Low Country Boil
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A version of this article featuring a Low Country boil recipe originally appeared in Madison Magazine, June 2001. It was an installment of my monthly column there, “Table Talk.” Occasionally my husband and I would co-write the column.
Don introduced me to the concept of the Low Country boils he had enjoyed since childhood, so we researched and wrote this one together. Here’s the tag that ran after the article. I think it’s nicely put.
Vesna Vuynovich Kovach writes this column regularly. Don Kovach grew up in Savannah, where he loved to go shrimping and fishing along the salt rivers with his family.
The trees! The birds! The sun! What is it all saying? Have a cookout! You want to make a big heap of food and share it with your friends and family. And you want to be able to relax and enjoy your own party. Celebrate the summer with a Low Country boil.
The Low Country is the expanse of island-dotted salt marsh that makes up the coastal plain of Georgia and South Carolina. Time there is marked by the tides, rather than the hands of a clock. The culture is intimately tied to the life of the sea and the salt water.
Low Country boil is a synthesis of life in that part of the south: shrimp from the sea, potatoes and carrots from the farms, and sausage from the pigs people keep. The simple act of boiling these everyday ingredients in seasoned water creates a lively, eloquent harmony. Low Country boil is also called Frogmore Stew, for the St. Helena Island community where it’s thought to originate. But it isn’t a stew as we know it—a stew is slow-cooked to soft, thick, inseparability. In a Low Country boil, the ingredients all stay separate, though they come together in the pot and get served in a massive heap on the table. Folks just reach in and pull out what they want, as they want it: a shrimp, a potato, a hunk of corn.
Low Country boils are so popular in coastal cities like Savannah and Charleston, and the territory all around them, you’d think this was an ancient custom. In fact, historians have been able to trace it back only to around 1940, about the time sausage in casings (as opposed to sausage patties) were introduced to the region. Maybe it became so popular so fast because it it’s so easy. It’s a lot of fun, and it brings together so many good things. The salted water, when it boils, evokes the smell of the ocean. There’s a fragrant rush of seasoning as you pour out the food. It’s a big meal, a big thing, and it takes the whole of the outside to hold it.
To serve, just dump the food onto a wood or metal picnic table that’s covered with newspaper. No plates are necessary—people can gather around and eat straight from the heap, shelling shrimp and cutting off hunks of sausage as they go. Cleanup couldn’t be easier: put away any leftovers, and roll up and throw out the rest.
A Low Country Boil is great for outdoor gatherings of eight or more people. It doesn’t scale down well below that.
Corn bread, cole slaw, green salad, and great artisan-brewed beer go well with this meal. Watermelon is a natural to finish.
ingredients per person:
1/2 pound raw shrimp, shell on (thaw if frozen)
1/2 pound kielbasa, smoked sausage or ring baloney
1 ear corn, husked and broken in half
3 new potatoes, scrubbed but unpeeled
3 baby carrots (or one pound for up to 16 people)
1/3 clove garlic, peeled and chopped
1/3 bay leaf
For the whole pot:
4 gallons water
1 bag crab or seafood boil
2 tsp. salt
Equipment that bears mentioning
This is an outdoor cooking project. You’ll need a six-gallon pot with a basket insert and a propane burner with a sturdy stand (the same equipment used for deep-frying whole turkey).
In a nutshell
Boil ingredients outdors in a giant pot. Drain and serve.
Put the seasonings—crab boil bag, garlic, bay leaves, peppercorns and salt—in the water and bring it to a boil. Put the potatoes, carrots, and sausage in the basket, and lower the basket into the pot. Cook for a few minutes until the potatoes are almost done. Add the corn and cook for a few more minutes. The fresher the corn, the shorter the cooking time needed. Add the shrimp, and cook just until they turns red, about 3 minutes. Don’t overcook the shrimp, or they’ll be tough.
Lift out the basket. Turn out the contents onto a table lined with several sheets of newspaper. Call over your guests to gather around the table. Stay around the table or mill about and eat together. No utensils required.