Painting of Gullah women at Village Creek is by Sandra Roper.
Once our restaurants open again, a drive to Charleston to discover the magic of Gullah-Geechie cuisine should be on the top of your bucket list. It is an experience guaranteed not to disappoint!
The Magic of Gullah-Geechie
There’s no denying the allure of Charleston’s dining scene where restaurants are receiving award upon award and praises from all corners of the globe. However, there is a deeper story here than just an American city with an incredible food scene. Chefs like Mike Lata, and Sean Brock became the rock stars of the city, but amid all the fanfare they received, the cuisine of the Gullah people remained a constant influence.
Gullah cuisine uses local, seasonal vegetables. Painting by Murray Sease
Gullah chef BJ Dennis
Local chef BJ Dennis stepped out of the restaurant kitchens to dedicate himself to educating Charleston and its many visitors about Gullah cuisine. Now he is considered Gullah cuisine’s preeminent ambassador. About a year ago we met in Lobeco for breakfast at Lowcountry Produce and this is what he said. “I started doing pop-ups, and it was almost a renaissance, not just with the food, but the culture and saving the land of the Gullah people,” says Dennis. “Growing up on Daniel Island, I learned a lot about how to forge for food off the land and in the water. If mama said ” let’s go get some lunch,” it meant to grab a net or a bamboo pole and get out into the river and catch it.”
The Gullah Contribution to Lowcountry Cuisine
Dennis has set out to make sure the Gullah people’s vital and sizeable contribution to Charleston culture is not erased by consumers and the media. But if you are paying attention, you may notice that the menus of prominent chefs and humble mom-and-pop operators in the city alike have been profoundly shaped by the rich culinary traditions of the Gullah people. Restaurants owned by Gullah people serving Gullah food have been thriving throughout the city.
Martha Lou’s Kitchen
For thirty years Martha Lou’s kitchen has been serving up roll-your-eyes-it’s-so-good soul food in style. Located at 1068 Morrison Drive in Charleston, Martha Lou’s is a legendary institution. Painting by Andrea Hazel
The menu here includes things like fried chicken, lima beans, collards, pork chops, turkey wings, cornbread, cabbage, rice, and bread pudding.
Gullah people are the local descendants of West Africans brought to South Carolina as slaves. There are some distinct patterns in and hallmarks of Gullah cooking. It is inextricably tied to the land, the sea and the seasons. In spring ingredients like squash, zucchini, and sweet peas will find their way onto plates. Rice and benne seeds are staples and local seafood plays a starring role in dishes like crab rice, conch stew, okra soup, fried whiting, and purloo, a one-pot meal of rice and various add-ins like meat or sausage, vegetables, and shellfish.-
These dishes did not originate in the Lowcountry in 1619 with the arrival of enslaved people – these dishes and this culture go back thousands of years into West African history.
Chef Kevin Mitchell
Chef Kevin Mitchell – South Carolina Chef Ambassador for 2020 Mitchell is a huge fan of Carolina Gold rice and Sea Island Red Peas, local collards, and greens that grow throughout the state. He is keeping the Gullah traditions alive and well.
“Gullah food is one of the oldest world traditions being practiced in America today. It is about ancestral ties and American living, adaptability, and creativity,” says Mitchell. It is rooted in the crops and preparation methods brought here from Africa and further evolved from a history of poverty and learning to “make do.” Cooking methods were passed down without written documentation. Gullah cooks had the ability to season and judge quantities simply by experience.
The Africans brought to the Carolina Colony soon realized the similarities between the culinary environments of the Lowcountry and that of West Africa. They were able to teach the plantation owners how to grow rice, yams, peas, and beans with Carolina Gold Rice being the most important.
Carolina Gold Rice
The popularity of Carolina Gold around the world soon made Charelston the wealthiest city in the nation. It was all built on the backs of slaves who dug the canals, planted and harvested the rice.
Slaves were given an allotment of food each week but could supplement it with their own gardens and ability to fish, shrimp and forge for food off the land. They cooked the pieces of meat not good enough for the land-owners and they learned to add yams and whatever vegetables were available. Purloo, or pilau is the ultimate one-pot rice-based dish. The purloos and gumbos are credited to the Gullahs who often cooked them in a pot over an open fire. Vegetables coming straight from the garden always played a major part in Gullah cuisine, further enhancing the one-pot cookery technique. That was one of their greatest gifts to the culinary world.
A highlight of my trips to Charleton always included a dinner at Husk on Queen Street where Southern ingredients and techniques were deliciously combined.
Jimmy Red Corn, Skillet Fried Catfish with clams, and their specialty cornbread are favorites at Husk.
photo courtesy of Husk Restaurant, Charleston SC www.huskrestaurant.com
Carolina Gold Rice
Rice remained a dominant commodity on the coastal rivers of South Carlina until the end of the Civil War.