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A colorful view of Charleston's historic buildings and lively palm trees.
Travel & Culture

Significance of Sustenance: Charleston, SC

When visiting Charleston, South Carolina, you can’t help but marvel at its charm and beauty. From the fairytale streets lined with palm trees and historic mansions to the quiet coastal lowcountry landscapes, it looks as though it was plucked from the pages of a storybook. And while it’s true that the city and its people love to tell stories of days gone by, you can’t fully recount the Holy City’s history without recalling how its past — and its unique geography — helped shape the modern lowcountry cuisine that attracts thousands of people from around the world each year.

The city’s beauty will draw you in instantly, but it is the culture that will keep you coming back. The history, the landscape, the people — it’s all woven together seamlessly to create a magical experience you won’t find anywhere else in the world. And when you dine here, whether in a restaurant or at someone’s kitchen table, you can taste it all in every morsel of food.

Ingredients straight from the coast

The first thing you’ll notice when you visit restaurants in Charleston is the menu filled with fresh seafood options, like shrimp and grits, she-crab soup, oysters, fried whiting, and frogmore stew, otherwise known as a lowcountry boil. That may seem natural, considering it is nestled along the Atlantic, but so are hundreds of other cities up and down the Eastern Seaboard. 

"As a matter of fact, during the nineteenth century, Charleston oysters were all the rage in New York City."

What makes Charleston unique is that it’s surrounded by water beyond the ocean. The city sits on a peninsula formed by the Ashley and Cooper rivers. Creeks, estuaries, and streams run through its landscape, including the surrounding barrier islands. These waters, many of which remain untouched, are an excellent breeding ground for edible sea creatures, particularly shellfish. As a matter of fact, during the nineteenth century, Charleston oysters were all the rage in New York City. To some, they have a sweeter and saltier flavor than the ones from other regions. Lowcountry food is a lesson in using locally-sourced ingredients.

Beyond seafood, Charleston’s coastal waters are also ideal for growing rice. And for about 200 years, rice exports made and broke the city’s economy. Rice was planted in areas where tidewaters from local rivers rose and fell at levels suitable enough for cultivation, such as in the marshland at Magnolia Plantation. If you’ve had the chance to visit Magnolia in the past, there once were boat tours on the Ashley River where the rice fields once stood. Even though they’ve long since flooded over and become a habitat for alligators and seabirds, taking a trip to the Magnolia Plantation will help you to understand the history of one of the most important ingredients in lowcountry cuisine.

Southern cooking

While Charleston has its own unique cuisine, it’s also part of the larger region that makes up the American South. If you grew up in the south, you might have thought you experienced all there was to know about Southern cooking, but Charleston chefs — and home cooks — take it to the next level. Perfected buttermilk biscuits, fried chicken, sweet tea, and fried green tomatoes are as plentiful as the fresh seafood and Gullah dishes on menus and supper tables throughout the city.  

And, like the rest of the South, South Carolina has its own version of barbecue. It’s made from pulled pork cooked slowly at low temperatures — or “low and slow” as the locals say. But unlike other cities and states, South Carolina barbecue brings their A-game when it comes to sauce. Whether you prefer vinegar-based sauces, tomato sauces or mustard-based sauces, you’ll find different versions in Charleston, both in restaurants and on backyard grills— a true testament to the city’s Southern hospitality. Why offer your guests one sauce they may or may not like, when you can offer multiple and aim to please everyone?