Contrary to my Southern Appalachian roots, I believed grits to be a tasteless cause. But I suspected there might be more to rice than gravy. I was proved both wrong and right in the Lowcountry.
This area was once ruled by rice, and vestiges of the plantations where it grew remain today. Combined with tomatoes, onions, herbs, and chicken or seafood, rice here becomes pilau (PER-low, a derivation of the word pilaf). Cook the grains with cow peas or black-eyed peas, and you have hoppin' John. Corn milled into grits and flavored with plenty of cream turns into a luscious pillow for fresh shrimp.
Charleston, South Carolina, set me on my gastronomic journey. Right after my first taste of she-crab soup, the city's quintessential dish, I knew I'd been living in the wrong place. I envied John Martin Taylor, who can't think of a time he didn't know how to throw a cast net to catch shrimp and mullet. "My mother used to hand me a net and say, 'Go get lunch,' " recalls the area native.