What is Low Country Cuisine? Eight Must-Try Dishes with a Side of Gullah History to Inspire a Road Trip to the Southern US
Is there anything more “American” than a good old-fashioned road trip filled with memorable meals made up of regional dishes?
Stretching the coast of the Southeastern United States is a region known as the Low Country. This is where silvery clumps of Spanish moss hang from graceful live oak trees, and where over 40,000 acres of meandering saltwater marsh, reminiscent of unfurling ribbon, once served as the foundation of rice crops, shrimp, oysters, and crab, making them staples in Low Country cuisine today.
If you’re planning a road trip to the Low Country, it’s important to know the geography.
While the low country of the US runs from the North Carolina/South Carolina border to the tip of northern Florida, the region most people think of when they say “Low Country” is the two hundred miles between, but not including, Charleston and Savannah.
And, to the great surprise of many, this also includes thirty-four sea islands off the coast of South Carolina, some of which were home to many West Africans who were brought over and sold into slavery during the 1700 and 1800s.
Traveling this two hundred mile stretch of history, culture, and natural beauty offers activities to please all ages and interests.
Like architecture? Don’t miss the buildings made from oyster shells.
Got a nature lover in the group? Don’t miss the Angel Tree – a live oak tree estimated to be 1,500 years old, measuring sixty-five feet tall and twenty-five feet around!
Other favorite activities while visiting the Low Country include riding bikes, boating, shelling, ghost tours, visiting countless museums, tea plantations and antebellum homes, and of course, eating.
The Cuisine of the Low Country
Sure, there’s BBQ. After all, this is the South. But this is also the Low Country, home of the Gullah culture which is identified by spirituality, family, and food.
Often incorrectly referred to as Southern, or soul food, Gullah cuisine originated from slaves who were brought to this region to work in the rice fields. With most isolated on islands with only essentials, the skills they brought with them, and seasonal ingredients from the land and sea, Gullah cuisine and one-pot meals were born.
If a road trip to the Low Country is in your travel plans, don’t miss these 8 Authentic Low Country Dishes:
Low Country Boil
It seems nearly every coastal region in the US has a signature seafood dish. Louisiana has crawfish boils, Maryland has crab feasts, and the Low Country has low country boils.
Shrimp. Corn. Potatoes. Sausage. All boiled together in one pot, with spices, and tossed on a newspaper-covered table to enjoy. If you’re looking for a fun, food-filled event, don’t miss a low country boil.
Tip: While low country boils were once private, at-home events, restaurants now offer them for the public to enjoy as well. This makes Low Country seafood accessible to everyone!
Chicken Bog, also known as Chicken Perlou (purr-low) depending on what part of the Low Country you’re in, is a very South Carolina easy to make family-style dish, and one you’ll find in many Gullah restaurants.
With spices, vegetables, and smoked sausages sauteed, a whole chicken gets “bogged down” with water, boiled, and rice is added until all the water is absorbed. If you are not a big seafood fan, this Low Country food could be perfect for you.
Okra reminds me of fruitcake – it gets a bad rap before it’s even tried. I did not grow up southern, but I do recall stories my mom told of Okra being slimy, which put it on the do not eat list for me.
That was until I moved to the south.
Who knew you could fry it, saute it, and even pickle it? Before you write off okra as your least favorite vegetable, it’s worth learning why it was and remains a large part of the Gullah diet.
Brought over from Africa, where okra went with everything, this less-than-popular vegetable in current mainstream circles was a staple ingredient for Gullah people.
Cooked in a tomato and garlic base to which shrimp was added, and served with a side of rice, this was gumbo to the Gullah, a group of people who ate farm to table before farm to table became a thing. The simplicity of the gumbo recipe belies the complexities of the flavor, making this a must-try low country seafood dish.
Similar to crab bisque but with a nod to a chowder, she-crab soup incorporates crab roe, which adds tang to the sweetness of crab and sherry.
Found at the swankiest of South Carolina restaurants today, she-crab soup is silky with a slight orange hue, with just the right amount of spice, and lumps of rich, sweet crab meat.
If you’re looking for a souvenir to take back from your road trip to the Low Country, pick up a bag of Gullah Gourmet She-Crab Soup Mix. And if you find yourself in Charleston looking for a refined, swanky courtyard spot to enjoy She-Crab Soup (hey, you’re on vacation, after all), the most highly regarded spot is 82 Queen, located at 82 Queen Street, in Charleston.
Cornmeal, water, and salt cooked over hot coals. As simple as it sounds, there’s a lot to know about cornbread. For instance, while the rest of the country was producing wheat crops, in the South, with all its humidity, heat, and rain, corn turned out a better crop. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Cornbread has evolved over the last couple of hundred years, even seeing a great divide in preferences of sweet and moist to dry and crumbly. The support for both types is big, much like sweet tea is to unsweetened tea.
And while the divide remains, most agree that cooking cornbread in a cast-iron skillet is essential to impart a nice, crunchy crust. Use this Low Country food staple to sop up the last of that gumbo or she-crab soup!
Shrimp and Grits
I don’t know where I’ve been all these years, but it wasn’t until I moved from Chicago to South Carolina that I tasted Shrimp and Grits.
Once such a staple in Gullah cuisine, it was even eaten for breakfast. But in the 1980s, a Chapel Hill, NC chef changed its status, putting Shrimp and Grits on dinner menus at the best of restaurants throughout the South.
With grits serving as the canvas, and shrimp as the “cherry on top”, what happens in between is left to each chef’s interpretation.
As you move along on your road trip through the Low Country, one activity that offers the best way to experience Low Country life is attending an oyster roast.
Life in the Low Country is slow. Characterized by swinging on the front porch, sipping sweet tea, gathering for Sunday supper, and Southern drawls. If you’ve ever tried your hand at shucking oysters, you know the process is slow, which is why oyster roasts fit right in.
As a visitor, the best place to experience an oyster roast is at Bowen’s Island Restaurant, a true institution, named an American classic by the James Beard Foundation. Think sun-bleached, bare wood, the ultimate fish camp shack.
Oysters are dug up, washed off, and cooked over a fire under wet burlap to trap the steam, then piled high on tables with empty buckets nearby.
Now, just gather around the table, strike up a conversation, shuck some oysters, and make a friend. Another wonderful experience with Low Country seafood.
It’s been said that the Low Country loves a food festival as much as a blue crab loves a chicken neck. If you’ve ever caught blue crabs with a chicken neck, you know what I mean. Now double that image, and imagine a boiled peanut festival.
With a menu ranging from boiled peanuts to shrimp, oysters, soft shell crab, and watermelon, there are endless reasons to celebrate the Gullah heritage, music, art, and life.
Remember that song Kumbaya that many of us learned in camp as a kid? It was sung by the Gullah people as part of their spirituality and praise!
And with music genres of gospel, ragtime, soul, and jazz born out of the slave condition the Gullah people lived, it should be no surprise that out of the need for casting nets for fishing, and clothing for warmth, the art of basket weaving out of seagrass was born.
For the Gullah people, food was more than nutrition. Their one-pot meals, communal table, and use of whatever ingredients they had from land and sea was a way of expressing love and appreciation of family, community, and life. Knowing that, it’s no secret where Southern hospitality comes from.
I once heard the phrase, “not everybody travels but everybody eats.” Whether you’re with friends, spouse, children, or multi-generations, food is a common bond, and it makes a great inspiration for a road trip.
Which of these Low Country Dishes do you most want to try? Let us know in the comments section below!
Susan Dejanovic is a travel and food writer based in Greenville, South Carolina. She enjoys exploring new places and discovering local foods, then writing about them. Member: ITWPA