Discovering Cultures: Carolina Low Country Meets… American Idol?
If I were coming from abroad, landing in America, what would I think of the Carolina Low Country?
As we passed the marshes of tidal South Carolina on our recent visit, I wondered why in the world settlers would have chosen to settle there.
Not that it isn’t stunningly beautiful to look at, to watch the sun rise each morning, to see the blue heron and the white egret. It certainly is.
But thinking of the people who settled this area, farming in marshland just isn’t the first thought that comes to mind.
I have long loved Low Country cuisine but had never really had a chance to delve into the history of the area. This trip was different. We stayed with friends and had lots of time to explore historic Beaufort (they pronounce it Byew-fort here) and learn about how the early settlements survived.
Considering that “12 Years A Slave” was just crowned as Best Picture of the Year, it seemed totally fitting to be in the Low Country learning about the Gullah (Geechee) culture.
While I am humbled by that chapter in humanity’s history, I am grateful that today the Gullah descendants have used their past to forge a vibrant culture and are teaching broadly about our inter-connectedness.
Their story goes from Africa to Brazil, and Barbados to South Carolina. While most slaves came from the rice belts of coastal Africa, many also came from the islands along the way.
Studying Beaufort, Port Royal and Charleston, it now makes sense to see the colors of Jamaica, Barbados, and South America.
When you blend the French, followed by the Spanish, the English, Dutch, African, German, Scots, Irish (and Scots-Irish), as well as those from all points south funneled through the West Indies trade routes, you have an impressive and vibrant collage of flavors and traditions.
Even though Charleston is a modern town with a military base, it keeps its colonial charms.
The Marine Corps magazine, “Leatherneck” describes its home in Charleston like this:
“Charleston’s a sleeper, but when it awakens, no one can tell what might occur. It definitely is more than Spanish moss, mint juleps and southern drawls. Adding to the quiet atmosphere are the cypress swamps, magnolia gardens and pine forests.
The Low Country Gullah (or Geechee as they are sometimes referred) of the Sea Islands who trace their roots back 4 or 5 generations or more, refer to themselves as natives and use a phrase “We bin ya, they come ya” to describe the old families and the new.
Their story has been captured and preserved by the Penn School, one of the most significant educational and cultural centers of African and African-American history in the country.
Established in 1862 to provide education for newly freed slaves, today the Penn Center, Inc. has gone beyond education and is actively working to preserve and share the heritage of the Gullah through international partnerships.
The addition of this rich heritage gives the Low Country a flavor all its own.
Interestingly, had it not been for those marshlands and the malaria brought from abroad, we might have lost this chapter all together.
When the Union forces invaded during the onset of the Civil War, many plantation owners fled for safer grounds inland, abandoning their homes to the slaves.
On the Sea Islands, the rice and cotton plantations continued for a time to provide for the families of slaves who remained but in remaining on the islands, it left the Gullahs there in one of the most geographically isolated regions in the United States.
Thanks to a built up immunity to malaria and other diseases like yellow fever, outsiders stayed away and the Gullah remained relatively intact and undisturbed for years- a blessing in disguise.
The first bridges were not built until the 1920s, and a decade later there were still adults on the islands who had never visited the U.S. mainland.
Today we find evidence of “Heirs Property” or land that has been handed down from generation to generation without wills or deeds.
Using what grew around them and could be harvested from the bounty of local waters, Low Country culture survived and their cuisine thrived.
Frogmore Stew is a local favorite, containing neither frogs nor stew broth. Instead it is a boiled dinner with local shrimp and other seasonal seafood, corn on the cob, housemade sausage, boiled together with spice mixes like “Old Bay”.
I should say that despite the large size and numbers of alligator I saw each day, I didn’t find alligator dishes on the menu here (on the other hand, in New Orleans and on the Louisiana Bayous, alligator is a favorite!) I might rather have seen them on the menu instead of at the edge of every pond, marsh and river we walked beside!
In contrast to the adrenaline rush of the alligators, we found a relaxing love of good, casual music that included swamp rock, folk music and bluegrass musicians aplenty.
At many local restaurants music is on the menu, and with mild winter nights on offer, we sat out on the deck of the Foolish Frog and never did have to light the deck heaters.
The Carolina Low Country has much to recommend it, from scenic beauty, bountiful natural resources from both land and sea, outrageously tasty and innovative food, to local artists using paint/mixed media, and the ubiquitous sweetgrass woven baskets made in patterns unique to the Gullah.
But you know the one resource that strikes me as its best?
Hands down… it’s the spirit of its people (really friendly people!).
Maybe the laid back character of the islands is due to the lack of urban traffic and sprawl.
Perhaps it’s the islands themselves- like the Jamaican “Don’t Worry” attitude.
Whatever it is, it’s infectious (a little like malaria, but in a good way). I know that being on Dataw Island (St. Helena) was a relaxed as I’ve been in a long while. The people are sweet and kind, gentle like the breezes and it rubs off on all us beltway brethren, in a good way!
So you’re probably wondering what all this has to do with American Idol, right?
The first time we visited was during some show that our host liked to watch. Maybe you’ve heard of it- “American Idol”?
Well, when she told us that a local kid was on one night we all watched and rooted for the Beaufort teen taking the nation by storm.
This time when we returned, Candice Glover had been crowned the latest winner on the show and has a new debut album being released. Take a look…
It was so nice to see all the friends and family sharing in the joy of one of their own making her dream come true. We trust her Low Country culture will sustain her and keep her grounded. Just remember these words:
“In the words of the Gullah people “when oonuh dey yuh, oonuh dey home”
—when you are here, you are home.”