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Charleston Museum explores the history of Lowcountry foodways through animal bones

Meaty Matters

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While one may associate Charleston with shrimp and grits, oysters on the half shell, and flaky white fish aplenty, before we were a veritable seafood mecca, cattle was king.

"What we see is European colonists arrived and brought their European cuisine and foodways with them, but they quickly had to adapt to the Lowcountry. Mutton, sheep, and goats were popular for English residents, but they were not going to do well in the semi-tropical Lowcountry," says Charleston Museum curator of historical archeology Martha Zierden. "But cattle did great, pigs did great. We find that really beef was the basis for the diet."

The Museum's new exhibit, To the Bone, is the third exhibit based on more than three decades worth of museum archeology and zoo archeology research. While the two previous exhibits, iterations of "The Bountiful Coast," were focused on resources that were available to Charlestonians of all classes and races and the cuisine that developed from these resources (using bones as one of many data sets) this exhibit is specifally focused on animal bones. "They're the most interesting, and what we've learned from for so many years," says Zierden.

The exhibit begins with domestic animal bones — cattle, pig, sheep/goat (often these bones are indistinguishable), some chicken (these were not common until the early 19th century) — and by the end of the exhibit, we see the bones of both wild and exotic creatures.

"We discovered that the cuisine developed in the first couple of decades," says Zierden. Charlestonians, it seems, were creatures of habit. "We see the first developed foodways at early sites like Charles Towne Landing and it stays more or less the same through the end of the 19th century."

Another running theme in the history of the Lowcountry's foodways is the purpose of the city markets. Examining artifacts from the city's two eighteenth century markets — a beef market below City Hall and a lower market at the foot of Tradd Street — Zierden says researchers can determine what animals were brought there for butchering based on the bones left behind. And beyond the bones, they find other traces of the past.

Zierden excitedly points out a miniscule object in the case, "One of the coolest artifacts is this tiny little thing we found in the deepest level of the beef market from the 1690s," she says. "It seems to be an arrow point from a Native American arrow that probably arrived in a deer carcass or something to the market."

The market's animal bones tell us that at first animals were brought "on the hoof" and butchered onsite, but by the 1760s, based on little chips of bone, Zierden says that cattle was probably brought in quarters. In one display case we see the various means of butchering at home and at the market — bones with deep gashes were cut with cleavers, probably by butcher, while tiny little slashes indicated a home cut, possibly from deboning. "And then somewhat in 18th and more in the 19th century we see bones prepared with the saw," says Zierden, pointing to a clean cut bone, "it made steaks and chops, like the individual portions we see today."

As we move through the cases, the bones become less pedestrian. In one case, we see a sample menu from 1823: "turtle soup, fish, venison, boiled turkey, roast turkey, ham, two boiled salted tongues, two tame ducks, two wild ducks." Zierden says that while everyone mostly ate the same kinds of meat, wealthy sites had a higher richness or diversity index. "There were a lot of ducks," says Zierden, "and a lot of turtles — every kind of turtle. And there were portions of meat we don't eat today. Tongue was a big deal. Calf's head was a big deal." Zierden says part of the challenge is determing whether head bones are discards, or are remnants of what was the main meal.

In addition to the cases housing everyday beef, turtle, and turkey bones, there is one case housing only a dozen tiny, delicate fragments. "These are our four very exotic animals," says Zierden. Now, Zierden believes that these animals — a guinea pig, a parrot fish, Queen triggerfish, and blue fronted Amazon parrot — were most likely exotic pets but we can always imagine, too, that someone was chowing down on a guinea pig during a fine five-course meal. Zierden says there are specific references to pet caged birds, and that she's even discovered an ad for a red bird, "when taken will sing prettily for you." So those were probably not de-feathered and served alongside the wild turkeys.

The last case in the exhibit, Zierden jokes, has "no bones about it." Instead there are only the glass fragments of fancy drinking vessels, sealed bottles from gentlemen. "You personalized your wine bottle if you were wealthy enough," says Zierden. And while the seals are not specific to animal bones, they are, of course, essential to imagining Charlestonian's early eating habits. Zierden says that because of poor water quality, "almost everyone drank cider, or mix of cider and water or wine." Perhaps it made the salted beef tongue go down easier.

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