At its heart, Southern food is a tapestry of flavors, the result of a complex weaving together of the various cultural and regional cuisines that developed throughout the South’s elaborate history. Consider, for example, the food of the Southeastern Lowcountry, a region of lush estuaries and marshes and generous expanses of coastline. The distinctive cuisine of the lowland is rich with the fruits of these waterways, steeped in borrowed traditions and seasoned with a generous pinch of old money.
It is generally agreed by those that discuss such matters that the Lowcountry begins where the Appalachian mountains suddenly meet the coastal plains of South Carolina, and stretches all the way to where the islands form a broken border along the state’s coast. The distance that the region encompasses from north to south along the Atlantic is open to dispute some say Georgia and even Northern Florida are included. It is widely accepted, however, that Charleston held great sway over the development of Lowcountry cuisine, with its influx of traders from foreign lands and wealthy residents with a taste for the exotic nurtured by world travel. Whiffs of Creole, West African and Caribbean culture can easily be detected in the region’s foods, largely due to the enslaved women who were responsible for cooking on the plantations.
With the bounty of these wetlands also came a great price; as the hellish heat of the Carolina lowland summers descended, so did the danger of mosquito-borne diseases typical of such warm and moist climates. Those wishing to escape the specter of malaria or of the “summer fevers” that haunted the region (as well as the moneyed retreat-seekers), quite literally beat a path to the relative cool of the mountains of Western North Carolina. At the urging of wealthy and well-traveled vacationing lowlanders, the Saluda Gap Road was built along an old trading path in the 1820’s. The Buncombe Turnpike opened shortly thereafter, opening wider the travel conduits from Charleston and the surrounding areas to the “wilderness” of the North Carolina mountains. So great was the flow of Charlestonians to the area of Flat Rock, a favorite of Lowcountry “refugees,” that it was nicknamed “Little Charleston.”
The deep-Southerners brought to the Appalachian people a slice of their culture, a rich and varied cuisine that must have been a revelation to a people whose geographical isolation and limited resources kept the menu pretty darn simple. However, the culinary traditions that the highlanders in turn shared with these visitors cannot be ignored. Appalachian women were proficient in wild berry and mushroom gathering, herbalism and jam making; the men were handy at fishing for trout in the cool mountain streams or toiling in the smokehouse. Through the building of roads, then train tracks, a culinary connection was born, and items like apples, preserves and trout found their way into Charleston cooking.
It is this merging of cultures and cuisines that authors Douglas W. Bostick and Jason R. Davidson celebrate in The Boathouse: Tales and Recipes from a Southern Kitchen. This “cookstory” book part history, part cookbook paints a vivid picture of a bygone era, but is quick to remind us that the story still lives on through recipes and storytelling.
As Richard S. W. Stoney’s rather romantic introduction proclaims, “My love affair with ‘everything Southern’ began with my first breath, taking in the Atlantic air as it carried the fertile scent of the Carolina Lowcountry … growing up next to the ocean in Charleston and in the mountains of North Carolina has marked my life and defined my passions.” As his ancestors did before him, Stoney made the journey “up the grade,” as a child and later as owner of Crew Carolina, a restaurant management company responsible for three Boathouse Restaurants (Asheville, Charleston and Isle of Palms, S.C.). Giving up life as a lawyer, Stoney opened his first restaurant at Breach Inlet in Isle of Palms, then another on East Bay in Charleston, and finally a third, which is located on the banks of Lake Julian right here in Asheville. All three restaurants extol the virtues of our indigenous cuisine.
The book is a reflection of these passions, which are manifested through photographs of regional features, such as Appalachian waterfalls, Charleston’s harbors, and full-page shots of okra and tomatoes glistening in the summer sun. It is evident in the dutifully recorded long-ago-sung songs of street vendors hawking shrimp at roughly 10 cents a pint with cries of “Swimpy! Swimpy!” in the streets of old Charleston. It is in the old-timey photo of plump, wealthy Charlestonians reclining in rocking chairs on a porch with open bottles of wine before them for these men leisure was a priority, along with fine taste. It is in the digging up of historical morsels from folklore: “A mountain man likes his coffee strong enough to float an iron wedge and likker strong enough to make a rabbit spit in a bulldog’s face.”
The appreciation for all things Southern is most apparent, however, in the painstaking recording of the recipes, which, after all, sing the clearest song of Southern cuisine. “As our authors suggest,” says Stoney at the conclusion of his introduction, “this is history you can taste.”
Jalapeno Corn Pudding (serves 6 as a side dish)
“Corn pudding is a heritage dish found in the mountains and on the coast,” writes Douglas W. Bostick in the introduction to this recipe, “to celebrate the summer’s bounty.” He goes on to advise using fresh, local corn.
Ingredients for the corn pudding:
6 ears sweet corn
3 T butter
2/3 cup heavy cream
1 1/2 tsp salt
1/4 tsp fresh-ground black pepper
2 jalapenos, seeded, membranes removed and minced
2 tsp pure maple syrup
1 1/2 cups milk
2 T cornmeal
To prepare the dish:
Cut the kernels off 5 ears of corn, scraping the cobs with the back of a knife to remove and collect all of the “milk.” Grate the remaining ear of corn on the coarse side of a box grater, collecting all the juices.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Using 1 tablespoon of the butter, grease a baking dish. In a large skillet, melt remaining butter over medium heat. Add all the corn including its “milk.” While stirring occasionally, cook the corn until it starts to thicken slightly. Add the cream, salt, pepper, jalapeno, and maple syrup. Cook for 5 more minutes until thick and a spoon leaves a trail when scraped on the bottom of the pan.
Remove from heat and place in a bowl. Stir in milk, eggs and cornmeal. Pour into the baking dish. Set dish inside a larger pan and then fill the larger pan with very hot water until it comes up halfway to the smaller baking dish. Cook the mixture for 20 to 25 minutes or until the center jiggles slightly when shaken. Allow pudding to rest 10 minutes before serving.