Nancy Ricker Rhett

Celebrate the South

Often Sunday afternoons had to do with driving down dirt roads with sleeping dogs, houses painted blue to ward off evil spirits, natives picking vine-ripened tomatoes in the vast fields of St. Helena Island and the sounds of Gullah hymns rising from a nearby church. It’s about Wednesday nights at the infamous Beaufort Yacht Club, the sounds of laughter and dice games, and Larry Taylor fixin’ everything there was to fix — especially loved for his fried chicken. Then there was that notorious fella named Skeet who mastered the art of traveling through town with his long legs jumping from rooftop to rooftop. It’s remembering how local fishermen stood on the river banks gathering up pluff mud, mixing it with fish meal, getting ready for their nightly trip down the river to bait shrimp.

Everywhere I went whether it was an oyster roast, a church gathering or a political supper, there was some sort of shrimp-corn-sausage stuff. One night I approached a man with a toothpick in his mouth and asked him what it was. Looking in disbelief and trying not to lose patience with me, he said, “Frogmore Stew.” Did that mean they put frogs in their stew? It kept happening — those funny-sounding words kept coming up. Words like “Purloo” or was it pilau and was it related to Kentucky Burgoo? Of course, there was this chatter about chicken bog or hog and what was that?

Best I could figure out it was a chicken “bogged” down in rice and a boggy, soggy mess. Folks in town loved it and served it often!

Venturing over to Bay Street, Harry’s restaurant is where you could order the blue plate special. These were local fixings at their finest…the best “mess of collard greens” and catfish chowder you ever ate, biscuits with cream gravy and of course, shrimp gumbo. When you ate fried chicken at Harry’s, you picked it up with your fingers and ate it right off the bone. At one of the tables, several men were talking about rib-meat and fatback and things like streak-o-lean. They got into a heated argument with one of the waitresses about the superiority of one over the other. Experiencing Lowcountry cuisine at Harry’s must rank as high on most tourists’ to-do list as a horse-drawn carriage ride through Beaufort’s historic district. But putting your finger on what, exactly, constitutes this distinctly Southern cuisine can be a bit tricky. Is it the Frogmore stew, fried green tomatoes or gumbo with okra and hoppin’ john?

When all is said and done, it’s rice that signifies the real food culture of the Lowcountry. Rice is what made plantation owners wealthy in the 1700s after it was brought over from East Africa, probably Madagascar, to here, making South Carolina the major rice-growing state until the Civil War.

Tomatoes, corn, and hominy — the hulled and dried kernels of corn from which the bran and germ have been removed — were also significant, with hominy served daily.

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