“We have folkways and foodways.”
The words rang from Patt Gunn, Gullah Geechee master storyteller and founder of Underground Tours of Savannah, as the sounds of “Amazing Grace” tapered off into the damp night at the Wormsloe Historic Site on Friday, March 11.
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Just minutes before the performance, the Savannah native had regaled a story of a 2015 visit and performance at the White House, accompanied by her regional folk arts group, The Saltwata Playas.
During the Washington, D.C., visit, Marian Shields Robinson, Michelle Obama’s mother, had given Gunn a tour of the White House kitchen filled with cast iron pans and Dutch ovens. Along the tour, she shared stories of food that had Gunn declaring Robinson as Gullah Geechee by the end of the visit.
Under a huge white, canopy tent, plates had been scraped and bellies had been filled as guests were similarly enthralled by stories that weaved together the connectedness and influence of the rich Gullah Geechee foodways in different cultures.
The dinner was also a celebration of the crops and preparation methods that were brought from Africa, a celebration that notably took place at a site that was historically a slave plantation.
Exploring the foodways
Nestled in an off-beaten path at Wormsloe Historic Site is the UGA Center for Research and Education.
Drive too fast under the oak tree canopies and you just might miss the sign that welcomes guests of the twelve-hundred-acre Wormsloe estate into a piece of land that has been dedicated to cultivating over 500 different varieties of heirloom crops, including 60 varieties of okra and 37 varieties of collard greens.
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This is the work of Sarah Ross, the organizer of the dinner and executive director of the UGA program whose focus is showing how U.S. recipes and crops from all over the world are a map of the past and future, connecting culinary history with environmental history.
“We’re celebrating tonight the cooking techniques, the coming together of cultures. Everybody eats. Everybody’s happy with food. Food is sharing. Food is understanding. Food is sitting and listening and talking to someone, so food really is such a common ground,” Ross said.
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“And when we share those seeds and we serve all the different foods that come with it and then the cooking techniques and then sit at a table together, I can’t imagine a more delightful celebration.”
Through her nonprofit Social Roots, Ross distributes heirloom seeds, notably to Lowcountry farmers and chefs like chef Benjamin “BJ” Dennis and chef Modu Jaiteh, two chefs who respectively infuse Gullah Geechee and Gambian culture into their cooking.
Ross grows native African crops for Dennis and Jaiteh that they can’t get anywhere else in the U.S. Crops such as millets, a grain that are often used as a substitute for rice in Gullah Geechee cooking and Bambara beans.
The culinary experience was a Lowcountry feast provided by a collective of chefs and farmers cooked mainly out of South Carolina. Marvin Ross, founder of Peculiar Pig Farm in Dorchester, S.C., raised all the animals on the menu. Along with Dennis and Jaiteh, they cooked smoked Ossabaw Island tilefish and grouper, roasted wood-fired chicken, steamed collard greens, and Sea Islands white rice peas.
A whole hog was slaughtered and roasted over Wormsloe Live Oak coals, a rich tradition that’s being kept alive on Ross’ farm. Chef Bintou N’Daw, a Sengalese chef, cooked Sierra Leone-style Jollof rice made with Carolina gold rice.
These chefs have acted as culture bearers for years as they show that Gullah Geechee, African, and Afro-fusion cuisine has its place in the culinary world.
“I brought the chefs together. We have the African diaspora representing. We have chef Modu Jaiteh who was from The Gambia. He’s here. Chef Bintou. You know myself representing Gullah Geechee. My boy Morgan, he’s more of a freshwater Geechee inland,” Dennis said.
Savannah chef Matthew Parmarlee contributed with poached and chilled little honey oysters and shawarma spiced lamb rillettes, and Savannah pastry chef Natasha Gaskill baked a Wormsloe heirloom rice bread and rice profiteroles.
Guests were encouraged to roam the Heirloom Seeds Trial Garden and get an even more in-depth understanding of Gullah Geechee and African foodways by speaking with present authors like Edda L. Fields-Black. Black is the associate professor of history at Carnegie Mellon University and wrote “Deep Roots,” a book that focuses on her research on West African rice agriculture and societies and the African diaspora.
As the night winded down, a birthday cake burning with candles was carried out for Jessica Harris, culinary historian and a New York Times bestselling author. Through her bestselling book “High on the Hog: A Culinary Journey From Africa to America,” which inspired a 2021 Netflix show, Harris chronicles the story of foods and culinary history that began in Africa and were brought to the U.S. through slavery.
In a burnt rust overcoat, she looked around at the chefs that were transferring the food into stainless steel chafers and the white cloth table set up and said, “It’s kind of wonderful, but it’s also kind of logical.
“Gullah Geechee food is one of the bedrock foods of African Americans, so it absolutely makes sense.”
Laura Nwogu is the quality of life reporter for Savannah Morning News. Contact her at [email protected] Twitter: @lauranwogu_
This article originally appeared on Savannah Morning News: Gullah Geechee dinner at Wormsloe celebrated foodways and culture