Across the marsh, beyond the silhouettes of two shrimp boats pulled to the dock, the sun hovers over the horizon — reluctant, it seems, to put an end to this idyllic summer day.
When Johns Island farmer Joseph Fields was a boy, days spent in the field were even tougher than today. They picked their butter beans by hand all morning, then shucked them by hand all afternoon. But Friday evenings were the redeeming moment, when the entire family gathered on the farm for Frogmore Stew.
"We'd knock off, and everybody got together," recalls Fields. "We feasted."
The gleam in Fields' eye when he recounts those tales is what we're trying to recreate. On a balmy but breezy Friday summer evening, we've gathered on the dock at Pete and Babs Ambrose's house along Adams Creek in Rockville in hopes of perfecting the simplest Lowcountry dish of all, Frogmore Stew.
Discussion of nomenclature ensues. Around the middle of the last century, just outside of Beaufort, the tiny town of Frogmore lent its name to the combination of shrimp, sausage, corn, and potatoes, boiled together with seasoning. Soon thereafter, in other parts of the state, the name Beaufort Boil gained common use. Still farther from the epicenter, in places like New York City (where the marketing of all things Southern has grown into its own cottage industry), they call it Lowcountry Boil.
Of course, boiling the day's catch with whatever's fresh from the field is a cooking concept that stretches back to the coast's first inhabitants, long before the days of Old Bay and Zatarain's.
For our stew, we've aimed to put together the best of ingredients, each sourced locally. From his family's farm, Fields has brought a bulging crate of sweet corn. Ambrose Family Farm has supplied Yukon gold and red potatoes (dug that morning), sweet onions, and green peppers, used to season the water in place of Old Bay (on the second batch, we still used a little bit of the potent red powder).
From his farmers market stand, Meathouse's Jason Houser contributes two gallon-sized bags of andouille sausage. The artisan butcher prepares one pig a week, rendering it into products like sausage, bacon, and pork chops with flavor that puts the fatty, stabilizer-filled options at the grocery store to shame. Houser first made sausage while working at Charleston Grill, where they asked him to design a Frogmore Stew for a fine dining menu. Not surprisingly, his sausage is the first thing to disappear when we pour our finished stew onto the newspaper-covered communal table.
The shrimp, cooked heads-on in hopes of wrangling their full flavor, were supplied by shrimper Mikel Glenn, caught that very afternoon and unloaded at the dock where we eat. David Merritt and Jaime Tenny of COAST Brewing Company have brought the beer, including a half-keg of their 32/50 Kölsch. More than a few cups worth find their way into the boil pot.
Wadmalaw resident and family farmer Andrew Payne has fashioned a homemade cocktail sauce of fresh tomatoes, ketchup, horseradish, ground onion, and white pepper. The son of a life-long resident of the Old Village of Mt. Pleasant, Payne offers his father's careful rules of a proper boil.
"Rule one: Don't screw up the potatoes. Rule two: Four minutes on the shrimp," Payne directs. "And if you call it anything other than Frogmore Stew, it will hurt his feelings."
Point taken. For our stew, we begin by rendering the fat from the sausage, draining the greasy juice into the pot water, and then setting the almost-cooked sausage aside (keeping close guard from hungry fingers until it's added to the pot with the shrimp). Once we reach a boil, diced and whole potatoes enter the froth, along with sweet onions, chopped green peppers, salt, and bay leaves.
After about 10 minutes, we're ready for the corn — a few whole ears and generous halves.
"Good corn is ready before it hits the pot," cautions Pete Ambrose. In fear of serving soggy corn to this expectant gathering, a close eye is kept on the cooker. Over by the trunk of the live oak tree providing our canopy, two little girls peer into a bucket of whole shrimp.
"Are they alive?" one inquires.
"They were this morning," says a smiling Ambrose, before adding them to the pot, followed quickly by our sausage.
Almost immediately, the shrimp turn pink, and we cut the heat. They'll continue to cook in the minutes before the basket is pulled, before spreading its enviable contents across the table.
With the rendered pork fat, the bisque of the heads-on shrimp, and the gentle bite of the kölsch permeating through the pot, it is agreed that we've prepared a commendable batch of Frogmore Stew.
It's Friday night, warm enough for a sunset swim if our bellies weren't so full, and people are happy.
Hosting a boil harkens back to a simpler time. Each of our modern Southern dishes stems from basic logic — this is what we have right now, so this is what we eat.
During the summer, that's Frogmore Stew. You feed a bunch of people with what you've got. And fortunately, in the Lowcountry, we've got it pretty good.