Sunday, July 08, 2012

Snacking State-by-State: South Carolina I - Honey come purloo me again!

South Carolina is the next stop on our culinary tour of the United States.  This state is known for everything from mustard barbecue sauce (not all over the state, but it is unique to the Palmetto State) to boiled peanuts to its Lowcountry boils and other dishes.  Many of those Lowcountry dishes come specifically from the Gullah people.

Official Name: State of South Carolina
State Nicknames: The Palmetto State
Admission to the US: May 23, 1788 (#8)
Capital: Columbia (largest)
Other Important Cities: Charleston (2nd largest), North Charleston (3rd largest), Greenville (6th largest)
Region: South, Southeast, Lowcountry; South Atlantic (US Census)
RAFT NationsChestnutCrabcake
Bordered by: North Carolina (north), Georgia (southwest), Atlantic Ocean (southeast)
Official State Foods and Edible Things: boiled peanuts (snack food), collard greens (vegetable), grits (food - okay, this is unofficial), milk (beverage), peach (fruit), rockfish / striped bass (fish), summer / wood duck (duck), white-tailed deer (animal), wild turkey (wild game bird)
Some Famous and Typical Foods: Southern foods, particularly Lowcountry foods in the southern / eastern half of the state (especially purloo, Gullah cuisine); seafood (shrimp, crabs, typically boiled or in soups); Lady Baltimore cake; different types of barbecue, including its unique mustard barbecue (between Columbia and Charleston)

South Carolina and coastal Georgia are Lowcountry.  This cuisine, as Ramsey Prather at Coastal Living Magazine (date unknown) points out, is heavy on rice, grits and seafood:
The Lowcountry teems with aquatic life, and for centuries local cooks have turned to the water for culinary inspiration. Crabs, shrimp, fish, and oysters form the basis of any traditional menu, and seafood dishes are offered at every meal. [Prather, date unknown]
Shrimp and grits, she-crab soup (not Virginia's variety from the Chesapeake Bay), frogmore stew and so on are all typical dishes of the Lowcountry.  Many of these dishes are important to the Gullah, that very localized Lowcountry African American culture that anthropologist Joseph Opala, an expert on Gullah culture, points out have very strong ties to Sierra Leone (date unknown).  In fact, the important tie between the Gullah and Sierra Leone is one specific food that is vital to Lowcountry cuisine: rice.
During the 1700s the American colonists in South Carolina and Georgia discovered that rice would grow well in the moist, semitropical country bordering their coastline. But the American colonists had no experience with the cultivation of rice, and they needed African slaves who knew how to plant, harvest, and process this difficult crop. The white plantation owners purchased slaves from various parts of Africa, but they greatly preferred slaves from what they called the "Rice Coast" or "Windward Coast"—the traditional rice-growing region of West Africa, stretching from Senegal down to Sierra Leone and Liberia. The plantation owners were willing to pay higher prices for slaves from this area, and Africans from the Rice Coast were almost certainly the largest group of slaves imported into South Carolina and Georgia during the 18th century. [Opala, 1986]
It is these enslaved West Africans that are the direct ancestors of the modern-day Gullah people, and the recipes I am interpreting for South Carolina are all familiar to them.

The first dish is indeed one of those rice dishes, one that exemplifies the importance of rice to the Lowcounrty.  The ancestors of the Gullah brought their ideas about how to cook rice with them, and one of the most important ones was what modern cooks call purloo.  Apparently nobody agrees on exactly how to pronounce it, even in South Carolina - pur-LOWE, pur-LAO, PUR-lowe, pur-LEW?  That's just a smattering of the many different ways to pronounce it: Joseph E. Dabney (2010:150) enumerates about sixteen that Lowcountry cooks have used in the past.  From what Dabney notes in his cookbook The Food, Folklore and Art of Lowcountry Cooking (2010), even though it came to America from West Africa, purloo is not native to Africa:
...the word and the dish are said to have originated in ancient Persia (modern-day Iran).  In subsequent centuries, the dish's popularity spread in all directions and accumulated many different name tags, such as pilaf in Turkey, pullao in India, and pelau in Provence, France [Dabney 2010:150]
That is, over time it worked its way from Persia through the Middle East into West Africa, and across the Middle Passage into the Americas.

