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Stirring shrimp-filled steam kettles -- about the size of 55-gallon drums -- with four- to five-foot paddles is not a big deal for Larry Swigart, chairman and chief cook of the Beaufort Water Festival's Lowcountry Supper. After all, he is 6-feet, 4-inches tall.
Swigart has been cooking this traditional supper -- including Lowcountry Boil and sides of cole slaw, rolls and watermelon -- for thousands of people for a decade. On Thursday, Swigart is expecting to cook for 3,500 guests, a task he completes with help from his high school friends. Swigart, a 1979 graduate of Battery Creek High School, has 10 lifelong friends who come from Charleston, Savannah and Summerville to help him cook.
"My crew cooks it up and gets it to the park. It takes a lot of volunteers," Swigart said.
The most important part of the meal is ensuring the shrimp is fresh, Swigart said. The shrimp is ordered from White Shrimp Co. on St. Helena Island, and for the past 10 years Corky White has delivered it in individual 100-pound boxes after obtaining it from different shrimpers.
"We use one local vendor, but he will use different shrimpers to get our 1,500 pounds -- because you are not going to get 1,500 pounds from one shrimper -- and they are usually fresh within one day," Swigart said.
This is the first year Swigart's group will gather the ingredients in the Beaufort Naval Hospital Galley, as it has traditionally been cooked at Parris Island. After everything has been cooked, each item then is packed in ice or put in warming coolers, in preparation for the short drive to Henry C. Chambers Waterfront Park, where it will be served, hopefully in about an hour.
The food is served in six rows in two different directions as quickly as possible by volunteer groups including the Sea Island Rotary, Lowcountry Rotary, Beaufort Rotary, Navy Chief Petty Officers and the festival's Lowcountry Supper cooking committee, said Brandy Gray, this year's Lowcountry Supper coordinator.
"It's all volunteer," said Swigart, 49, a sheriff's deputy. "I take a week off from work and help out Water Festival, that's all. I grew up going to the Water Festival. I had the chance to take over the Lowcountry Supper cooking, and I jumped all over it, and my friends come and help. I'm just a spoke in the wheel when it comes to this."
Lowcountry Boil is Swigart's favorite meal to serve company, and when he is cooking for a smaller crowd, he adds a few extra ingredients, including onions and lemons for flavoring as well as crabs and red potatoes.
"I don't do potatoes and crab (for large events), because it is too much of a nightmare, keeping potatoes hot and not getting mushed," Swigart said.
There are other differences between how Swigart prepares the meal at his home and Water Festival. At home, Swigart serves butter for the potatoes and corn and cocktail sauce for the shrimp -- and the method of service is a little more casual.
"We just throw it on the table, and it is every person for themselves."