Frogmore Stew and perloo: The flavors of South Carolina come alive in 'Taste the State'

Todd A. Price
Southern Kitchen
Chef Kevin Mitchell created his own version of classic catfish and crab stew for "Taste the State." (Courtesy of University of South Carolina Press)

The South is broad and varied.

Too often, though, we talk about “Southern cuisine” as if everyone from Louisiana to the Carolinas cook and eat the same way. 

In the new book “Taste the State,” chef and culinary instructor Kevin Mitchell and historian David S. Shields dive into the ingredients and dishes that make South Carolina food unique. The lively book is part history, part cookbook and part a compendium of facts to satisfy the curious cook. Mitchell, who grew up in New Jersey and now teaches at the Culinary Institute of Charleston, spoke to The American South about the distinct flavors of his adopted home.

Chef and culinary instructor Kevin Mitchell collaborated with historian David S. Shields to write "Taste the State," a guide to the food of South Carolina. (Courtesy of University of South Carolina Press)

The American South: What would you consider kind of the quintessential South Carolina meal?

Kevin Mitchell: It's going to be a perloo, a one-pot rice dish. As a chef-instructor at a culinary school, when we focus on starches, I give my students a whole soliloquy on rice and tell them that wherever you go you're going to have a rice dish, whether it's paella in Spain, perloos here in South Carolina, jambalaya in New Orleans.

"Taste the State" by Kevin Mitchell and David S. Shields

TAS: We hear a lot about how travel and the internet have diminished regional differences. How much regional specificity do you see still in South Carolina? 

KM: There's dishes that are always going to be synonymous with South Carolina. And by writing this book, we also wanted to make people aware of dishes that should be making a comeback. Someone out there is going to take up this charge and be a part of this renaissance of ingredients. We also have companies here like Anson Mills bringing back grains like Carolina Gold rice.  

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TAS: You have many historic recipes in the book. Do you get the sense that tastes have changed over time?

KM: Our tastes have evolved over the years. That was one of the reasons we wanted to include those recipes along with some contemporary recipes to show the evolution of how they were written and also how these ingredients were used in specific recipes.

Historian David S. Shields teamed up with chef Kevin Mitchell to write "Taste the State," a guide to the food of South Carolina. (Courtesy of University of South Carolina Press)

TAS: To what do you attribute those changes?

KM: It's many different things. I think food production is one factor. The accessibility of certain ingredients has changed. It's also socio-economic and what we can now afford to purchase. I think the beautiful thing is people are reintroducing these ingredients.

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TAS: As the population of the South changes, how is the food changing?

KM: In the Latin South, where you have a huge population of Spanish speaking people, they are making Southern food in their own way by using ingredients that come from their countries and what's available, transporting the food into something totally different.

TAS: What are some of the biggest myths about South Carolina food that you bust in the book?

KM: That South Carolina food, or even broader Southern food, is a one note type of cuisine. The beauty of it is that we’re using the same ingredients, but we're using them in a totally different way based where we come from.

Classic Frogmore stew is one of the dishes explained in "Taste the State," a guide to South Carolina food. (Courtesy of South Carolina University Press)

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Note: The interview was edited for clarity and length.

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