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While writing Gullah Cuisine chef Charlotte Jenkins’ new cookbook, William P. Baldwin reconnects with the flavors of his childhood
The Gullah world. How do you define something that is all around you? As a place? From Georgetown, South Carolina, to the Florida line and inland as far as the tides reach? I’ve seen references to Geechees (just another word for Gullah) as far away as Chicago. A state of mind then? Transportable.
A time? African slaves, the propagators of this pigeon culture, were brought to Charleston in 1670, and at the opposite end, we have the present moment. Rhythmic music and language, skillful crafts, a simple joy in living—these blendings of African roots and New World realities are the hallmarks of that Gullah culture. Of course, there’s also the food—those simple Lowcountry staples transformed into a cuisine.
“Fried chicken to die for!”
When I’d asked a friend about Gullah Cuisine restaurant, that was his answer. Nothing about the Gullah way of life, or maybe there was, and I just wasn’t listening closely enough. Charlotte Jenkins started her restaurant in 1997. She and her husband, Frank, had been catering for five years. He was retired as a captain from the Mount Pleasant Fire Department. She had been working as an accountant for her brothers’ body shop. Both were from rural corners of Charleston County, but they’d met and married in New York then come home to Mount Pleasant to raise their children.
I’d been passing their restaurant for a long, long time without turning in, which is strange, because I was raised in part on Gullah food. My grandmother’s cook, Anna Geathers, was an ancient, tiny, opinionated, white-kerchiefed “maum.” And in my 1993 novel, The Hard to Catch Mercy, I’d based the character Maum Anna very loosely on her. In that world of fiction, I made her the combative protector of both the white and black characters and, after the usual Gothic murders and mayhem, finally sent her off to Heaven where she lectured Jesus, Himself. Sounds funny, but it was a dark book. Anyway, I’d been fed by Anna Geathers, and fed well. So when I was asked to write the text for Charlotte Jenkins’ new Gullah cookbook, I thought, “How hard could it be?”
Charlotte is a shy person—shy, pretty, and strong-willed. Besides being an excellent chef, she runs a very successful restaurant and makes executive decisions with amazing ease. She’s serious, but not so very serious. She says she taught Frank all he knows about cooking—not all she knows. Men measure; women use dashes of this and that. Women cook to taste. Frank smiles. He, too, is an excellent cook, but in this enterprise, his ego isn’t on the line. He’s already proved himself in other ways.
Taping Charlotte proved to be slow-going. I suspect I was overbearing. Impatient is the word my wife uses. The first Sunday afternoon was followed by 10 others. Herb cures? Charlotte shook her head no. In the end, I had a full page of them. And in the end, I’d been given access to a world of absolute charity, of work and play and worry and worship, where the preparation of food is the currency of life, of love. Frank was quicker with the words: “Gullah cooking is about rice and about kinship,” he said. In the end, their messages were the same.
Charlotte’s mother gave birth to nine children, and her parents adopted six more. The early home, which her father had built, is still in the family. The wood-burning cookstove her mother used is still in that kitchen. The remnants of the hand pump are in the yard. When they got electricity, her daddy plumbed the house. He was the weekend plumber for the entire community. All those children to feed—how did they do it? When her father came home from his job in Charleston, he hoed in the garden. All the children tended the garden and worked for the larger farmers, as well. When her grandmother was too old to stand, she hoed from a chair. They traded produce with their neighbors. Fishermen went out from the nearby landing. They brought their catch by the house. Hogs and chickens were as close as the backyard. There was always food on the table.
Charlotte’s mother also worked in Charleston, and from the age of 11 on, Charlotte was usually the one standing at that stove. But her favorite memory is of the Sunday dinners cooked by her mother, ones she continued to cook even after the children were grown and married with children of their own. Those meals were the rock on which that family was founded. In fact, her mother had a stroke after preparing one; her last act was the preparation of a Gullah Sunday feast. So it’s hardly surprising that the preparation of food at this restaurant is close to a holy cause. Check the parking lot: 20-year-old Ford trucks parked next to brand-new Mercedes sedans. Everybody’s welcome. Think of your meal as a sacrament, a nearly holy assemblage of collard greens, Gullah rice, and “fried chicken to die for.”
Oh, yes. And as for my own Gullah upbringing: my grandmother’s cook, Anna Geathers, dishing out her red rice, butter beans, and ham, all seasoned with bits of hard-earned wisdom? Charlotte Jenkins’ mother was Mary Geathers from McClellanville. As near as I can make out, my Anna was Charlotte’s mother’s aunt. How strange and wonderful. After all that literary traveling to return to my beginnings and perhaps know them for the first time.
Read It & Eat
Gullah Cuisine: By Land and by Sea—featuring Gullah chef Charlotte Jenkins, narrative by William Baldwin, artwork by Jonathan Green, and photographs by Mic Smith—will be released by the Evening Post Publishing Company with Joggling Board Press in March 2010, just in time for a signing at the Charleston Wine + Food Festival’s Gullah Tribute luncheon. Meet Baldwin and Green, who will be on hand, and Jenkins, who will team with the best local and regional Gullah cooks to create a menu that pays homage to traditional fare. Taste and learn about this cuisine from the cooks themselves and enjoy unique riffs on Gullah ingredients by their cooking partners: Frank Stitt (Birmingham’s Highlands Bar and Grill), Donald Link (New Orleans’ Cochon and Herbsaint), Matt Lee and Ted Lee (Simple Fresh Southern), Kevin Mitchell (The Culinary Institute of Charleston), and Marvin Woods (Home Plate Cooking).
The Gullah Tribute Luncheon at the Charleston Wine + Food Festival, Main Tent at Marion Square. Friday, March 5, 2010, noon-2 p.m. $100. www.charlestonwineandfood.com
Photographs (2) by Mic Smith, courtesy of Joggling Board Press