At the heart of the cooking are the foods that grow well in the state, supplemented by wild fish and game.
Recipes from the Creole cuisine that evolved in Charleston and the surrounding plantations in the first hundred years of South Carolina’s history spread inland. Classic dishes from the lowcountry rice kitchen, such as pilau, okra soup, and rice breads, became popular not only in the upcountry of the state but also up the coast into Maryland and Virginia. Hoppin’ John, a bean and rice pilau, became renowned throughout the South, as did fried chicken, collard greens, and cornbread.
By the turn of the eighteenth century, the white population of Charleston and the lowcountry contained a small but influential Huguenot community, with country coastal cooking traditions not unlike those of the English settlers who comprised most of the remaining early Carolinians. In 1730 Germans and Swiss settled in Orangeburg, seventy miles inland, where they grew wheat and cabbage for the lowcountry gentry and raised dairy cattle. Continental European baking and meat cooking and curing skills entered the vernacular. Many of the state’s early settlers had first lived in the Caribbean, further adding to the Creole culture. Most important, however, was South Carolina’s black majority population. By 1708 Africans and African Americans outnumbered Europeans in the colony. By midcentury the majority outnumbered the minority by two to one. Africans brought with them hunting, fishing, farming, and cooking skills that were well suited to the subtropical environment of the lowcountry.
On any given day for nearly two hundred years, ships filled Charleston harbor. It saw the importation of fresh tropical fruits from Cuba and the Caribbean, spices from around the world, seeds for nearly any herb or vegetable imaginable, the latest cookery books from England, wines from Europe, and cheese from Philadelphia and Boston. The African cooks in the lowcountry most radically influenced the cooking by switching the emphasis from the large roasts of the English and French table to composed one-pot dishes such as pilau and gumbo, with bits of meats strewn in them. Foodstuffs long appreciated in Africa, such as hot peppers, benne (sesame) seeds, okra, tomatoes, and eggplant, entered the colony’s kitchens long before the foods were known elsewhere in America and often before they became popular in much of Europe and the British Isles. Coconut cooking in the western world began in Charleston. Native American trading routes to the interior were taken over by the lowcountry gentry, and superior Appalachian corn was ground for use in main dishes and breads.
As cotton farmers moved inland, African American cooks did as well. The diet of the upcountry farmer–often Anglo-Irish who came in large waves of immigration from Virginia and Pennsylvania–was not unlike the diet of his field hands. Plants such as beans that had grown successfully in the lowcountry were bred until they would grow upstate; hundreds of varieties were developed. Pork became the common meat, and hogs roamed the woods to forage. They were penned and slaughtered in the fall and then cured for the winter. After the Civil War, most of the state was poor and stayed poor for a long time. Families exchanged seeds and raised vegetable gardens for their personal use. The long-established traditions of canning and preserving the season’s bounty became even more important to the family cook; condiments such as relishes, chutneys, pickles of all sorts, spiced and dried fruits, jams, and syrups came to define the cuisine. Pork chops were served with beans throughout the country, but when those beans were served on rice with a dollop of green tomato or pear relish and the pork was garnished with peach chutney, the meal was not just southern but also Carolinian.
In the middle of the nineteenth century, several artificial means of leavening bread became popular, so that the home cook was freed from the long, hot process of baking yeast bread. Ever quicker versions of cornbread evolved, and biscuits became the bread of choice at the breakfast table. They remain the favored breads in the state. Often the cornbread is deep-fried to make hush puppies. Deep-frying is another cooking technique with strong ties to Africa. In no state is frying more artfully done, from the flash-fried oysters and shrimp on the coast, to the freshwater fish of the Pee Dee and Midlands, to the green tomatoes and okra of the Piedmont. Lard, butter, bacon grease, olive oil, and peanut oil are the preferred cooking fats. Processed foods such as margarine and hydrogenated vegetable oils seldom find favor.
At the heart of the cooking are the foods that grow well in the state, supplemented by wild fish and game. Pork and chicken continue to be the most common meats, and both comprise important industries in the state, along with the saltwater shrimping and crabbing operations. Favored fruits and vegetables include tomatoes, okra, corn, greens, peppers of all kinds, squash, sweet potatoes, dozens of varieties of beans and field peas, cucumbers, scuppernong and muscadine grapes, peaches, strawberries, and melons; peanuts and pecans are widely grown and eaten as well. South Carolina is noted for its sweet tooth; there are legions of pie, cake, cookie, candy, and frozen dessert recipes. Sweetened iced tea is the beverage of choice.
Egerton, John. Southern Food: At Home, on the Road, in History. New York: Knopf, 1987.
Hilliard, Sam Bowers. Hog Meat and Hoecake: Food Supply in the Old South, 1840–1860. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1972.
Kovacik, Charles F. “Eating Out in South Carolina’s Cities: The Last Fifty Years.” North American Culture 4, no. 1 (1988): 53–64.
Taylor, Joe Gray. Eating, Drinking, and Visiting in the South. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1982.
Taylor, John Martin. Hoppin’ John’s Lowcountry Cooking: Recipes and Ruminations from Charleston and the Carolina Coastal Plain. New York: Bantam, 1992