Seafood stews are to the coasts of Georgia and the Carolinas what clambakes and lobster feasts are to the shores of the upper Atlantic: convivial summer fare.
Summer weekends find seafood lovers checking local newspapers and town bulletin boards for festivals featuring stews of the season, where great potfuls are ladled for charity or good fun.Traditional stews of this low country, which runs from Cape Hatteras, N.C., south to Fernandina Beach, Fla., are made with shrimp, blue crab and sometimes fish.
Early this summer, several thousand people came to Pawleys Island, S.C., to feast on shrimp gumbo, fried chicken, fish and hush puppies, and such heirloom deserts as blackberry dumplings.
This was the annual Gumbo Stew Festival at Camp Baskerville, a fund-raising event for the camp, a church-run social-services center. The festival is also an effort to preserve the folklore, food and crafts of the Gullahs, black residents of the sea islands off Carolina and Georgia. The gumbo cook, Susan Grant, proudly claims her Gullah heritage.
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The gumbo recipe, which Grant has been preparing since she was 11 years old, is her grandmother's. She feels so strongly about carrying on traditions of Gullah cooking that she takes time off from her job as a crane operator in a steel plant to supervise preparation of the gumbo, 175 gallons this year, and other food for the festival.
A typical Low-Country stew glorifies the abundance of summer. Any seafood available may be the inspiration for a stew, even freshwater fish, though shrimp and crab are preferred.
The stew is started with smoked sausage, in times past homemade. Now commercial kielbasa and, occasionally, Italian sausage are standard. Pork is traditional because pigs, along with the chief local crops of rice, tobacco and cotton, are an inseparable part of local agriculture.
Using vegetables\ The vegetables that an average garden in the South offers by midsummer distinguishes these stews from the chowders and soups of the North, where the planting season is later. Potatoes are in most of the stews, and they should be new potatoes, dug in the late spring in the Carolinas, Georgia and northern Florida.
Fresh corn, left on the cob, is customary, and tomatoes and okra may be used. Other vegetables are added according to the garden. They are usually cooked whole or in large chunks.
A large family or group of friends can gather around an outdoor table and dig in to the seafood stew, drinking iced tea and lemonade by the gallon. One stew cook, Tom Shierling of the University of Georgia Marine Extension Service in Brunswick, Ga., serves his stew Cajun-style, with the meat, shellfish and vegetables dumped out on a cutting board, and the broth served in mugs.
Shrimp and crab are cooked in the shell in the rich broth, so eating them demands plenty of napkins or a Southern equivalent of a lobster bib.
With the advent of air-conditioning, cooking has moved indoors. For large groups like the one at the Pawleys Island festival, the food is prepared in an indoor kitchen, and served cafeteria-style at outdoor buffets.
Gumbo tops for most folks\ Gumbo or any Low-Country seafood stew is a popular party or family main dish, Grant and the other cooks say. There are tricks to make these stews suitable for more delicate eating: shelling the shellfish before cooking; cutting the vegetables in bite-size pieces and cutting the corn off the cob; serving the stew in soup bowls or plates.
Some cooks tamper with the old-time recipes. Charles Durant of the University of Georgia Marine Institute at Sapelo Island, adds rutabaga, fresh mushrooms, whole tiny yellow squash and asparagus to a country boil.
Hot pepper seasoning perks up most Low-Country stews. Most cooks enrich the flavor of the broth with crab boil, the familiar commercial mixture of hot chilies and other seasonings.
Grant uses fresh bay leaves, as bay trees flourish near Pawleys Island. She seasons with fresh herbs whenever she can find them and suspects her ancestors took advantage of the local bay trees.
Skilled cooks contend that the major seasoning for seafood stews is the aromatic vegetables. Salt it if you like, they say, but sausage provides enough spice for most tastes.\