Gullah cuisine, soul food, Southern cooking, Lowcountry cuisine - the distinctions between these cooking styles are often murky. Considering there's a good deal of overlap, it's no wonder there's confusion. For example, all soul food is, indeed, Southern food, but not all Southern food is soul food. Lowcountry dishes typically have Gullah roots, but there are often other influences at play. And Southern cooking, well, it's somewhat of a catch-all. If you're thinking South Carolina's culinary leanings are a might bit complicated, you're not alone. History provides some clarity, while underscoring the richness of South Carolina's gastronomic heritage.
The South Carolina Lowcountry is part of what's known as the "Gullah Corridor," a strip of coastline stretching from North Carolina to Florida. Along this strip, enslaved Africans worked on isolated coastal plantations where they managed to retain their native cooking traditions. They brought their knowledge of West African farming methods and agricultural products such as rice, okra, watermelon, peas, tomatoes, peanuts, greens, sweet potatoes and more - ingredients that chef and Gullah advocate B.J. Dennis says form the "spirit" of this cuisine.
The descendants of these slaves - the Gullah Geechee - continue to create time-honored dishes built around the abundant fresh seafood and agricultural resources of the Sea Islands where some of them still live. Dennis and others in the Lowcountry are working to protect the integrity and traditions associated with Gullah cooking so it can be enjoyed in all its authenticity by generations to come. Based on simplicity in both ingredients and technique, these are some of the dishes you might see offered on menus at Gullah eateries in South Carolina:
Garlic crabs - Crabs dusted in flour, fried and drenched in a garlicky butter sauce
Hoppin' John - A rice pilau (pronounced "per-low") studded with field peas
Okra soup - A thick stew consisting of tomatoes, rice, okra, seasonings and seafood or meat
Red rice - Rice cooked with tomatoes, bits of pork, celery, onions and peppers, sometimes paired with shrimp
While West African cooking culture forms the foundation of Gullah cuisine, it is heavily employed in Lowcountry dishes as well, along with lighter influences from English, French and Caribbean cuisines. Colonial settlers in and around the Charleston area brought the cooking techniques of their respective countries. When combined with the culinary traditions of the West African slaves, a cuisine was born that distinguished itself from the general realm of Southern cooking. This hodgepodge of flavors is spotlighted in one-pot dishes and other recipes featuring the area's abundant shellfish, locally cultivated rice and fresh vegetables.
Hallmark dishes include gumbos, the ubiquitous shrimp and grits, roasted local oysters and other iconic favorites such as:
She-crab soup - a bisque-like concoction brimming with fresh crabmeat and roe.
Frogmore stew - a boil of shrimp, sausage, fresh corn, potatoes and onions named for a small town in South Carolina.
Huguenot torte - a Lowcountry dessert made with apples and nuts that was favored by the French Huguenots who settled near Charleston.
An exploration of Southern food history naturally brings us to what's known as "soul food." The term was coined to describe foods cooked and enjoyed by African-Americans who left the South for other regions during the Great Migration between 1910 and 1970. African heritage foods scholar Adrian E. Miller points out that, just as other immigrants settled in the US and recreated the foods of their homelands, African-Americans from the South held tightly to their culinary traditions when they moved beyond the Mason Dixon line. So when we refer to soul food, we are really talking about a peoples' history and their culture.
African, Creole, Lowcountry, Southern - the roots of this cuisine are many. While it shares many similarities to Southern cooking, soul food is subtly different. Sit down to a true soul food meal and you'll notice a few distinguishing features right away: more salt and pepper, more "heat" from peppers, the use of lard or bacon drippings for cooking or seasoning vegetables, and the use of "offal meats," that is, those animal parts that were undesirable to the slave masters of old: ham hocks, chitlins, hog jowls, pig ears and pig feet, among others. Sometimes these meats are used to accent pots of beans and greens, and sometimes they take center stage on the table.
Like Gullah cuisine, soul food is more than a cooking style - it is a deeply revered cuisine that represents a way of life for legions of African-Americans. It is an avenue by which to share and honor their Southern past, an expression of love to those gathered at the table, and a way to nourish the body while soothing and comforting. Walk into a soul food establishment, snag a seat and feel the warm vibe - many of these humble establishments have far more in common with your grandmother's dining room than a traditional restaurant.
As you can see, all of the above are considered iterations of Southern cooking, which is basically a style of cuisine characterized by ingredients found across the entire region. Yet there's still that ever-present overlap to befuddle us. For example, fried green tomatoes and collard greens are commonly found on Lowcountry menus, but they have always been grown and eaten across the broader South.
Barbecue, pan-fried chicken, grits, squash casserole, succotash, country ham and gravy, greens of all sorts, coleslaw, field peas, biscuits, banana pudding and cobblers are just some of the dishes that you might find gracing a Southern table, a restaurant buffet or offered on a "meat and three" menu, which means you get your choice of one meat and three sides. If you get the chance to sit down to a true Southern meal, it will likely be served family style and feature at least four to five vegetables along with a meat and either biscuits or cornbread. Sit back, dig in and savor this extraordinarily rich dining experience. But don't hesitate to explore those Southern food subsets - Gullah, Lowcountry and soul - that make Southern dining so deeply satisfying to the heart, mind and soul.
Come and Get It
Hungry yet? Here are a few eateries where you can experience the unique joys of an authentic Southern meal in the Gullah, Lowcountry and soul food traditions. Note that many of these establishments only take cash and some are so popular there are long waits during peak hours. Once you're seated with a steaming plate of food or out the door with a fresh catch, however, you'll agree it was worth the wait.
Bertha's Kitchen, Charleston, SC (Gullah, Lowcountry, Soul)
Big Mike's Soulfood, Myrtle Beach, SC (Soul)
Brown Derby, Orangeburg, SC (Soul)
Charlie Brown Seafood, N. Charleston, SC (Gullah, Lowcountry)
Gullah Grub, St. Helena Island, SC (Gullah, Lowcountry, Soul)
Hannibal's Kitchen, Charleston, SC (Gullah, Lowcountry, Soul)
Missy's Café, Florence, SC (Soul)
Ravenel's Seafood, Ravenel, SC (Gullah, Lowcountry)