Looking through the ground-breaking, original four-volume series The Image of the Black in Western Art, the myriad of interpretive decisions highlight problems and struggles with the representation of people of African descent in Western art. A project started by John and Dominique de Menil in the 1960’s as a response to segregation in America, the work has now been expanded by a collaboration between Harvard University and the W.E.B Dubois Research Institute at the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research. In viewing Christian Friedrich Meyer’s painting of 1838, Kitchen Ball at White Sulphur Springs, Virginia, in the collection of the North Carolina Museum of Art, we see a world not to be seen as southern plantation owners who vacationed in White Sulphur Springs would have had it, but possibly as those harnessed in the shackles of slavery would have wanted a moment of feasting and dancing to be seen. Possibly. What is clear in any study of food traditions in the American South, is the resilience of those enslaved or in poverty to use the knowledge handed down from generation to generation, wherever that cuisine may have come from–and how those recipes have become the stable dishes of all classes and races. At the same time, it’s important to note the cooking methods of those who had to rely upon fish heads, hocks and “less noble meats” are the same for the haute cuisine of the French chef in his well-stocked kitchen preparing a stock. We do not have to always focus on the lack, but turn to the skill. Good. Let’s consider the Low Country Seafood Boil, also known as Frogmore Stew, and one of its many versions–a Gulf Coast Shrimp Boil.
The Low Country, which traditionally means the Georgia coast and the southeast sliver of South Carolina and its islands, has a cuisine rich in the use of catfish, crab, crawfish, oysters and shrimp. Here’s John Egerton on the gift of water from his classic work Southern Food: At Home, on the Road, in History.
From Louisiana around the Gulf Crescent to the tip of Florida and up the Eastern Seaboard to Virginia and beyond, the sea has always been dominant in the diet of the people, yielding up to them an unending abundance of oysters, shrimp, crabs, and fish of all kinds. This saltwater harvest is the heart and soul of coastal cookery . . . The Gulf Of Mexico is the richest shrimping bed in the world and the Carolinas is also a fertile harvesting area. Thus ports between Norfolk and new orleans commonly offer live shrimp in abundance , and restaurants along the coast offer them up fired, boiled, broiled, grilled, smoked, baked, and barbecued, as well as combined with other seafoods in a variety of rich dishes. (131-133)
Along the margins of his book, Egerton offers delicious quotes revealing the history of Southern cuisine. He quotes George McMillan in an article in the New York Times entitled “An Island of Gullah Culture” writing about a Low Country Seafood Boil known as Frogmore stew.
A local fish dish that residents of the Carolina Sea Islands have been enjoying for more years than anybody can trace has become a current favorite at some fancy restaurants in Charleston and some of the resorts along the Carolina coast. Called Frogmore stew, it is what the natives of the coast, many of whom are shrimp fishermen, eat on the sort of ritual occasion that their inland neighbors might celebrate with a barbecue. This folk dish is a highly seasoned stew of such improbably combined ingredients as sausage and shrimp and crabs plus some other things like corn on the cob. The people who make the stew often boil the ingredients in beer.
The dish gets its name from a place that has only a post office on one side of the road and a two-story white country store on the other. Frogmore is the mailing address (ZIP code 29920) for the residents of St. Helena Island, one of the few islands on the South Carolina coast that are still relatively undiscovered.
Frogmore stew is only one of many examples of Gullah life surviving on St. Helena, which is regarded by anthropologists and sociologists as one of the richest repositories of Negro culture in the United States.
What is Gullah? In Michael Montgomery’s introduction to the The Crucible of Carolina: Essays in the Development of Gullah Language and Culture offers a definition.
The Low country of South Carolina and Georgia comprises a 250-mile stretch of barrier islands, now usually called the Sea Islands, and a coastal basin of as much as thirty to forty miles inland. The Sea Islands in particular are widely acknowledged to have “among the Afro-American groups in North America, the culture . . . most closely related to certain African cultures.” The Low Country has long been recognized as a cultural zone of special interest for three reasons: (1) it’s population has been overwhelmingly African derived since the eighteenth century, outnumbering whites by as many as ten to one in some districts; (2) Africans continued to be imported directly from Africa until the very eve of the Civil war . . . (3) residents, particularly Sea Islanders, were long isolated from the mainland. (1)
Now that we’re a bit situated, let’s cook. I have to add one ingredient and also sample it, a lovely pale ale from Oskar Blues Brewery. Most of the can goes into the pot, I have the rest.
I pour in water then set the large copper pot on the stove. Many healthy shakes of Old Bay and then it’s time to assemble my spice and herb packet.
Crushed Red Pepper, black pepper, cloves, star anise and bay leaves. I thought I had a lemon or an orange, not the case, so I improvise with a peach, sliced and put in the soon to be boiling water.
I cut in half an onion, then cut again, and again–onions also going in the beer, water, spice and herb, peach stock.
Must add garlic.
Prepping for further on, I cut up a pound of Pork Andouille sausage. I choose not to use smoked sausage as I want the meat to absorb all the flavors rolling around in the water. The traditions of French and Acadian cuisine mix with West African, Caribbean, and a number of small Native American tribes like the Sewee and Yemessee. This is the South.
Oh yes, and these succulent Gulf Coast Shrimp wait for the last moment, the final ingredient lovingly placed in the pot. And yes, I’m keeping the shells and heads on.
The copper pot abides.
Time passes, once the water is rolling along, I add red potatoes, then the sausage, corn, and finally the shrimp.
Once all is ready, I strain out the water and then pour all the goodness onto a platter and serve. Yes, the family is ready to eat. I’ver decided to pair a rose with this boil, an accent on the French side of this dish, but also a choice fit for the summer. I’ve chosen a Château Trians, which with its fresh notes of currant and spice makes for a delicious friend.