An Ode To Frogmore Stew
Moving back to the mountains of North Carolina meant not eating my beloved Frogmore Stew, but then I made a discovery.
For the uninitiated, I will clarify up front—I harmed no frogs in the making of this post.
Also, no frogs are used in Frogmore Stew. The name comes from the legend that the dish was invented in Frogmore, South Carolina, a community on St. Helena Island in Beaufort County.
For history buffs, this read about the Frogmore community in the National Register of Historic Places is fascinating.
If the odd name of the dish bothers you, realize that the same meal goes by many other names. Low Country Boil. Tidewater Boil. Beaufort Stew. Beaufort Boil. Whatever its title, it’s one of my favorite meals. Shrimp. Sausage. Corn-on-the-cob. Potatoes. Boiled in a seasoned broth typically combining beer, water, and Old Bay seasoning.
Some recipes use different seasonings. Or leave out the water to make room for more beer. Or add other ingredients such as onion, crab, or hot sauce. Long-time coastal families have their own special way of preparing the meal.
Is your mouth watering? Mine is. It’s one of those meals I’ve missed since moving back from Murrells Inlet to the North Carolina mountains. Until last week.
Who invented this meal? The official story traces the invention of the stew back to Richard Gay, who needed to feed 100 National Guardsmen in the 1960s and threw available ingredients into a pot.
Local shrimpers argue its just a variation of a dish they created from their daily catch. Long-time coastal families point to old recipes handed down for generations, often back to slave families who tended crops in pre-Civil War days. And, of course, those with Acadian ancestry point to their own arrival in South Carolina in the mid-1700s and the similarities to Cajun dishes found elsewhere.
Regardless of the specifics, the ingredients share a similarity to other Low Country dishes such as shrimp and grits—inexpensive components readily available to families in the area.
Don’t think of shrimp as cheap? You need only look out to the ocean horizon in South Carolina to see shrimp trawlers working. Those fresh catches are brought to shore and make the meals exquisite.
Long before I tasted my first Frogmore Stew, my love of seafood started in my childhood years, living over a hundred miles from the coast.
Gastonia and Fish Camps
We moved to Gastonia, NC, when I was 5. I remember the timing well because my kindergarten in Burlington was visiting a local fire department two weeks after we left. And my kindergarten in Gastonia had visited a local fire department two weeks before we arrived.
Not that I’m bitter about missing the fire department field trip. Nor have I reminded my family many times about that tragic deprivation of childhood. I’m just saying I never got to sit in a fire truck, blow the air horn, or turn on the sirens.
Today, you might think of Gastonia as a suburb of Charlotte, but back then, it didn’t feel like it. The textile industry dominated the town, giving it a quite different feel from the more mercantile Charlotte. Because the Catawba River bisects the two counties, only a handful of roads connect them. Many people do that commute today, but back then we ventured into Charlotte only infrequently and rarely for dinner.
As a family, we dined out on Friday nights, bouncing between pizza, Chinese, barbecue, and fish camps. For those uninitiated in the fine culinary history of fish camps, they are family-run, casual—often very casual—restaurants serving fried seafood, slaw, hush puppies, and sweet iced-tea. Some might offer baked potatoes as a side or serve the seafood in your choice of fried, grilled, or broiled. Forget about special sauces, because the only offerings were tartar or cocktail sauce, usually in plastic squeeze bottles.
My father and sister would order a pile of fried catfish and go to town, pulling the meat off the bones with their teeth. Soon a mound of fish skeletons grew in front of them.
I started eating flounder and moved to shrimp a few years later, the smaller ones not much bigger than a marble. I could easily wipe out a pound of shrimp without thinking about it. And did on quite a few occasions.
If you want some side reading, this article from Our State magazine how little fish camps in Gaston County have changed over the years.
The Low Country
Vacationing at the coast from Gastonia meant Myrtle Beach. We went dozens of times enjoying the surf and sand by day, the Pavilion and all its carnival rides at night, and the seafood in between. The dining was much the same as it was in Gastonia, especially up in Calabash, NC.
In my early teens, we visited the Low Country for the first time. The Low Country refers to the coastal sections of South Carolina south of Myrtle Beach, centered by the city of Charleston. The area is marshy with very hot, humid summers—perfect for growing rice in the 1700s and 1800s.
Unlike today, when much of the Charleston peninsula has been renovated, a much smaller section encompassed the historic district in my first visits. Still, the area had several great restaurants serving seafood in ways I had never had. I met, for the first time, the Low Country Boil. It was, most definitely, love at first bite.
I enjoyed it—or shrimp and grits—at every imaginable restaurant and quite a few private residences serving their own boils. Even, yes, in Frogmore where I had some of the best Frogmore Stew ever.
