There’s an aroma emanating from the marshes of the Lowcountry that visitors might describe as sulfurous, or even disgusting, but which Charlestonians – whether longtime “binyas” or recent “comyas” – recognize as the sweet bouillabaisse that arises from the intersection of marsh mud and salt air.
The distinctive viscous, burnt sienna muck known as pluff mud is full of organic matter washed in from area waterways that serves as cuisine for the resident bacteria, which excrete hydrogen sulfide in the bargain. The resulting smell is fecund, pungent and, depending on your orientation, either a massive stink bomb or the sweet perfume of home.
How pluff mud got its name is a story salted to taste, but the contours are reasonably well known. Colonists called it “plough mud,” pronounced as we do today but perhaps so named because it was sprinkled on cotton fields to restore their depleted nutrients before ploughing, or what we now call plowing. Or perhaps it was, as many wags have speculated, homage to the sound your foot and leg make when they are removed from the glop after plunging hip deep into it.
In any case, the phonetic spelling we use today was adopted over time and has infiltrated Lowcountry life, from Pluff Mud Alley in Mount Pleasant and Pluff Mud Apparel in Summerville to Pluff Mud Coffee Company in Port Royal, where you’d need a second cup of your favorite roast to wash down some delicious pluff mud pie. Just don’t tell your arteries about the liberal doses of butter, heavy cream, dark cocoa, eggs and honey.
If you do decide to tempt fate with a foray into the tidal sludge, come prepared with alternate footwear. Few shoes, and certainly no flip flops, survive the return trip out of the pluff mud if you get stuck in it.
But for all that, pluff mud is critical to Lowcountry life. Its nutrient rich ecosphere serves as spawning grounds for our favorite bivalve, the oyster. From September to April (every month with an “r”), Charlestonians unwrap their hand guards and customized oyster knives and head for any of the ubiquitous oyster roasts that draw thousands in communal shucking and devouring. If the smell of pluff mud still offends your senses, your first oyster roast marks the day you get over it.