Fourteen months ago, when Dr. Deirdre Grimm stepped into the role of executive director of Forsyth Farmers’ Market, one of her goals was strengthening community connections to local food, its cultivation and distribution. The inaugural Gullah Geechee Farmsgiving brunch, celebrated on Jan. 7, held true to that aim.
The mostly locally sourced luncheon kicked off a series of new quarterly dinners meant to foster relationships among residents and regional farmers, while also emphasizing the deep cultural roots of Southern cooking in crops and agricultural knowledge from Africa.
A greeting from Amir-Jamal Toure, J.D., core faculty in the Africana Studies program at Georgia Southern University, detailed how Coastal Georgia and the Lowcountry strongly resemble Western Africa, the home of many enslaved people before their forced Atlantic crossing. Though separated by a vast ocean, both regions are suitable for growing similar crops.
“In Africa,” explained Toure, “for generations they cultivated rice, okra, watermelon and black-eyed peas.”
These staples of Southern cuisine survived the passage to North America with Africans who knew how to grow them. Without their knowledge, Southern cooking would not exist as it is known today.
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Toure then introduced the Nexflix documentary “High on the Hog: How African American Cuisine Transformed America.” In this eight-part series, based upon the book by food historian Jessica B. Harris, food writer Stephen Satterfield explores some of the cultural impacts of African traditions on American food. Filmed among the isolated sea islands of St. Helena and Daufuskie, episode two, “The Rice Kingdom,” considers the region’s rich Gullah Geechee culinary history.
In a darkened banquet hall, 30 patrons took in the film. In one segment, Satterfield relates how prior to the prohibition of slavery, as much as 60% of all enslaved Africans passed through Sullivan’s Island off the coast of South Carolina before entering Charleston, the nexus of trading enslaved Africans in North America.
Satterfield then emphasizes that rice plantations along the coasts of South Carolina and Georgia were the earliest generators of wealth in the United States. At their peak, rice exports topped 100 million pounds annually, all by the hands of stolen and coerced labor.
For enslaved people, then, locating and eating nutrient dense, life sustaining foods became paramount, if not an unheralded act of defiance.
Okra, collards and rice as foundations of winter diet
In winter, okra, collard greens and rice were and continue to be prominent in Gullah Geechee cuisine. Savannah-based Food Network chef Gina Capers-Willis spent a month planning the Farmsgiving menu around these key ingredients. For starters, she prepared bite-sized creamed collard tartlets with gruyere and gouda cheeses, and then a colorful salad chockfull of local greens and vegetables.
Capers-Willis and her team followed the salad with a traditional one-pot meal, a gumbo of okra, rice, chicken and sausage that warmed the edges of a brisk January day.
“Okra was the number one thing, fresh okra, that I wanted for this occasion,” said Capers-Willis. “I approached the meal from the perspective of ‘what did our ancestors eat?’ And first, you have to know where to get fresh produce and healthy products. That’s why the farmers and farmers’ market is so important. And then, it’s important to get that message out, you can buy local and make fresh, healthy food.”
Then, the main course of flounder, fried lion’s mane mushrooms, and creamy stone-ground grits were presented. Though not local, the lightly-battered fried flounder filets complemented the Coastal Georgia-grown flavors of grits and mushrooms. Nearly all menu items were sourced within a 200-mile radius of Savannah and remain the basis of Gullah Geechee winter cuisine.
Capers-Willis, who also serves on the board of directors at Emmaus House, anticipates more involvement with Forsyth Farmers’ Market. This year she partners with the organization in presenting community dinners as well as seasonal cooking demonstrations focused on health and nutrition.
“I grew up baking and cooking with my mom and my dad, and God-mom had a supper club on St. Simon’s Island,” reflected Capers-Willis. “This is who I am; it’s just in me. This year, I’m looking forward to collaborating with Forsyth Farmers’ Market, and I’m ready to start pulling up people with me, to give others the chances my mentors gave me. I’m very proud of my Gullah Geechee heritage.”
This article originally appeared on Savannah Morning News: Savannah’s Forsyth Farms Market celebrate Gullah Geechee cuisine