For hundreds of years, the Gullah people—slaves and their descendants who lived primarily along coastal rivers and on sea islands—created or enriched the lowcountry’s seafood recipes and flavors. They supplemented their diet and income by oystering, shrimping, crabbing, and fishing.
Gullah cooks made seafood dishes (shrimp and grits, Frogmore stew, and she-crab soup) by blending European, African, and North American ingredients and recipes.
A common lowcountry dish is a pilau (pronounced “perlow” by the Gullah people), a kind of stew.
To make a pilau, a cook heats a broth fattened by salted pork, shrimp, or oysters. Once the broth is simmering, long-grained rice is added—two parts liquid to one part of rice by volume—and often the cook also puts in field peas, greens, or other ingredients. The pot is then covered, the rice steamed until nearly dry.
Hoppin’ John is a pilau of rice, field peas, pork, and sometimes greens that many South Carolinians eat for good luck and prosperity on New Year’s Day.
“You name the pilau after what you put in it,” Emory Campbell, former chairman of the Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission, once said. “If you put oysters in, that was an oyster pilau; put in shrimp, that was a shrimp pilau.”