 pm |
      • charlie

        The astronomical high tides can bring water above 7', flooding section of Charleston. But alas, the Lowcountry will be lost eventually, if you go for that global warming, or the more palatable climate change.

        January 31, 2012 at 8:52 am |
  22. bud in NC

    I get excited about that scrumptious she-crab soup. Dont try giving me any of that he-crab soup.

    January 20, 2012 at 11:11 pm |
    • Ray in Vegas

      That's hilarious, dude! Who knows ... the he-crab soup might increase your testosterone level.

      January 20, 2012 at 11:41 pm |
  23. fedupwithla

    She-crab soup? I am sure there is something sexist in this. Where are the PC police?

    January 20, 2012 at 11:07 pm |
  24. sybaris

    The low country, right. The last time I was in that area was in '85 and it made me sick to see how bloated and commercialized it had become.

    January 20, 2012 at 11:01 pm |
    • vintage274

      Myrtle Beach and Hilton Head maybe, but not the rest of it. While there are nods to tourists, tradition still prevails. The Market, for instance, is still filled with both tourists and locals. King Street in Charleston is a little uppity, but local boutiques stand strong against the European designers. Wild Dunes? Tourist heaven. So what? Locals don't go there unless they get invited to parties. Hyman's Seafood is still going strong as is Bowman's Island. Lots of things in the Lowcountry never change.

      January 22, 2012 at 11:01 am |
  25. amilarn

    she-crab soup from a can? sacre bleu!

    January 20, 2012 at 10:53 pm |
  26. Dave836

    There are soooo many better southern foods than some soup in a can...

    January 20, 2012 at 10:30 pm |
    • Ray in Vegas

      Yup .. Like fried chicken, greens, catfish and gumbo!

      January 21, 2012 at 12:08 am |
  27. grumpygus

    I really like she-crab soup. I forget the name of the place but on Sullivan's Island outside Charleston there was a good seafood dive that made great she-crab. It was down the street from Dunleavy's and Bert's bars (if it hurts, go to Bert's). And at the beginning of the road across the marsh, at the edge of Mt. Pleasant, there was a seafood store that sold all kind of Lowcountry seafood, and Key lime pies to boot. Good food there; made a young squid happy.

    January 20, 2012 at 10:25 pm |
    • grumpygus

      Sullivan's is the restaurant (of course). Unfortunately, the Google Maps street view shows a construction site where the seafood store used to be. Gawdammit. Nothin's built to last.

      January 20, 2012 at 10:32 pm |
      • SCJoviGirl

        I sure hope Sullivan's and the seafood market aren't gone! My husband and I were just there for our anniversary the 3rd weekend in October 2011 and ate at Sullivan's and stopped in the market! Sullivan's has some of the best shrimp, like they walk out the back door to catch it then cook it immediately!!! We've been known to make the 2 hour drive just for dinner at Sullivan's...

        January 23, 2012 at 2:32 pm |
      • wisertime

        Sullivan's is still there, as is Station 22 just up the street. Bert's has been replaced by Fiery Ron's Hometeam BBQ (my personal favorite!) and Off the Hook is now Taco Mamacitas (a slightly upscale Moe's). But I digress, Sullivan's is still alive and kickin! If you go, be sure to try the Seafood Casserole – nothing else on their menu compares.

        January 23, 2012 at 3:54 pm |
    • Sarah

      Wow, I'm impressed. That seafood restaurant is now gone. But Simmons Seafood with the rockin' key lime pies is still in existence. :)

      January 20, 2012 at 10:34 pm |
      • Local

        Ah, key lime pie. So...I was born in South Florida but grew up in Charleston. Key Limes (not Mexican limes that are often sold as Key Limes at grocery stores) grow only in the tropics, not Charleston. 1) they are green only while maturing on the tree, they are yellow when ripe, and about the size of a ping pong ball and just as round. The pie NEVER EVER EVER has a graham cracker crust or a whipped cream topping. Conchs (Florida Key natives) know the pie is made from the juice of key limes including the {family secret here} and the crust is a very short dough crust and has a meringue topping. Key lime tarts, puddings and yogurts are especially heinous. If you see or order a "key lime pie" that has a green filling (it should be yellow) or has a *green* lime slice turned ever so cutely in the whipped cream...run. For those of you in the Northeast, most tourist or commercial "key lime pies" would be like a vegan to-furkey steak served on a flat bread with gouda passed off as the REAL deal served at John's Roast Pork or Pat's or Gino's.... Now...as for Charleston cuisine (I could go on for pages). Everything above is true. I've lost a shoe seining for shrimp and the grits really are that good. For tourists – the shrimp and grits at 82 Queen (an old school Charleston fine dining mainstay) is as good as it gets in Shrimp & Grits country that's not off the table of someone local you are lucky enough to know. Most locals are actually not all that into she crab soup. Oysters, shrimp and crab? Oh yeah. Want the REAL deal? Go to "The Wreck". I won't say where. If you want it bad enough, you'll find it. If A.C. finds his way there, he might win a Peabody.

