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Spring 2012 – Second story
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Lowcountry's Fishing Future: Are Locavores the Answer?
VOLUME 26, NUMBER 3, SPRING 2012              

Black Waterman and Cooks Created our Seafood Cuisine
By John H. Tibbetts                                                                       back to main story    

Mosquito Fleet fishermenFor generations, slaves and their descendants caught most of the seafood landed in the lowcountry and created dishes that define lowcountry cuisine.

In colonial days, Africans dominated the lowcountry’s maritime trades. Slaves piloted vessels that carried rice barrels between plantations to Charleston. Africans also owned or had de facto ownership of many small watercraft and canoes that carried travelers. Black watermen would often stop along riverbanks to trade with other slaves. Planters disapproved of this trade, but couldn’t stop it.

Lowcountry planters did, however, purchase food that slaves had raised or caught on their own time once their daily tasks were completed. The most common foods in these exchanges were fish, poultry, and livestock, according to Philip D. Morgan, a historian at Johns Hopkins University.

Historians have shown that some rice planters sought slaves from West Africa who had experience in rice cultivation. Planters also might have preferred some African ethnic groups for their familiarity in navigating boats between ocean and inland rivers and swamps. One South Carolinian acknowledged that some slave watermen “prove very handy and take to their work with a seeming kind of Pleasure.” Another African slave was “very fond of the water.”

By the mid-18th century, a group of “fishing Negroes” had a near monopoly on fishing in waters around Charleston, using their skills to supply their masters with seafood, sell the surplus in city markets, or trade with other slaves.

In 1770, the South Carolina legislature acknowledged, “The business of Fishing is principally carried on by Negroes, Mulattoes, and Mestizoes.” 

A decade later, a French visitor noticed that the most popular local fish was blackfish, caught with hook and line by Africans in sailing canoes. At dawn, fishermen would arrive at the Charleston fishing banks 10 to 20 miles offshore and return with the midday wind. This flotilla of small boats eventually became known as the “Mosquito Fleet.”

Early in the 19th century, a French visitor near the banks noticed “twenty-five dugouts, each containing four Negroes who were having excellent fishing.” Every 10 minutes, he wrote, they would haul a 12-to-15 pound fish into one of their canoes.

At some point before the Civil War, however, northerners became successful fishermen in the Charleston area. By 1860, 15 New England “smacks”—ships fitted with wells to hold live fish—sailed south each autumn to Charleston and remained until May. A single smack could catch several thousand blackfish that were stored in partly submerged cages in coastal rivers and sold throughout the region.

Following the war, South Carolinians bought most of the New England smacks, and Charleston became an important seafood-trading center along the southern Atlantic seaboard for a time—until Savannah won the crucial railroad connections to lucrative northern seafood markets in the late 19th century.   

Charleston’s “Mosquito Fleet” sailed their small fishing canoes out of the harbor every morning until a 1940 hurricane destroyed most of the boats. The fleet never recovered. After World War II, some of the men found jobs on the newer diesel-powered boats that trawled for shrimp.  

For hundreds of years, the Gullah people—slaves and their descendants who lived primarily along coastal rivers and on sea islands—created or enriched the lowcountry’s seafood recipes and flavors. They supplemented their diet and income by oystering, shrimping, crabbing, and fishing.

Gullah cooks made seafood dishes (shrimp and grits, Frogmore stew, and she-crab soup) by blending European, African, and North American ingredients and recipes.

A common lowcountry dish is a pilau (pronounced “perlow” by the Gullah people), a kind of stew.

To make a pilau, a cook heats a broth fattened by salted pork, shrimp, or oysters. Once the broth is simmering, long-grained rice is added—two parts liquid to one part of rice by volume—and often the cook also puts in field peas, greens, or other ingredients. The pot is then covered, the rice steamed until nearly dry.

Hoppin’ John is a pilau of rice, field peas, pork, and sometimes greens that many South Carolinians eat for good luck and prosperity on New Year’s Day.

“You name the pilau after what you put in it,” Emory Campbell, former chairman of the Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commission, once said. “If you put oysters in, that was an oyster pilau; put in shrimp, that was a shrimp pilau.”

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Last updated: 5/17/2012 3:16:40 PM
Spring 2012 – Second story


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