Generally characterized by its carb-driven calorie count, ‘comfort food’ encompasses a compelling list of temptations. From buttermilk biscuits and fried chicken to collard greens and peach cobbler, most Southern comfort food offerings have their roots in soul food.
Originating from a blend of African, Moorish, South American Arawak and even Native American influences, modern-day soul food emerged from the kitchens of slaves and freedmen. These days, it’s still a staple of the African-American culture, yet its reach has expanded, bringing with it both the traditions and the hospitality of the South.
However, the early days of soul food, and many of South Carolina’s signature dishes, were comparably grim. In the 1700s, West Africans with expertise in cultivating rice in tropical climates were targeted and brought to the South Carolina coastal barrier islands as slaves. With few familiar ingredients and often only food scraps and leftovers available to them, a new cuisine based on innovation and resourcefulness began to emerge from these kitchens.
After emancipation, the former West Africans—now known as the Gullah or Geechee people—spread throughout South Carolina, ultimately weaving their culture, traditions and cuisine into the fabric of the state. The original farm-to-table movement, Gullah food is still an important part of the Charleston food scene and is deeply rooted in the seasons, with chefs preparing only what is currently available from the land and the sea.
A major contributor to the larger soul food genre, many dishes considered classic Southern favorites are Gullah in origin, with notable examples including gumbo, shrimp and grits, and frogmore stew.
Gumbo is more commonly associated with New Orleans, but it has its own version in the Holy City. A variation on the West African word for okra, gumbo essentially came to mean “okra soup.” The Gullah version starts with a thick, tomato-based sauce that is then fortified with seafood, spices onions, okra and sometimes meat. Whatever the particulars, it’s a rich, spicy dish that warms the body and the soul on a cool coastal evening.
A dish with so many renditions that it has its own cookbook, shrimp and grits in a Charleston restaurant assures only two things: 1) There will be shrimp. 2) There will be grits. Beyond that, recipes run the gamut, including anything from bacon and bell peppers to mushrooms and Andouille sausage. No need to sweat the details. As Charleston’s quintessential dish, it’s almost impossible to find a bad rendition of the “poor man’s breakfast.”
Although the name might give pause, frogmore stew is not a euphemism for the ingredients. Also known as Low Country Boil, Tidewater Boil or Beaufort Boil, the dish involves bringing a large pot of water to a boil and adding corn, shrimp sausage and Old Bay seasoning. Available anywhere from small diners to white tablecloth restaurants, frogmore stew by any name is a local tradition not to be missed.
Where to Eat Southern
Dave’s Carry-Out: The deep fryers hum all day long at Dave’s, a guaranteed fix when only crisp seafood platters and juicy fried chicken wings served in Styrofoam boxes will do. 42 Morris St., 843.577.7943
Martha Lou’s Kitchen: The menu changes daily and includes a compelling rotation of chitterlings, collard greens and even ‘mystery meat.’ Still, many locals agree that the fried chicken—one of the few items available daily—is the best anywhere. 1068 Morrison Drive, 843.577.9853
Nana’s Seafood and Soul: It’s a toss-up as to whether the massive fried pork chop or flip-flop-sized fried whiting sandwich is a better bang for your $5, but no one will argue with anything once they get a mouthful of garlic crabs. 176 Line St., 843.937.0002
Where to Eat Soul Food
Bertha’s Kitchen: Gumbo is more commonly associated with New Orleans, but it has its own version in the Holy City. A variation on the West African word for okra, gumbo essentially came to mean “okra soup,” which is how the tomato-based stew is listed on Bertha’s menu. 2332 Meeting St., 843.554.6519
Hannibal’s Kitchen: Pigtails and fried gizzards and smoked neck bones, Oh My! Note that in a pinch, the crab rice will delight even the fussiest eater. 16 Blake St., 843.722.2256
My Three Sons: There are only two words you need to speak at this North Charleston outpost: Gullah Rice. Made with sausage, seafood, bell peppers and at least two sticks of butter, it’s a decadent delight. 1910 E. Montague Ave., North Charleston, 843.202.0189