        January 21, 2012 at 12:43 am |
      • RyanH

        I fervently agree with "Local" that 82 Queen has the best shrimp and grits in Charleston. I could eat that stuff for days.

        January 23, 2012 at 2:02 pm |
  28. Blessed Geek

    They only put girl crabs in the soup? Are they an aphrodisiac?

    Do girl crabs taste different from boy crabs? Otherwise, why go thro the trouble to pick girl crabs from boy crabs?

    January 20, 2012 at 10:18 pm |
    • jim

      It states that it's the "roe" (eggs) that makes it taste different.

      January 20, 2012 at 10:27 pm |
    • michael

      I was under the impression that pregnant crabs must be returned to the water. Here in NJ they are.

      January 20, 2012 at 10:46 pm |
      • Hippo

        Fertilized crabs do have to be returned. You can still find the roe in sooks without them being sponge crab. The original recipe used fertilized roe, so the soup tasted different 90 years ago.

        January 20, 2012 at 11:20 pm |
      • Here's why

        There is a shortage of GYN's in the area so they have to guess. Sometimes they get it wrong. Oops.

        January 21, 2012 at 3:13 am |
  29. Sarah

    She crab soup in a can. Hahahaha!!! You MUST be joking. Get a grip CNN and report accurately. Typical.

    January 20, 2012 at 10:10 pm |
    • Blessed Geek

      Come to Maine for lobster burgah.

      January 20, 2012 at 10:19 pm |
  30. Charlestonian

    An article about food in the Lowcountry and your only photo is of she-crab soup IN A CAN?? Holy Mother of all Southern culinary disasters. Please remove that photo and any suggestion that anyone in their right mind down here (you know, in the South) would consume she-crab soup that came from a CAN. I didn't even know there was such a thing.

    January 20, 2012 at 10:03 pm |
    • Sarah

      I didn't know there was such a thing either.

      January 20, 2012 at 10:11 pm |
    • Potrick Kettle

      Did you read the article? It said that someone from out of town could eat this as a substitute when she-crabs are out of season - not that this is what people there eat in season. My family sends me this when I need a fix.

      http://boiledpeanuts.com/index2.html

      January 20, 2012 at 11:11 pm |
      • Charlestonian

        Did YOU read the article? It specifically states that locals (that means people who live in the Lowcountry) hoard the stuff (that means that we supposedly collect cans of she-crab soup to keep for ourselves) for the off-season (that means when we can't legally get fresh crab.) Nobody who has tasted fresh, well-made she-crab soup would ever eat it from a can. In any season. And no local I know would ever, ever buy. a. can. of. she-crab. soup. And stop asking people if they've read the article.

        January 21, 2012 at 12:37 am |
      • ZRS

        Maybe not your circle, Charlestonian, but my family has been buying Harris for as long as I can remember, and we send it to friends who have left. We even, gasp, eat it ourselves on occasion in the off-season. Different strokes for different folks. And someone has been keeping that company in business for a very long time.

        January 21, 2012 at 12:48 am |
      • Sarah

        You should make it yourself rather than getting the can version. But I certainly understand the need for a fix. :)

        January 21, 2012 at 9:52 am |
    • pazke

      Okay, I've never tried she-crap soup – from a can or otherwise – but I know that 18 years ago I had this clam chowder in Vancouver, British Columbia that may very well have been the best thing I've ever tasted. That doesn't stop me from eating the clam chowder at Red Lobster, which I'm sure comes from a can. I agree, though, that showing a photo of canned soup isn't the best choice for touting a region's cuisine.

      January 21, 2012 at 1:35 am |
  31. pat

    You totally forgot the salty low country oysters?

    January 20, 2012 at 9:50 pm |
    • Potrick Kettle

      No, they're there in the article. Do people not read?

      January 20, 2012 at 11:12 pm |
    • Trippin'

      They're vacationing in Colorado with their cousins, the Rocky Mountain Oysters.

      January 21, 2012 at 3:15 am |
  32. zcvzv

    hey this is great!

    January 20, 2012 at 9:37 pm |
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