Bringing It to a Boil

A Lowcountry culinary tradition

Photography by Robert Clark

Friends engage in conversation in the backyard while enjoying a breezy summer evening. Citronella candles cast a soft glow, attempting to ward off those little Southern vampires we call mosquitoes. A few people focus on a serious game of bocce ball, and the aroma of spicy seasonings and seafood wafts from a nearby steam pot. Finally, someone calls,  “Food’s on!” and it is time to eat a mouth-watering meal that will leave guests satiated and looking forward to the next taste of an iconic Southern dish.

Lowcountry boil has become a culinary tradition throughout the South. While it most likely originated from the rich Gullah traditions of the lower coastal area of South Carolina, some interesting stories are told about its creation. One tale describes a shrimper from Frogmore, a small town on St. Helena Island near Beaufort, who, while cooking sausage, corn, and potatoes in a pot, decided to toss in some shrimp at the last minute. The dish was a hit and the recipe made its way into local restaurants.

A more well-known story is that of Richard Gay, who owned Gay Seafood Company, also located on St. Helena Island. The story goes that Richard, who served in the National Guard, needed to feed 100 of his fellow guardsmen. He concocted the family recipe and named it “Frogmore stew” in honor of his hometown.

Whether you call it Frogmore stew, Beaufort stew, or Lowcountry boil, the basic recipe is always the same: tender potatoes, sweet corn-on-the-cob, smoky sausage, and succulent shrimp. Because it is such a simple recipe, it is perfect for serving to large crowds or paring down for a quick meal with a few friends or just the family.

Lizzy and Coleman Fowble have hosted many a Lowcountry boil at their Forest Acres home over the past several years. Lizzy remembers having Beaufort stew growing up. Her grandparents were immigrants from Northern Italy and taught her and her brother, Andy Bernardin, and sister, Bonnie Papajohn, to cook at an early age.

“We were always cooking and making pasta with my grandmother and cousins,” she says. Her father, John Bernardin, introduced the family to the Lowcountry boil. “My father loved to cook and was always looking for something new to try. He taught us all how to cook different things. When we were all younger, my parents would rent a beach house at Litchfield for two weeks, and that is where we started making Beaufort stew. We were always feeding a crowd!” she says. Lizzy’s mother, Libby Bernardin, still works to bring the family together each year for a beach week, and Beaufort stew is always on the menu.

Lizzy and Coleman have lived in several regions around the country as part of his profession as an orthopedic surgeon, including a few years in Mobile, Alabama. “You make a boil with crawfish there,” she recalls, “but you can only get fresh crawfish certain times of the year, whereas you can get fresh shrimp here almost any time. We don’t eat a lot of meat, so seafood is a staple in our house.” Lizzy’s mother now lives in Georgetown and regularly sends her home with fresh shrimp.

Of course, the theme for a Lowcountry boil has variations, and Lizzy and Coleman have created their own recipe. “I don’t care for the store-bought liquid boils for seasoning, and Coleman prefers his boil spicier,” she says. “He learned how to make his own seasoning when we lived in Mobile.” Their version includes allowing onions, whole cloves of garlic, beer, bay leaves, cayenne, and lemon to simmer for a while to create a seafood broth before putting in the main ingredients.

A Lowcountry boil does not require many kitchen tools, only a large steam pot or turkey fryer with a drain pot, some potholders, and newspaper or Kraft paper laid over the table. That’s really about it, because it’s meant to be eaten with fingers and not utensils.

Regional variations include different types of seafood ranging from shellfish to crustaceans to fresh fish. In New Orleans, the dish is spicy in the Creole fashion and usually includes crabs or crawfish. “We lived in Boston for a bit, too,” Lizzy says, “and I think the Lowcountry boil is our version of their New England clambake.”

Lyle Edwards has been serving up fresh seafood for nearly 40 years and works with Dupre Catering and Events at The Market Seafood Shed located at the South Carolina State Farmers Market in West Columbia; there he sells fresh shrimp, soft shell crabs, oysters, and a variety of fish. “Lowcountry boil is one of those meals where you can substitute or add whatever you like. I’ve done it with chicken, crab legs, and stone crab claws, too,” he says.

When it comes to preparing the boil, Lyle recommends the following amounts per person: an ear of corn, a half pound of potatoes, one-third pound of sausage, and a third pound of shrimp. “I’ve been known to get a little crazy with it and throw in some scallops or a nice thick fish that won’t fall apart,” he says.

It is important to make sure the ingredients go into the pot in the proper order and cook for the right amount of time. “We always start with the potatoes after we let the broth simmer for a bit to create that wonderful flavor,” says Lizzy. “Those cook for about five minutes; then add the corn. Let that cook for another five minutes or so, and then put in the sausage. Finally, add the shrimp. Let it cook until it turns pink, and you’re ready!”

For the best boil, be sure to use fresh ingredients. Lyle heads to the Coast when seafood is in season for fresh shrimp, soft shell crabs, and oysters, and he encourages everyone to shop locally. “We have all the fresh ingredients you need right in our own backyard,” he says. “South Carolina’s Coast has everything you need for the perfect boil.”

As for serving Lowcountry boil, nothing could be simpler, especially for a crowd of people. Set up a large table, cover it in newspaper, toss the food onto the table, and move out of the way for some hungry guests. “We like to just stand around the table and eat,” says Lizzy, “We make our own cocktail sauce for dipping, and we’ll put rolls of paper towels on the table for everyone.” Since there usually aren’t any leftovers, cleanup is a breeze!

Because peeling shrimp can get a bit messy, it is a good idea to have some moist towelettes on hand. Offer lemons wrapped in warm, damp wash cloths to cut through the leftover shrimp smell on people’s hands.

Other ways to serve a Lowcountry boil include large aluminum tins set out on tables with tongs or large serving spoons. And aluminum cake or pie tins make wonderful plates. “You can fill your plate without worrying about the food sliding off,” says Lyle. He also recommends having plenty of cocktail sauce and melted garlic butter on hand. For those who might not be seafood lovers or are allergic, consider having chicken gumbo or a pot of chili available, especially if you are hosting a boil during the cooler months.

If you are entertaining a smaller group, Lizzy suggests serving an accompanying salad and a loaf of crusty French bread. “It’s nice to have a couple of side dishes if you’re serving just a few people,” she says. Rather than paper towels, you can use hand towels as napkins.

If you happen to have any leftovers, you can simply reheat and serve within the next couple of days. Refrigerate the leftovers, and when you are ready to eat, bring a pot of water to boil, toss in the food, and heat for just a few minutes. Be sure not to cook it for too long so that the shrimp do not become tough. You can also separate the shrimp from the mix to eat cold and only reheat the potatoes, corn, and sausage as a side dish. Serve it along with some coleslaw, and you have another great meal.

Just why are Lowcountry boils so popular? Lizzy believes it is because they are so easy to prepare. “It doesn’t matter if you’re cooking for a large crowd or just a few people,” she notes, “because it’s such a simple dish, and you can do it practically any time of year.” She also appreciates that it offers the ability to feed a crowd rather inexpensively.

Whatever your name preference, Lowcountry boil has become a tradition throughout the South. It is a meal that brings family and friends together  — and there is no better reason for hosting a party than that!