John Egerton wrote in Southern Food, “Within the South itself, no other form of cultural expression, not even music, is as distinctly characteristic of the region as the spreading of a feast of native food and drink before a gathering of kin and friends. For as long as there has been a South, and people who think of themselves as Southerners, food has been central to the region’s image, its personality, and its character.”
Egerton is right; anyone who identifies as a Southerner or grew up in the South knows just how central food is to Southern culture. However, these Southern culinary traditions developed over nearly 400 years of trade between Europe, West and Central Africa, and the Americas, and reflect the blending of cultures that make up the Atlantic World. As in rest of the South and on its many plantations, the menu at Hobcaw House was shaped by West African, Native American and European foodways.
It was the Native Americans who first taught European settlers which wild plants were edible and how to cultivate the sweet potato, squash, a variety of beans, pumpkins, and peppers. The most significant of these plants was corn. Corn had been cultivated in the Americas for thousands of years, and was also introduced into Africa in the context of the slave trade. By the time enslaved Africans arrived in South Carolina they were already familiar with the crop.
Corn is a central ingredient in a number of traditional Native American recipes including cornbread, grits, and hominy. A favorite Southern dish, hog and hominy, is a creolized version of the Native American dish described by William Biggs after he was captured by the Kickapoos in 1788. Biggs was adopted by the tribe and took an Indian bride, who made a wedding dish “of hominy, beat in a mortar, as white as snow, handsome as I ever saw, and very well cooked. She fried some dried meat, pounded very fine in a mortar, in oil, and sprinkled it with sugar.” Creolized offshoots of this dish are recognized as Charleston’s grits and liver pudding and New Orleans’ grillades and grits (pounded steak, fried with onion and tomato, and served with grits on the side).
The Eastern Oyster is abundant in the tidal creeks that wind through the marshes of Hobcaw Barony and has long provided sustenance for the residents of the Waccamaw Neck. Oysters were a favorite food of native people, as confirmed by numerous shell middens – ancient deposits of oyster and clam shells – along the shores of Hobcaw Barony. South Carolina oysters are of the intertidal variety, meaning that they grow in the area exposed between high and low tides, and are generally in season during months with an “R” – namely, from September through April. Like the Native Americans who inhabited Hobcaw before them, the Baruchs frequently served oysters to their guests, whether at outdoor oyster roasts or in the dining room.
African influences were introduced to European culinary traditions during and after the Atlantic slave trade. According to culinary historian Michael Twitty, “People were bringing back exotic plants as part of slave trade voyages and those plants were established in the New World. Sometimes bringing back livestock. We know that camels and sheep and goats and pigs and cows from West Central Africa are being introduced to the New World along with other things like bananas and plantains… it’s a really complex history because we understand that enslaved people were producers. They were herdsmen, they were fishermen, they were gardeners, they were healers. They were cooks domestically and they were cooks in royal courts and all of that feeds into the story of African American foodways in the South.”
Culinary adaptations transformed the character of traditional African dishes into a unique, new creolized cuisine influenced by European and Native American traditions and characteristic of the Gullah culture. Charlotte Jenkins, author of Gullah Cuisine: By Land and by Sea, identifies six culinary tendencies in Gullah cooking – all of which have been referenced by former residents of Friendfield Village:
- composed rice dish preparation: one-pot perleau, bog, rice and peas
- creation of various types of fritters: corn, fish, conch fritters
- use of smoked ingredients for flavoring: ham bones, fish, turkey necks
- use of okra as a thickener
- abundant use of peppery and spicy hot sauces
- use of nuts and seeds as thickeners
African influences were quickly adapted into European households as well. Enslaved Africans and African Americans cooked most, if not all, of the meals in plantation houses, allowing for a subtle culinary transformation to take place. These Gullah characteristics can be seen in European cookbooks and households as early as the late eighteenth century. Mary Randolph, author of The Virginia Housewife, one of the nation’s earliest cookbooks, includes a recipe for gums, a buttered okra dish, and another for ochre (sic) soup, which is similar to today’s gumbo. These recipes incorporate Gullah/African traditions through the use of smoked meats and fish as seasonings, the use of nuts and okra as thickeners in stews often referred to as gumbo. These dishes, along with others, “like fried chicken, which calls on the West African art of frying; a host of fritters, which hark back to the African method of frying in deep oil; and range of nut soups, went on to represent some of the best cooking the South had to offer.” (The Welcome Table – Jessica Harris).
After slavery, African Americans, particularly African American women, continued to work and cook inside Southern white households. This was true for Hobcaw Barony, where a number of the serving staff at Hobcaw House were African-American residents of Friendfield, Strawberry, and Barnyard Villages. Although we do not know a great deal about the meals that were eaten at Hobcaw House, we can assume that they incorporated creolized Southern food and cooking techniques, since at least four of the cooks – Charlie McCants, Sr., Lucy McCants or McCray, Maudess McClary and Daisy Kennedy – were members of Hobcaw’s African-American community.
An obvious example of African influence within the kitchens of Hobcaw House was the use of the diamondback terrapin turtle, which was once common to the old rice fields and marsh creeks of South Carolina and coveted for its delicious meat. The Baruchs kept terrapins in a pen at Hobcaw Barony and Bernard Baruch once sent a box of them to his friend Georges Clemenceau, Prime Minister of France during WWl. When Baruch asked Clemenceau whether he had enjoyed them, the Frenchman replied that he had found them “too amusing” to eat. Turtle was considered a delicacy in Afro-Caribbean cultures as well; the Gullah term for turtle is “cooter,” thought to derive from the Malinke word “kuta.” Whether eaten as turtle soup or cooter stew, turtle was a dish enjoyed by the African-American residents of Hobcaw as well as by the Baruch family and their guests.
As in the rest of the South, Hobcaw Barony’s cuisine was intrinsically linked to the cultural and natural landscape. As culinary historian Michael Twitty so excellently states, “Southerners are bonded through food as a family. We are a dysfunctional family, but we’re still family. The fact that we are connected to each other in ways that no other American population is, has, or ever will be, is key.”