Traveling in the Low Country
There’s something almost haunting about the marshes and forests of South Carolina. It’s a combination of the half rotten smells in many of the expansive swamps and the dramatic appearance of Spanish moss hanging from the magnificent live oaks. Much of it reminds me of the bayous of Louisiana near New Orleans.
Throw in some of the grand southern homes set back from the road with long tree-lined driveways… the ones with big extensions at the back, once used for slaves… and one can almost picture the cotton and rice fields of time long past (the area was also well-known for producing indigo and some tobacco). Driving the highways in the country side or walking the streets of Beaufort and Charleston one sees vestiges of opulence and extreme poverty. Out of it all comes the strange mix of low country cuisine… basic foods like collard greens, grits, pimento cheese sandwiches, mac’ and cheese, BBQ along with the freshest fish and seafood found anywhere.
I highly recommend the wild caught coastal shrimp. They’re readily available at most supermarkets. I had avoided shrimp for so long because of the unsustainable practices employed in the Far East, the big trawlers, the horror stories of degraded lagoons, etc. So it was with great relish that I ordered shrimp po’ boys, shrimp and grits, and even jambalaya. Instead of the mushy tasteless shrimps people serve at cocktail parties, the tiny ones on round plates, the local shrimp were firm and delicious.
During my stay we also sampled many local fish. As for the local oysters? Too muddy tasting for my liking. During the two months in the Low Country I also experienced excellent fried chicken, blackened pork chops and some fine ground beef and steaks. One highlight was a meal at ‘Jestine’s Kitchen’ restaurant in Charleston. It describes itself as serving "southern food with lots of soul”. Thanks to Oprah Winfrey’s endorsement, the place almost always has a line-up outside the door. My wife and I ordered the pecan crusted chicken with collard greens and grilled catfish with red rice. As is our usual practice we shared each dish… and both were well-prepared, tasty and, best of all, inexpensive. The place was packed with tourists, locals and students – we overheard a group of students who were planning a day ‘on the town’ sampling some local brews. The waitress advised them, "if you’re going to drink all day make sure you hydrate” as she re-filled their water glasses. After lunch we wandered the streets along the waterfront (for probably the sixth time over repeated visits) admiring the architecture including the grandest balconies that I’ve ever seen… sometimes stacked three stories high!
Another enjoyable dining experience occurred at the Low Country Produce – Market & Café. They have two locations, one in Beaufort and the other in Hilton Head Island. We loved the ambience and the ‘market place’ feel of each location. They not only feature menus for dining in but there is ample take-out foods and jams, pickles, sauces, soups all branded under their private label. We decided to check out the source of all the items for sale and one day found ourselves in Lobeco at their farmstead and grill. This location serves as their production center for all their prepared foods. Originally a simple farm outlet for fruit and veggies, they now sell their branded products in 2,000 retail outlets. The day we were there we were fortunate to meet the matriarch, Martha and daughter Cooka. They reminded us of another characteristic of the Low Country which we enjoy immensely: southern hospitality.
Our last evening in the area was spent at a landmark music venue in Hilton Head. The Jazz Corner is one of the top spots to see great improvised tunes. We were lucky to get reservations to see the great French accordionist, Frederic Gomes, accompanied by two guitarists, a terrific clarinetist and stand up base. The theme for the evening was ‘The Hot Club of France’. They played many tunes from the repertoire of Jango Reinhardt and had me reflecting on my days at University smoking Gauloises, among other things, and reading Sartre. It was a heady night and an appropriate end to our stay in the Low Country. There is so much history in the black culture in this area that comes from the Goullah communities – it’s their stories and their music that are the common threads that tie the South Carolina culture with Louisiana, the birth place of jazz. I find many similarities in the foods… each putting a different spin on similar raw products. Just like the great jazz masters.
Places to eat and drink in Hilton Head:
- The Old Oyster Factory
- Red Fish
- The Salty Dog
- The Big Bamboo