There’s nothing quite like the experience of preparing and sharing meals together, so we thought we’d explore the history of our renowned cuisine to gain a deeper appreciation of our favorite dishes and how they came to be. After all, when it comes to rich food culture, the Lowcountry has it in spades. Don’t you want to know how Hoppin’ John got its name?
Encompassing the coastal regions of South Carolina and Georgia, America’s Lowcountry is 10,000 square miles of mostly marshland, rich in diverse plant species and abundant in seafood. The bounty of oysters, crab, shrimp, and fish harvested from our coastal estuaries differentiates Lowcountry cuisine from its more well-known cousin: Southern cooking. But more than a place, the Lowcountry is a state of mind. A feeling. A flavor that permeates almost everything about our local life.
Once home to prosperous rice and indigo plantations, Lowcountry cuisine draws inspiration from English, French, African, and Caribbean cultures and evokes essences of New Orleans cuisine, but with a style decidedly different. Think Creole cooking but with an added dash of African flavor due to the rich Gullah history in the area.
The Gullah people, brought to America as enslaved people from West Africa and then later among the first freed, keep important traditions alive to ensure their cuisine and culture remain woven into the fabric of Lowcountry life. Brought to America from countries like Sierra Leone, Guinea, and Liberia for their knowledge of rice cultivation, the Gullah would stew whole vegetables in a savory broth for an entire day. The savory stew would be served with rice, meat, and sides such as kale, collards, and sweet potatoes.
Popular dishes with Gullah roots you’ll find today include okra soup and oysters and grits. The Gullah version of okra soup is akin to New Orleans gumbo, but uses a rich tomato base instead of roux, and can be made vegetarian, or beefed up with pork shank or ham hock. It’s said there are about 100 variations of this Gullah staple, and we bet each is just as delicious as the next. Grits are a Lowcountry go-to often served with shrimp, but to put a Gullah spin on them, add oysters that are stewed in liquid just long enough to be warmed through with bacon, bell peppers and onions. Intrigued? Learn more about Gullah-Geechee culture.
Ingredients and Trends
Rice drove the economy of the Lowcountry for centuries, so you’ll find it served as a side with most dishes. Okra thrives in the Southern heat and humidity, making in another key ingredient in Lowcountry cooking. Beans are big too, with the black-eyed variety being one of the most popular. Lowcountry cuisine is all about making the most of fresh, seasonal ingredients such as yams, watermelons, kale, collards, and Jerusalem artichokes. Pickling and canning keep these favorites on dinner tables all year round. Almost every Lowcountry meal is served with some type of pickle, relish, or chutney. And, you can’t go wrong with a helping of sweet potato pie to finish off any Lowcountry meal!
We’re famous for our fish around here. And, to really let the flavors speak for themselves, fish is most often served grilled with a dash of salt, pepper, and olive oil. But who can resist a good fish fry? Whole fish like flounder is most often served fried. You can never go wrong with a platter of local crispy, golden fish, shrimp, or oysters fried to perfection. You’re on vacation—go for it.
Let’s start with she-crab soup. Named for the key ingredients of female crab and the unique flavor of crab roe, this hearty soup is similar to a bisque and is made with milk, or heavy cream and topped with a dash of sherry.
How about some Hoppin’ John? This signature Lowcountry dish is comprised of rice and black-eyed peas (also called cow peas), with onion, sliced bacon, and salt. Often the dish is served with a side of collard greens. If you’re visiting us over the holidays, be sure to sample this side on New Year’s Day—Lowcountry legend say it brings luck and prosperity for the coming year. As for the name? We hate to disappoint but there isn’t a clear origin story (at least not one everyone can agree on).
We can’t wrap up discussing Lowcountry cuisine without mentioning the beloved Lowcountry boil. Also known as Frogmore Stew, local shrimp, corn cobs, potatoes, and sausage are cooked up in a giant pot and served family-style. It’s acceptable for etiquette to fall by the wayside with this Lowcountry favorite—grab a bib and dig in with your hands. Want to host your own boil at home? Learn how here.
Another Lowcountry classic that brings everyone together is a good old fashioned oyster roast. Placed on a metal grate or sheet over hot coals and covered with damp burlap, this technique produces half grilled, half steamed shellfish goodness. Try some for yourself during one of the island’s signature events, the 2018 Hilton Head Island Seafood Festival, or learn how to perfectly shuck an oyster for yourself with our infographic on all things oyster.
History lesson complete! Now it’s time to savor the wonders of Lowcountry cuisine for yourself. Discover all the delicious dining options available on Hilton Head Island here. View accommodations offers and start to make your plans to experience the history, culture and cuisine of the Lowcountry first hand. We’ll see you on the other side of the oyster shucking table soon!