When you think of Congaree National Park, a dense growth bottomland forest in South Carolina, the last thing that probably comes to mind is food. But after trekking through the park’s floodplain forests or canoeing on its oxbow lakes, your stomach will be rumbling for a taste of the region’s famous Lowcountry cuisine, which is as delectable as Congaree’s landscapes.
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“Lowcountry” defines the area where the cuisine is found — the mostly coastal flatlands of South Carolina and Georgia — and has become synonymous with the region’s distinct cuisine. Within easy reach of the Atlantic Ocean and surrounded by lakes, rivers and estuaries, the chefs in this region have turned to the waters for inspiration, resulting in a wide range of seafood dishes enlivened with zesty and spicy African, Caribbean, French and Spanish flavors. Classics like she-crab soup, hoppin’ John, Frogmore stew and shrimp ‘n’ grits have been recreated and reinvented for centuries by local cooks and renowned chefs alike.
After a few hours in Congaree National Park (located less than 30 kilometers southeast of Columbia, South Carolina), you’ll quickly see what entwines the food and the outdoors. Congaree is home to the largest intact expanse of old growth bottomland hardwood forest in the USA, with moss-laden trees springing from marshy wetlands that often resemble lakes when flooded. The trees decorate the rushing Congaree and Wateree rivers, which also provide a home to wildlife like the eastern box turtle, wild hog and red-tailed hawk. These animals and the 22 species of plants and trees, like the amanita muscaria, rely on the marshy waters of the Congaree rivers the way the chefs depend on the waterways for their cuisine.
To really get a feel for the Lowcountry, explore the park’s nearly 11,000 hectares of verdant forests and swampy marshlands. To see the waterways and the majestic trees the way a local would, park rangers recommend canoeing on the rivers through the bottomland forests. There are also about 60 kilometers of hiking trails — including a 4-kilometer boardwalk — that offer an immersive look at the vibrant plant life decorating Congaree’s every corner.
After a day of exploring, head back to Columbia and stop at the Blue Marlin Restaurant for a true taste of the South. Famous Lowcountry favorites such as seafood gumbo and fried green tomatoes are just a few of the options on the lunch and dinner menus. Another local favorite is Mr. Friendly’s New Southern Café, which serves up innovative spins on classics like pecan crab cakes, fried yellow grits salad and blackened shrimp ‘n’ grits.
Before you get your fill of Lowcountry cuisine, here are some suggestions on what to order.