Photo by Serge Skiba/Shutterstock
Photo by Aimee M. Lee/Shutterstock
Okra soup, a Gullah staple, is similar to gumbo but starts with a tomato base instead of a roux.
In South Carolina’s Lowcountry, descendants of the Gullah-Geechee, Africans brought to the state during slavery, are reviving the cuisine that defined the city.
Celebrated Gullah chef Benjamin Dennis is certain about two things: Culture is the defining characteristic of a cuisine, and the roots of Southern fare run deeper than chicken fried to a perfect crisp accompanied with mac’n’cheese. “Charleston would be nothing without the Gullah-Geechee culture—period,” Dennis says.
As he taste-tests a Gullah-style pasta salad made with freshly caught shrimp and in-season sweet peas in his Charleston catering kitchen, the Charleston native explains that Southern cuisine was shaped largely by the hands of enslaved Africans stirring the pots in colonists’ homes as early as the 1700s.
“We took the rustic soul of the African hands and the Native American [style of cooking] and made this special mash-up,” Dennis says, reflecting on how Charleston’s cuisine took shape. Typically, Gullah-Geechee food is defined as a fusion of West and Central African cooking techniques and Lowcountry ingredients, with dishes ranging from crab rice to okra soup. What sets it apart from more widely known Southern food like grits and collard greens, says Dennis, who is of Gullah descent, is seasonality and seafood. It has influenced classic Charleston dishes like shrimp’n’grits and she-crab soup.
Although Dennis, who’s made it his mission to promote Gullah-Geechee cooking and has become one of the cuisine’s most prominent figures, notes that representations of Gullah culture died down in recent years, he is seeing a renaissance. It’s a cuisine that’s currently experiencing renewed attention as the Southern city works to preserve its past.
“Word’s been getting out,” Dennis says. “People are starting to realize how much they’re related to this culture and the roots.”
Over the past few years, Charleston has honed in on its history while an influx of settlers look to capitalize on the city’s growing popularity, simultaneously threatening to disturb its cultural identity. As developers rush to accommodate all the new people, there’s concern that some relics won’t survive.
“There’s a great fear that with more development and more people coming in that the land is going to be bought up and essentially displace a lot of the Gullah people and that that culture is at risk,” says Ivy Farr McIntyre, Ph.D., director of communications for the South Carolina Historical Society. (In general, South Carolinians who claim this heritage refer to themselves as Gullah, whereas those from the Georgia region call themselves Geechee.)
Efforts to preserve the creole language spoken by the Gullah-Geechee community have even made it to the Ivy League—Harvard added a course to its African Language program in late 2017. At Charleston’s South Carolina Historical Society Museum, which opened in 2018, a Gullah-focused gallery showcases a dictionary that reveals words with Gullah roots—gumbo, for example, comes from the Gullah word for okra.
The popularity of Gullah-Geechee cuisine is picking up, too—it’s even found its way into the hands of local brewers: Revelry Brewing’s Cream Ale is brewed with grits grown by Geechee Boy Mill.
Southern cuisine had its beginnings in western Africa, where okra went with everything and rice was a way of life. The Gullah-Geechee, descendants of enslaved Africans brought to South Carolina’s Lowcountry and the Sea Islands of Georgia from places like Sierra Leone and Liberia for their knowledge of rice cultivation, were practicing farm-to-table cooking long before it was hip.
“Seasonality, especially for those who still live in the countryside, is important because it makes the cuisine special,” says Dennis, who cooks Carolina blue crab when he can get it from James Island’s Louie the crab man. Louie, who Dennis describes as “an old-school Gullah dude” doesn’t have a storefront, but if you find him after he’s caught something, you’re in business. “It comes straight out the creek, straight to your hand.”
These trips around Charleston to source fresh fare for Gullah-Geechee meals are rich and rooted in tradition—a fact that the city’s French Quarter Inn capitalized on a few years ago.
A lack of mainstream availability for Gullah-Geechee cuisine led the boutique hotel in Charleston’s Historic District to launch an immersive culinary experience in 2018, during which chef Dennis took interested parties through his process and shared a lesson in both culture and cooking. (The tours were put on hold in March 2020 because of the pandemic.)
“Although some restaurants do incorporate touches of Gullah cuisine and cooking techniques into their meals, we noticed there were no Gullah-specific restaurants,” says Carlo Carroccia, dual hotel manager of French Quarter Inn and the Spectator Hotel, explaining that the dishes often make up just a small section of a menu.
Those who joined Dennis for the hotel’s culinary excursion got to tag along while he sourced okra for his personal favorite Gullah dish, okra soup. It’s a melee of ingredients that can shape-shift depending on the time of year.
The excursion started with a 20-minute drive out of downtown Charleston, past the grand oak trees and Spanish moss of local postcard fame, to Joseph Fields Farm on John’s Island. From Fields, a Gullah farmer whose family has owned the land since the 1850s, guests gathered fresh okra, butter beans, corn, and tomatoes for the soup. Next, they went to a local heritage farm for sustainably made smoked pork neckbone and to the docks for fresh shrimp from a boat called Miss Lady.
Dinner was served following a private cooking lesson with Dennis at a local Charleston home. Traditionally, a perfect Gullah meal—both today and 100 years back—would be sandwiched between two distinct phrases: “E time ta eat,” when supper is served, followed by “Boi dat ting bussin,” if it hit the spot.
While more mom-and-pop than mainstream, some Gullah-run restaurants remain, with several handed down African-origin recipes on the menu. Hannibal’s Kitchen is known for its crab rice, while Bertha’s Kitchen is where Dennis finds his favorite red rice—a Charleston classic made with tomato paste and bacon.
Gullah-Geechee food is flavor without the frills. All it takes Dennis to work up a taste nearly as rich and layered as the people who nurtured it, is salt, pepper, and thyme. “The most important thing to the cuisine is proper seasoning and the right person stirring the pot,” confirms Gullah-Geechee Nation spokesperson Marquetta Goodwine, who goes by Queen Quet.
That the cuisine, while easily among the oldest to have shaped Charleston’s culinary identity, is finally getting the recognition it’s earned isn’t lost on Goodwine. “The world is now seeing our strength and wants to taste our cuisine, but they don’t realize all the healing and empowering energy that is within the pots,” she says. “This has kept us and our culture alive—and it will continue to do so.”
Hannibal’s Kitchen: Though its name may not immediately conjure warm and fuzzy feelings, that’s precisely what those who seek out the Southern-food staple go for. This finery-free, family-owned restaurant in Charleston’s Eastside neighborhood says it’s been “feeding the soul of the city” for more than 40 years. As anyone will tell you, go there for the crab rice.
Bertha’s Kitchen: Having forgone frills to focus on good homestyle Southern cooking, Bertha’s Kitchen in North Charleston calls many both inside and out of the Gullah-Geechee community to sample its favored food. It has been named an American Classic by the James Beard Foundation, and the fried fish and red rice are must-tastes.
My Three Sons of Charleston: Located in a nondescript strip mall in North Charleston, My Three Sons is a favorite for down-home fare like okra soup, fried chicken, and crispy bone-in catfish. Whatever you order, be sure it pair it with a side of the Gullah rice, made here with tilapia, sausage, and shrimp.
This article was originally published on November 20, 2018; it was updated on August 12, 2021, with current information.
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