Interestingly, shrimp and grits have spread far outside of the Low Country. I’ve eaten in restaurants far from that region who offer shrimp and grits, often as a high-end meal—a laughable conceit considering its more humble beginnings.
The Low Country Boil—Frogmore Stew—isn’t found as often, but mainly because the concept of a seafood boil is so common. Each coastal region of the country seems to have its own version made with seafood fished from its part of the ocean, combined with vegetables from the surrounding land. The variety is tasty, but I miss being able to get Frogmore Stew outside of the Low Country.
Moving Back to Asheville
When we decided a little over a year ago to return to the North Carolina mountains from Murrells Inlet, we knew we would miss many things. The terrific friends and neighbors. The gorgeous sunrises over the ocean. The unbelievable variety of wildlife in the salt marshes outside our door. And the incredible, fresh seafood, especially the Low Country delicacies like Frogmore Stew.
But the mountains called us home, and we couldn’t be happier. We’ve settled back into our routines here, and love the cooler temperatures, the mountain wildlife, and the great people.
And I love the large variety of great foods thanks to the number of chefs who’ve located to Asheville. A restaurant just a few blocks from our house has an excellent shrimp and grits version. Unfortunately, I hadn’t been able to find a Frogmore Stew.
Until last week. We discovered the Surf N Brew in Fletcher just a few miles from our house. The casual atmosphere, baskets of fish, coleslaw, and hush puppies, and the friendly staff reminded me of the fish camps of my youth, yet it was quite different.
The variety of offerings was much broader. Fresh seafood of many flavors. Side dishes I never imagined as a kid. And an extensive list of beer options like nothing I ever saw growing up in Gastonia.
To be fair, the drink options back then were sweet tea, unsweet tea, coffee, or water because Gaston County was, like much of North Carolina, officially a dry county, and they didn’t serve moonshine in restaurants.
As I scanned the menu at the Surf N Brew—below the Po Boys, burgers, wraps, tacos, and baskets—I spied a Low Country Boil. It even had the official name—the one and only Frogmore Stew. In regular and kingsize.
I ordered a regular size with the Old Bay Seasoning—our server agreed with me that their alternate offering of lemon pepper meant it wasn’t really Frogmore. I watched the cooks prepare our meals and sipped my brown ale, nervously waiting for my food. Would it be as good as the Low Country?
The enormous platter soon sat in front of me. Corn on the cob. Red skin potatoes. Sausage. Shrimp.
The potatoes were perfect. The sausage so tender and sweet. The corn delicious. I began peeling the first shrimp, almost too hot to handle. And then I bit into it.
The flavors exploded in my mouth, and they transported me back to Frogmore. I savored every bite, just as I did that night. And, yes, I used a ridiculous number of napkins because it’s impossible to eat the dish without getting very messy.
And so I’ve found Frogmore Stew in Asheville. It’s good to be back home—with a little coastal flavor for variety.
Gratuitous Dog Picture: The Trouble Brothers
When the Trouble Brothers—Typhoon in the rear led by a slightly out-of-focus Roscoe—come running with smiles on their faces, something fun has happened somewhere, though they aren’t telling. And I really don’t want to know.
Focusing the Monday Musing
Did you notice something different about this week’s Monday Musing? I’m experimenting with a more uncluttered approach.
I want to center these posts on the main story, whatever that might be each week. The other pieces—other than the always-popular gratuitous dog photo which will absolutely remain—will move to other settings:
Books Read—I love sharing the best books I read, but sometimes the books I read in a given week don’t feel like something I think you might be interested in, so restricting my posts to weekly doesn’t seem to fit. I will continue posting my favorites over on the Books Read section of the website and will promote those posts via social media and my monthly newsletter.
Fun Photo—I enjoy capturing the scenery and wildlife around the Asheville area and sharing with you, but some weeks are better than others for photography. Besides, photos fit so well on social media and generate much more interaction there.
Vocabulary Word of the Week—This has always been a niche interest as a word geek. By sharing it on social media, those who are interested can enjoy it and everyone else can ignore it.
Interesting Links—This can fit in so many ways and places. For example, this week, I shared a link to some historical information about Frogmore SC as well as a link to a story about fish camps inside the musing. Other times, links might fit better on social media. By not making it a specific section, I can be free to share as appropriate.
To summarize—the Monday Musing will be focused on a single story, flexible enough to be as long or as short as appropriate. The gratuitous dog photo will be included because they are always up to something entertaining. Everything else will continue, but away from the Monday Musing.
What are your thoughts? Feel free to share in comments below or by emailing me.
Have a terrific week. Enjoy your favorite food. See you next Monday.