Myrtle Beach is rife with history. Many feet have trod these shores over the centuries, bringing with them a wide variety of cultures, backgrounds and legends. One aspect of local culture that is often overlooked is the culinary history of The Grand Strand.
Today, we begin a four part series with author, Becky Billingsley, who has written several books about the history of Myrtle Beach. Billingsley’s book, A Culinary History of Myrtle Beach and the Grand Strand: Fish and Grits, Oyster Roasts and Boiled Peanuts, was published in June of 2013 and is a fascinating look into the rich history and people who helped to define the culinary culture that is so unique to coastal South Carolina.
DR: Tell us about your past experience with culinary history/dining in Myrtle Beach/The Grand Strand.
BB: I was a features reporter at The Sun News, the only daily newspaper in Myrtle Beach, and my beat was food, restaurants and general features. My stories often had a history angle. During the past 32 years I’ve written stacks (they fill five big plastic bins and my father’s old WWII suitcase) of food/history/travel magazine articles for local, regional and national publications.
DR: Tell our readers a little bit about your book. What made you decide to write this book?
BB: Chad Rhoad, a senior commissioning editor at The History Press in Charleston, South Carolina, asked me in 2012 to write the first book, “A Culinary History of Myrtle Beach and the Grand Strand: Fish and Grits, Oyster Roasts and Boiled Peanuts.” I had approached him a few years ago with a history book idea he turned down, but he remembered me when they wanted someone to write about Myrtle Beach food history for their American Palate series.
The project was a natural fit for my experience, and I was happy to sign the contract on my 50th birthday. It’s been well received. “A Culinary History of Myrtle Beach” is not a cookbook, but it does contain about a dozen historic recipes. It’s also a fun and educational book that would be useful for anyone interested in heirloom gardening and sustainable farming.
DR: In terms of culinary foundation, what would surprise our readers most about the history of The Grand Strand?
BB: Just about every culture has a meat and rice dish, and chicken/rice dishes are eaten throughout the United States. However, this part of coastal South Carolina was the world’s largest rice exporter in the 18th and 19th centuries, and from that tradition comes a special dish called Chicken Bog in the Myrtle Beach area and Pileau (pronounced PER-low) to the south in Georgetown County. They are one-pot dishes with chicken, smoked sausage and rice.
Another interesting dish is pinesap sweet potatoes, or rosin potatoes. Up until about 100 years ago this area had a big turpentine industry. At the remote turpentine camps where pots of pine resin boiled, the laborers would slip sweet potatoes into the simmering goo. In 15 minutes they had wonderful cooked potatoes infused with a slight pine essence.
I have a friend who still makes pinesap sweet potatoes, outside in a big black cauldron, and they’re delicious! They cook so fast at such a high temperature, they’re almost like sweet potato pudding.
DR: When doing research for your book did anything surprise you? (Legends about the history behind a certain dish/early variations on things people still love to eat today…etc).
BB: I was surprised to learn in my research that several foods I thought had slave roots actually were eaten here earlier by Native Americans. The Indians ate grits, sweet potatoes and greens long before slaves arrived in the late 1600s.
Sweet potatoes even helped win the American Revolution.
General Francis Marion, a.k.a. “The Swamp Fox,” was known for his and his troops’ subsistence on sweet potatoes. They had rooting parties where they’d raid farmers’ potato banks. Since they’re so high in nutrition, sweet potatoes helped those ragtag patriots remain strong and healthy.
And one more thing about South Carolina coastal sweet potatoes – a local plantation owner shipped some to Empress Josephine of France, and she liked them.
DR: Can you briefly tell our readers about the different heritages that impacted the culinary fabric of the Grand Strand?
BB: Native Americans contributed more than most people imagine, but there is a lingering sense of loss that we don’t have extensive knowledge about recipes used by the Waccamaw Indian People, Chicora Tribe and more. They had no written language, and then their culture was rapidly reduced by sickness and from being forced off their land. Some Native Americans were enslaved on the local plantations, and by the time their descendants were freed they didn’t even remember to which tribe they belonged. Consequently, much of their culture was forever lost.
Europeans settled here from France, Scotland, England, Ireland, Germany and more, and they all brought culinary influences that remain in modern recipes. For example, mustard-based barbecue sauce was introduced by Germans, and the French and English brought their penchant for cream-based dishes and used local ingredients to make delicacies such as She-Crab Soup.
The slaves brought to work on South Carolina rice plantations were mostly from West Africa, because they were experienced coastal rice farm workers. Others were from the Caribbean and West Indies, and they all greatly influenced traditional dining around here. When they found sweet potatoes, corn, rice, beans and greens readily available, they were happy to use them to make their traditional recipes. American peanuts are similar to a ground nut they had in Africa, and they made boiled peanuts and parched peanuts that became popular with everyone.
DR: Is there anything else you’d like to share with our readers?
BB: One of the more touching parts of the culinary book, I think, is about slaves and their former masters forging new relationships following the Civil War. Not all slave owners were comfortable with the institution of slavery, and one of those people was a prolific writer. We’re lucky to have the work of Elizabeth “Bessie” Allston Pringle (1845-1921), including “A Woman Rice Planter” and “Chronicles of Chicora Wood.” Her father was South Carolina governor and plantation owner, and the family lost most of its wealth during the war. She documented what she ate before and after the conflict, and she described how she and her neighbors, many of them former slaves, gathered and grew and preserved and shared food.
DR: Thank you so much for ‘stopping by’! Tell us where we can find your book, how to buy it, and where you can be reached if people would like to book you for signings, speaking engagements etc.
BB: I have a website at beckybillingsley.com with a list of upcoming book signings and speaking engagements. “A Culinary History of Myrtle Beach” and “Lost Myrtle Beach” are for sale there with an option to have them inscribed. It’s also available at Amazon.com, Barnesandnoble.com, booksamillion.com and more.
In part 2 of this blog series Becky is going to share a couple of traditional Grand Strand recipes with us, including a recipe that was kept secret for 60 years until her book was published! Be sure to check back for our next installment!
Chicken Bog Dish: Matt Silfer of Silfer studios.
Cooking Chicken Bog:Kurt Christiansen.
Hog Butchering: Horry Count Museum archives.