A distinguished group of academics, chefs and farmers converged last Friday to both examine the foundations of South Carolina’s Lowcountry cuisine and celebrate its sustainable resurgence during the Atlantic Foodways Conference at UNC Greensboro.
This was the first year that the annual conference —which also examined the native foodways and transatlantic impact of Italy, France and Spain—featured high-profile chefs who are influencing contemporary cuisine through their commitment to restore fading traditions. The Lowcountry was ably represented by Sean Brock of Charleston’s acclaimed Husk and McGrady’s restaurants.
“I’ve been lucky enough to watch and be part of the rebirth of one of America’s first cuisines,” said Brock, who grew up in rural Virginia before moving to Charleston during a low point in the city’s now-booming food scene. A decade ago, he added, “People came to this beautiful city from around the world with romantic ideas about great food in their minds, but the rice was Uncle Ben’s and the grits was Quaker instant. They were not satisfied and the cuisine was dismissed.”
As in other historic food communities, Brock and other concerned chefs worked closely with local and national growers, cultural anthropologists and food scientists to identify heirloom plant species that could be restored through seed projects. Some are now thriving, like the Carolina Gold rice, Sea Island red peas and juicy Dancy tangerines used in a four-course dinner curated by Brock.
Keynote speaker David Shields, a prolific author and president of the influential Carolina Gold Rice Foundation, commended Brock on his leadership in sustainable restoration of Lowcountry foodways. “This is not a cuisine of re-enactment,” he said firmly. “What’s been brought back is the ingredients, and those ingredients give permission for creativity.”
The Lowcountry dinner was prepared by Greensboro and Cary chef Jay Pierce of Lucky 32 Southern Kitchen and served at the elegant Proximity Hotel. It started with a benne (sesame seed) oyster stew, a Lowcountry classic that was punched up with glossy bacon from Allan Benton’s legendary Smoky Mountain Country Hams and creamy Old Mill grits from Guilford County. It was followed by Senegalese fish gumbo, whose unexpected spice profile provided a flavorful nod to slaves whose culinary achievements generally were attributed to white plantation hostesses who rarely stepped inside their own kitchens.
Pierce took the lead on a “Roots & Shoots” plate that featured braised pickled turnips and greens alongside the red peas from Anson Mills, which had been simmered in a luscious ham hock broth. Some diners regretted the lack of cornbread while others contentedly slurped the soupy remains. The meal finished with cakelike chocolate and a tangy orange sorbet distinctively drizzled with natural birch syrup.
The Lowcountry sessions featured key voices in the efforts to more fully document the abundance of antebellum Charleston’s farms and kitchen gardens. Shields delivered a powerful discourse that tracked the ways foods migrated and changed – some to the point of extinction through aggressive manipulation meant to adapt to local conditions. He also linked the seemingly “magical” ability of slaves to excel in plantation kitchens to specific marketing of those procured for that very purpose from rice-growing regions of Western Africa.
Marcie Cohen Ferris of UNC Chapel Hill presented a preview of her new book, The Edible South: The Power of Food and the Making of an American Region, which is scheduled for fall publication by UNC Press. Her remarks focused on the cultural politics of Charleston’s “culinary brand” during the growing tourism economy of the 1930s through the 1950s.
“No city packaged and sold the ‘Old South’ better than Charleston,” said Ferris, noting the port city fashioned itself as the epicenter of all things great and Southern. “Masterminded by white elites, they rewrote the city’s history.”
As represented by an ever-present demure Southern belle, this imagined history ignored slavery by depicting black men in romanticized field labor and women who spoke in vernacular while deploying “culinary wizardry” in well-appointed kitchens. It also dismissed a large Jewish community that established the nation’s second oldest synagogue building, which today is the oldest in continuous use.
By the late 1930s, popular national magazines were printing Lowcountry recipes and touting the appeal of culinary vacations. Some homes near the historic Battery were converted into boarding houses while others attracted Northern socialites like Claire Booth Luce, who became the “invented mistress” of her plantation.
The fascination with the South and its air of high society extended to New York City, where the flagship B. Altman’s department store featured a Charleston garden restaurant complete with a Tara-like courtyard setting.
Recent scholarship has revealed such whitewashed depictions and dumbed-down food as creations of a powerful public relations campaign, but many people still cling to the myths.
“Lowcountry tourism really transformed the flavor and racism of the culinary South in a way that still has resonance and power today,” Ferris said.
Jill Warren Lucas is a freelance writer from Raleigh who blogs at Eating My Words. Follow her at @jwlucasnc.