When I think of great ways to spend a weekday afternoon, many things come to mind. In general doing something new involving food is a winner and that is how I spent my Tuesday afternoon at the Crosby Fish and Shrimp Pier in Folly Beach, South Carolina. Trying boiled peanuts for the first time, ripping the heads off shrimp right the boat, attending an authentic low country shrimp boil, and watching the taping of a show about how prepare said boil by a local celebrity chef……did I forget to mention all of this in the company of six stunning Italian supermodels? OK, well they weren’t quite supermodels but they were the top six of 70,000 applicants to be on one of Italy’s top television shows Donnavventura so as far as I was concerned, they were supermodels.
While most of us in the New World may be ignorant to Donnavventura, in Italy its “kinda of a big deal”. Its an 18 years and running Italian reality show and each year these ladies set out on a different excursion reporting on various cultures, food, adventures and customs. Although a requirement is being attractive and fit, they are looking for much more than the Paris Hiltons of the bunch. The show’s website states about what a Donnavventura girl is: “She must be aware that the expedition is not an holiday, nor a leisure trip: it’s in fact a brand new “work experience” as a professional reporter, who plays also an active and vital role in the production of the DONNAVVENTURA® TV Show.” The girls were stopping in South Carolina as a part of their 2009 trip “The Great American Raid”. This would be one stop of many that started on the sunny beaches of the Virgin Island on July 25th, then to Miami and working up thru the USA to Canada. They would be stopping in the Charleston area for dinner to enlighten their Italian viewers on authentic low country cuisine.
The low country is “South Carolina’s coastal counties, with Charleston being its largest economic center” and is said to stretch over the state line to Savanah, Georgia. So “low country cuisine” would naturally be the food that comes from and defines the region. The idea of “low country cuisine” is what I love about food. Years and years of various cultures and ideas coming together to make something new and unique to that area, something passed down over the years with history in every ingredient. “With its rich diversity of seafood from the coastal estuaries, and a vibrant Caribbean cuisine and African cuisine influence, Lowcountry cooking has strong parallels with New Orleans and Cajun cuisines.”
Traditional low country dishes include she-crab soup, gumbo, shrimp and grits, fried cabbage and low country boil, to name a few. Low country boil is also known as Frogmore Stew. Before you Kermit lovers out there get upset, there is not frog in this dish. Frogmore is the small fishing community near Beaufort, South Carolina were this boil is said to have originated. Tasked with introducing Italy to low country cuisine would be handled by the Frogmore Catering Company, founded by chef and entrepreneur Paul Cheney(no relation to Dick), and local celebrity chef Justin Croxall. Justin has been wowing Charlestonians for the last three years after opening Bull Street Gourmet and gained national fame after being featured on Giada DeLaurentiis Food Network show “Giada’s Weekend Getaways“.
The dock resting beside Crosby’s Fish and Shrimp Company was busy with action while Justin and Paul were making final preparations as their assistants scurried about the dock. The sun was peeking momentarily through overcast skies and I began thinking that this couldn’t have been set up any better on a hollywood set. The picnic table near the edge of the dock and the six neatly placed settings. The old weathered high tables scattered with ingredients and fishnets, all with the foundation of low country cuisine as the backdrop, the shrimp boats idle at the dock and the waters they fish.
While waiting for the Italian Invasion, Mitchell Crosby, owner of Crosby’s Fish and Shrimp Company and founder of JMC Charleston (a high end event planning company), enlightened me on his families business that was passed down from his father. He spoke about how its become more difficult for local fishermen to make a living due to high gas prices and cheap foreign fish forcing its way into our markets. Mitchell takes pride in helping create a market for these fishermen and Crosby’s Stores in Downtown distribute fresh fish to Charlestons finest eateries. He also humored me with the story of how the whole dock was destroyed in a past hurricane and the only thing left standing was the bathroom and still hanging on the wall was the picture of its founder, his father. Just more proof that a man can’t be disturbed while in the bathroom.
Soon four bright red L200 Mitsubishi pick-up trucks pulled in. They were beautiful trucks and looked like something just about to compete in a cross desert baja race, with sponsor decals patched about the red paint. The doors opened and there they were, like something out of a Maxim Magazine spread they made their way to the dock, cowboy hats with curved brims, green safari looking jackets and black capri pants. Unfortunately their male travel companions wore capri pants too but I guess it was ok because they were European…and that may be cool there. After brief introductions Mitchell gave them a tour of the dock and showed off the huge red snapper that was placed in the freezer from the days catch. Watching Mitchel in front of the camera and making the Italians giggle like school girls made it apparent he was a seasoned entertainer and this wasn’t his first rodeo.
Next the ladies were put to work and Justin showed them the fine art of ripping the heads off shrimp. The boisterous Italian producer pulled the head off one shrimp and ate the rest raw, the girls followed suit while I tried to act like I wasn’t throwing up in my mouth. Next Justin moved the shrimp to a dish with buttermilk and spices. They were then dredged in a seasoned flour and dropped into hot oil. There was also a bowl of hush puppies mix and they too were dropped in the oil. As each shrimp emerged from the oil they were snatched up by the girls and they would say something in Italian with a look of content. When I had a chance to taste myself, I understood what they were talking about, the shrimp and hush puppies were excellent.
Meanwhile Paul demonstrated how to make the boil while explaining the history of the dish. Bringing a huge pot of water to a boil, seasoning the water then adding potatoes, sausage, corn and then shrimp. The trick is knowing when to add each ingredient so they are not over or undercooked as they all cook at different speeds. The shrimp only needs a couple minutes and overcooking can cause the shrimp to be rubbery, and nobody likes shrimp that taste like rubber. Paul pulled the top off the pot and a puff of steam blew out and a great aroma followed.
The ladies took their dockside seats and Paul dished them a hearty plate. The camera rolling, one of the girls donned a big smile and said something that fell off her tounge in that sexy Italian way as her head bobbed side to side and then they dug in. For such petite women I was impressed at the second and third servings they consumed. This was also after chowing down on the fried shrimp and hush puppies. After their plates were clean they said their goodbyes and hopped in their red trucks and headed for I-95 north to cause another American city to have a droolfest.
After they were gone we cleared the picnic table and grabbed a plate of Frogmore Stew and Mitchell broke out the Bud Lights. The sun was just setting over the water and a light breeze was blowing onto Crosby’s dock. The food was amazing, the company and atmosphere made it even better. I sat and listened as they spoke about how Charleston has changed (for the good and bad) and dining establishments that have come and gone. Tuesday was an unexpected but great day that motivated me further about food and I learned a lot from some top notch people in the Charleston food.
STAY HUNGRY MY FRIENDS
A special thanks to those who allowed me to be a part of this event:
Jason Kaumeyerhttp://www.jwkphoto.com/Mitchel Crosbyhttp://www.jmccharleston.com/Paul Cheneyhttp://www.charlestonweddingcompany.com/packages.phphttp://www.letstalkcharleston.com/Justin Croxallhttp://www.bullstreetcharleston.com/