Lowcountry Cuisine and the Confluence of Cultures
From October 20-27th, chefs from around the world gathered in Charleston to explore, experience and understand the confluence of cultures and the dichotomy of Lowcountry cuisine. We’d like to extend a special thanks to Middleton Place for being the official headquarters of Cook it Raw Charleston!
With landscapes made rich by its dependence on exports of rice, indigo and cotton, South Carolina was once renowned for its agricultural wealth. While the soaring economy of the antebellum era secured stability for the state, it also left a deep scar on the history of the region and its people. Through their advancement, the descendants of the formerly enslaved populations maintained a firm grip on the past, and brought with them a diversity of culinary traditions and dietary staples now ingrained in Gullah culture. Like the confluence of rivers in the lowland estuaries feeding into the Atlantic, the heritage and traditions of South Carolina’s coastal inhabitants have merged to create something unique to their region of the world – Lowcountry cuisine.
The West African culture and its culinary traditions joined the New World in the time of the Antebellum South to create culturally distinct dishes that evolved in the style of legume pilafs. In order to sustain the Gullah population, plantation life took on a primal form of social hierarchy, with plantation cooks at its apex. The availability of grains and legumes made such ingredients an obvious choice for the workforce’s prepared foods. This style of cooking arose out of necessity, and its popularity would leave a permanent mark on traditional Southern foodways.
The life of enslaved rice field workers was restricted to the confines of the plantation, and the evolution of this isolated society centered on two key figures – the cook and the hunter. In the plantation society’s hierarchical structure, slaves viewed both cook and hunter as the most powerful positions because they sustained life. Grains and legumes provided nutritional sustenance; but given the largely undeveloped landscape, game abounded. Migratory waterfowl teemed in the sprawling waterways leading to the coast, and land-dwelling prey likewise provided much-needed protein and iron to sustain plantation-based communities.
Without the legacy of plantation life, Lowcountry cuisine would almost certainly not have progressed to its current state of cultural distinction. Likewise, Charleston’s heralded ascent to cult culinary status would never have been realized without the renaissance of the farmer and chef collaboration, which began nearly 20 years ago. Revitalizing this symbiotic relationship within the food community paved the way for a resurrection of traditional Lowcountry cuisine. What started as a handful of culinary pioneers and experimental chefs blossomed into a culture of collaboration between crop experts, farmers, producers, and chefs we see today. A gracious nod to heritage and preservation coupled with homegrown pride of place has become the current trademark of Lowcountry cuisine.
For Cook It Raw’s sixth edition, we bring our team of international chefs to Charleston, South Carolina. Working in collaboration with the local community, they will retrace the culinary traditions of the region. Along with Chef Sean Brock – Executive Chef of Husk Restaurant and McCrady’s, we will be working with local guides: Glenn Roberts – Founder, Anson Mills; David Shields – McClintock Professor of Southern Letters at University of South Carolina; Celeste Albers – Renaissance Farmer; John T Edge – Director of Southern Foodways; Sallie Anne Robinson – Author of Gullah Home Cooking; Robert A. Barber Jr. – Proprietor, Bowens Island Restaurant; Rodney Scott – Pitmaster at Scott’s Bar-B-Que; and Richard Schultz – owner, Turnbridge Plantation. We aim for participants to experience complete cultural and historical immersion, and to better understand what makes the South Carolina coast such a distinctive place.
We will explore the Savannah River basin to learn about regional rice cultivation and old milling techniques. We’ll meet with local Gullah communities to discover their preserved foodways and fishing culture. Our journey will take us to the barrier islands to meet with local farmers for an informative session on local agriculture and farming methods.
We will also have the benefit of working with the local chef community who have been committed to the renaissance of Lowcountry cuisine for almost 20 years; Frank Lee – Slightly North of Broad; Mike Lata – FIG & The Ordinary; Chris Stewart and Sarah O’Kelley – The Glass Onion; Michelle Weaver – The Charleston Grill; Craig Deihl – Cypress Restaurant; Ken Vedrinski – Coda del Pesce and Trattoria Lucca; Robert Stehling – The Hominy Grill; Jeremiah Bacon – The Macintosh & The Oak Steakhouse; Jacques Larson – Wild Olive Restaurant; Bob Carter – Carter’s Kitchen and Rutledge Cab Company; Josh Keeler – Two Boroughs Larder.
With the help of the Charleston community and our newly acquired knowledge, our chefs will be able to bring back to their kitchens a wealth of ideas and inspiration that will further influence our broadening network of cooks. The experiences of the Charleston edition of Cook it Raw will transmit through a global forum, highlighting our chefs’ journeys and discoveries as newfound advocates of Lowcountry cuisine.