There’s No Country Like Lowcountry
When we decided that it was high time to bring Cook It Raw to America, we didn’t really realize the enormity and scope of how such a thing could work. America. The Star Spangled Banner. The very idea of it is daunting. It’s a titan of a landmass with a dizzying collection of cultures and landscapes, each with a unique culinary heritage. There are a hundred ‘Americas’ within this fiercely dominating nation; you could spend a lifetime studying the multitude of food histories and barely even scratch the surface. So where to begin?
We started looking at larger narrative arcs that defined the country – North vs South, Slavery, the Declaration of Independence, and so on – and when considering these elements through a culinary lens, kept coming back to the same place: The South. The South is the Mason Dixon Line, the birthplace of blues and rock and roll, spirituals and jazz – the very essence of American culture. Where else could you start?
Mass culture has defined the cuisine of the American South as universal comfort food – fried chicken, fried green tomatoes, fried everything if Colonel Saunders or Paula Dean are to be believed. But Southern cuisine is so much more than that. It is the very genesis of a distinct American culinary tradition. So, in narrowing down our focus to Southern cuisine, we began focusing on how Lowcountry cooking and how it represented so many fundamental aspects of American culture and history – the history and development of regional foodways, plant breeding, food dynasties, plantation economy and the evolution of race politics. What we discovered was a region that perfectly encapsulated so many of the cultural, historical and often prickly subjects that are fundamentally a part of the American psyche.
Charleston, South Carolina is a hotbed of living culinary history. We chose to convene tour 6th gathering in South Carolina’s Lowcountry in order to better understand the regional heritage and food traditions in relation to the both the local culture and landscape. On the surface, the Cook It Raw chefs are an elite legion of culinary innovators, but in the Lowcountry we were all students of the land. Through phases of discovery, meditation and creation, our time spent in the Lowcountry brought with it lessons in preservation and tradition, along with innovative ways of keeping these important institutions alive and part of a global culinary index.
When Cook It Raw arrived in Charleston, South Carolina on a sunny October day, our expectations for fantastic and unforgettable new experiences were high. We were eager to dip into this community of historians, farmers, producers, and chefs that are passionate about the preservation of a once-dying American food culture. What we didn’t expect was to be completely smitten with the sultry weather, the soulful stories and its rich, undeniably delicious culinary history. We came for the food but left understanding the very story of America. It was, to put it mildly, glorious. Here’s what happened.
Day 1 – Slow and Low with Rodney Scott
The start of our culinary odyssey begins in the grand drawing rooms of historic Charleston. We couldn’t have had a warmer Southern welcome than an invitation to lunch from Ali Rosen, a journalist, documentarist and transplanted Charlestonian, now living and working in New York. We arrived in awe at Ali’s family abode in The Battery, an historic area of Charleston known for its stately, antebellum homes…a lovely way to get acquainted with Charleston history and culture.
After lunch, we set out to discover exactly what it is that defines southern cooking. We start with the obvious – is there anything more distinctly American than barbecue? When it comes to barbecue, “slow and low” is the mantra of these parts, and it applies to both the cooking and the way of life. With Alessandro commandeering the bus, we piled in for our first roadtrip of a hundred miles or so from Charleston, to experience the national treasure that is Scott’s Bar-B-Que.
Rodney Scott is a bona fide pitmaster, masterfully at the helm of his family-run barbecue joint, which has been cooking up mouth-watering food since 1972. Until recently, Scott had been toiling away in the obscurity of his small but tight-knit community in the rural hamlet of Hemingway, South Carolina – then the New York Times came calling. The rest, as they say, is smoky, delicious history. His slow roasted whole hog, basted in the family’s secret barbecue sauce is a beacon of authenticity in the rapidly evolving food culture of the South.
Enlisting the tradition and method of his father and others before him, Rodney coaxes unlawful amounts of succulence out of each and every hog. Through the ins and outs of the twelve-hour process, he can be heard quietly repeating the words of his mantra: “It’s the story of my life.” But it’s more than that. It’s the story of people and places told through a food narrative that has the power to transcend time. Barbecue is an American tradition that centers around community and rest assured, Rodney Scott is keeping the community strong, one whole hog at a time.
Barbecue may be the symbol of the South, however Southern, or Lowcountry cuisine, is marked by a repertoire of cooking practices that have emerged over centuries. Through the intertwining of indigenous and migrant cultures, a unique and culturally distinct cuisine evolved, establishing Lowcountry cooking as truly individual among other American cuisines. However, after World War I, this rich culinary history began to decline as rice culture fell out of favour and the agricultural focus shifted to California as the nation’s purveyor of fruits and vegetables. The breakdown of traditional foodways paved the way for the take-over of industrialized food culture, which now defines the major food systems of North America. But with a movement afoot to bring back traditional ingredients and dishes into the culinary lexicon, a revival of heirloom varietals and reconstruction of traditional Lowcountry foodways has begun. The community has pledged allegiance to its culinary roots and has come together to collectively bring traditional Lowcountry food back – and we’re here to learn about it and talk to the people that helped to make this happen.