One common feature of purloo, apart from the rice, is that it usually features meat or seafood as a main component of the dish.  Chicken, shrimp, oyster, crab, ham and even duck and sausage purloos abound in Lowcountry cookbooks.  But you do often see vegetable ones too.  The one I use below is from pages 156 and 157 of Dabney's book, which he adapts from Lillian Marshall's cookbook Cooking Across the South, and features okra.  Okay, okra and bacon.  Even though he calls it "Savannah Okra Pilau" - as in Savannah, Georgia - this is for all intents and purposes a purloo.  And is it that difficult to believe that something they'd be making in Savannah wouldn't have crossed the river into Charleston?  Seriously?

The Recipe: Savannah Okra Purloo (Pilau?)

To make this okra purloo, on pages 156-157 of Dabney's book, you will need:

* rice (a smallish bag is all I needed - about a dollar at Wegman's)
* okra (a package of the fresh stuff ran about $2.75 at Wegman's.  Typically I would've just bought frozen pre-sliced okra and saved myself the trouble, but the recipe calls for thinly sliced okra, and the frozen stuff is never thinly sliced)
* bacon (a few slices; the local variety set me back about $3.50 at Giant)
* onion (one is all you need - about 60¢)
* green bell pepper ($2 on sale, or about $1 for the one)
* chicken broth or bouillon (or this Better Than Bouillon stuff which seems to work)
* tomatoes (if not the goopy fresh kind you find in the supermarket, go with canned.  A can cost no more than a dollar)

You will also need a dash of salt, which I forgot to put in the photo.

First you ought to defuzz the okra.  Any of you who has dealt with fresh okra has learned this is not fun: the little hairs can sometimes bristle and stick in your skin and be a real pain.  What some websites suggest is to wash the okra, and then take a nylon net or brush or even a paper towel and scrub the hairs off as best you can.

There really is no other way to photograph this, is there?

Next, slice your okra pods thinly.

Cube your bacon and add it to a heavy skillet or Dutch oven with your okra.

Add the other vegetables...

...and your tomatoes, chicken broth and (of course) your rice.

Cover and let cook without uncovering for 15 minutes.

STOP! Do NOT lift that lid!  Since I have no lid for my cast-iron skillet, I used the lid for my crab pot like I did for the Maryland fried chicken recipe.

Uncover and fluff with a fork.  I found that in my cast iron skillet nothing burned to the bottom of the pan, as it usually does in my large pot to which everything burns.  That pot is now basically good only for boiling water and making soup.  Oh well.

This is a relatively easy rice dish to make.  The rice came out tender and the sliminess of the okra was hardly noticeable at all.  Plus, the bacon and rendered bacon grease give a nice flavor.  This was an all-around satisfying dish.  I will make this again - but next time I';m just doing the pre-frozen okra.


Food Network.  "True Grits".  Episode of the show Good Eats (Alton Brown, host). Food Network, 2004.

Dabney, Joseph.  The Food, Folklore, and Art of Lowcountry Cooking: A Celebration of the Foods, History, and Romance Handed Down from England, Africa, the Caribbean, France, Germany, and Scotland.  Cumberland House: Naperville, Illinois, 2010.
DiRuscio, Mike.  "Transcription of Good Eats: True Grits".  Good Eats Fan Page (, 2004.  Includes correspondence between DiRuscio and Alton Brown about the episode.

Lee, Matt, and Ted Lee. The Lee Bros. Southern Cookbook: Stories and Recipes for Southerners and Would-be Southerners.   W.W. Norton & Company: New York, 2006.

Opala, Joseph A.  "Introduction to The Gullah: Rice, Slavery, and the Sierra Leone-American Connection".  The Gullah: Rice, Slavery, and the Sierra Leone-American Connection, online version of the pamphlet, United States Information Service: Freetown, Sierra Leone, 1986.  Online access available through the Gilder Lehrman Center, Yale University.
Prather, Ramsey.  "Lowcountry Cuisine: South Carolina's coast is home to one of the country's richest culinary traditions."  Coastal Living (  Date unknown.  Copyright 2012 Time Inc. Lifestyle Group. All Rights Reserved.
Shields, John.  Chesapeake Bay Cooking.  Broadway Books: New York, 1998.

Villas, James.  The Glory of Southern Cooking.  John Wiley & Sons: Hoboken, NJ, 2007.

Some information also obtained from Wikipedia's "South Carolina" page and other pages, and the Food Timeline State Foods link to "South Carolina.