The Lowcountry Boil is one of the few visible artifacts that has arisen from the spirit-filled sands of St. Helena Island’s Gullah community of South Carolina. This inherently insular culture, made so by the half-committal Gullah language (an unintentional meld of African, English, and Creole verbiage), has never surfaced significantly in any mainstream way. No person or outlet of popular media has gathered Gullah customs and lifestyle to the effect of making a definitive public impression of this people, and St. Helena Island’s fringe locale, besides the average Gullah’s disinterestedness in drawing attention to himself, keeps a complete picture of Gullah life hazy and fleeting in our urban vision.
The Gullah identity is spiritual, primitive, and colorful, mysteriously attractive and curious, and resembles some rich talent amid a myriad of vagabond street performers. One is urged to “discover” the talent, but chooses to leave its purity and authenticity preserved, rather than to submit such jewelry to the processing of the usual marketing grindstones. Frogmore Stew, named for the plantation from which it originated, took on the title “Lowcountry Boil” once it left St. Helena, and the “stew” is among the most popular of outdoor social preparations throughout the South, not quite affecting alternative status to that King of Backyard Social Functions, the Barbecue.
Scott Peacock of Watershed Restaurant in Decatur serves a Frogmore Stew that’s more true to stew-ness than the original, which is really a “boil”. His unconventional version is delicate, refined, and more complex in its constitution than the boil, while staying fundamentally faithful to Frogmore’s original ingredients.
Traditional Frogmore Stew calls for a kind of court bouillon consisting of Old Bay seasoning, peppercorns, water, and often beer. Peacock plans an actual stew, and chicken stock serves as the simmering agent as well as the stew’s main body.
Traditional Frogmore is a simple 3 stage process of bringing the bouillon to a boil, boiling the vegetables, then the meats, then removing the cooked ingredients with a large flat strained ladle. Peacock’s stew is much more nuanced, beginning with the roasting of oil-rubbed sausage. Peacock replaces the standard celery aromatic with green bell pepper, roasting it to blisters. Whereas Frogmore traditionally cooks ingredients in 1″ dices, slices, and chunks, Peacock cuts his ingredients finer, 1/2″ on the bias for sausage, and 1/2″ chunks for the peppers.
Red potatoes are the norm by virtue of their strength against the boil and their deep redness and solid flavor. Peacock uses small new potatoes and replaces the lost color with 1/2″ diced, peeled, and seeded tomatoes. His onion is not allowed to boil wild, cluttering his stew, but is sliced 1/3″, root intact. The 3″ corn cob segments are no different in Peacock’s recipe than in the traditional method.
It’s actually impressive that Peacock honors the boil element of the traditional stew, adding ingredients in stages, when it may have made for a more fluid process to develop the stew as he would a soup, starting with a roux or sautéing vegetables as a starting point. It is in details such as these that diners can recognize Peacock’s outstanding attention to integrity of process. This loyalty connotes a true love of his trade. As Peacock notes in his book, The Gift of Southern Cooking, “Good cooks in the South see the preparation of food as satisfying, a natural part of the rhythm of daily life.” So often a culinary star is born because he keeps simple virtues in mind amid the scrambling, feverish din of most professional kitchens. In the same book he writes, “Real Southern cooking is home cooking and to understand it – to taste it – you have to make it yourself.”
Peacock’s humility in prescribing home cooking is commendable considering his winning the James Beard award for Best Chef in the Southeast in 2007. If Peacock considers himself as just one in a line of home cooks of Southern tradition, his place must be legion in its folklore, and is apt to approach the status of tall tale in its greatness.