5 Minute History: The history behind Lowcountry cuisine

Story by Richard Thomas

Working children are shown in this 1913 image taken by photographer Lewis Wickes Hine at Lowdon Canning Company in Bluffton.

Because flags of six nations have “flown over” Hilton Head, it can be expected that its foods have been equally diverse. If you add the fact that Gullah cuisine adds food traditions of several West African countries and tribes, it would seem that the foods for which Hilton Head has been known would be accordingly numerous. But that may be far from the truth. Modern Hilton Head is known for restaurants featuring recipes from nearly every ethnic food culture known to man, but the Hilton Head Island from the Civil War years through 1960 offered Gullah food nearly exclusively. Only one restaurant, which started in the late 1950s and featured oysters and, later, shrimp, provided a dining-out alternative. And, though the cultivation of staple food crops by early European settlers had brought some variety to the home-cooked foods of the pre-Civil War period, cattle and seafood were the main food products of the area dating from the late 1600s.

From the earliest days, though, the fin and shell fish of Hilton Head’s waters have to be the primary food for which Hilton Head Island has been known. Native Americans created dozens of shell structures from shellfish remains for thousands of years before European contact. Early European settlers preferred the fin fish over shellfish, as harvesting clams and oysters was considered distasteful and seen as labor below the dignity of their station. Yet it was oysters that were favored over the abundant flounder and shrimp pulled from local waters. Spanish aristocrats in 16th-century Santa Elena would vie for cooked, shucked oysters, and written accounts of festive oyster roasts at the Zion Chapel of Ease are found in the letters of several Island families from Colonial times.

Oysters were prominent in the fare of Charleston and Savannah society before both the American Revolution and the War Between the States. Oysters, roasted and otherwise prepared, were usually the only seafood served at elegant banquets and lawn parties. Harvesting was the work of enslaved persons, and it was specialized. It was a difficult and dangerous profession, with many oystermen perishing each year, and the enslaved people’s tags stamped with the label “fisher” were among the least numerous of tags issued. The raking of inter-tidal oysters was the primary means of harvesting until the cultivation of millpond oysters in the 1830s, an oyster variety recognized of superior quality in size and taste, but the advent of steam power made water-powered mills and millponds obsolete, so these oysters faded from the supply chain by 1845. From 1865 to 1920 an industry grew to substantial size supplying local markets with raked and cluster oysters, and when ice became commercially available, to markets in the upstate and nearby states.

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