Pinkie-size shrimp caught in South Carolina waters—where tides wash around dozens of barrier islands that are mainly marsh, palmetto, and scrub oak—enliven the stunning Gullah dish “swimpen graby.” I first encountered it at Belle’s, a small sunny café in Beaufort that, like most island cafés, serves only breakfast and lunch. Its shrimp and gravy looks like a giant fried egg with the colors reversed: a corona of coarse yellow grits spreads across the plate, while shrimp cooked with bacon and onions holds down the white center. Though the rest of the menu is principally Deep South and low-country cooking, there are other faithful Gullah recipes on the menu, including okra soup and Frogmore stew.
Gullah is the name used by escaped and freed black slaves who remained in the barrier islands of South Carolina after the Civil War. Many had worked on rice plantations, and they retained their love of rice and knowledge of how to cultivate it, by draining swampland, planting seeds, and reflooding the land in a controlled manner, using tools and methods developed in Africa. Their presence in the Carolinas was the result of “slave shopping” along the windward coast of West Africa, whereby slave owners sought slaves who had the technical knowledge of how to grow rice. Indeed, Gullah probably refers to the Gola, a tribe that continues to inhabit coastal areas of Sierra Leone and Liberia today.
Across the bridge from Beaufort lies St. Helena, another barrier island that sits flat on the horizon. Though encroaching development has grabbed the most attractive seaside plots, the center of the island remains a maze of dirt roads, broken-down trailers, and wooden shacks, many in small communities called settlements that resemble West African villages in layout. In the center of the island, the sole town is known as Four Corners to the Gullah, Frogmore to outsiders. At Johnson Creek Restaurant and Tavern, next to a marina on the eastern edge of the island, I had my first taste of Frogmore stew. It featured shrimp cooked with bell peppers, onions, potatoes, and smoked pork sausage in the manner of a New England boiled dinner. The flavor, though, was entirely Gullah.
I recently spent six days driving the back roads and barrier islands between Hilton Head and Georgetown, South Carolina. Leisure residential development, resulting in nightmares like Hilton Head, is rapidly diminishing the Gullah presence in these islands, and I went to take a last look at a culture in danger of extinction. My best culinary glimpse came on Edisto Island, away from the sprawling summer homes of city folk. There, at Main’s Market, a ramshackle country store, tourist shop, and garden center, I encountered an amazing buffet. The simple food was vegetable intensive, and mainly grown locally. Little was fried. I enjoyed a dish called tomato pie, involving sliced tomatoes stuffed with local herbs and topped with bread crumbs, and a marvelous gumbo—not the seafood and sausage stew we associate with New Orleans but a fundamental soup of okra, tomatoes, and corn that preserves the okra pods intact.
Not surprisingly, the gumbo reminded me of something I’d eaten in a Ghanaian restaurant just the week before.