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Sunday, February 22, 2009

A Taste of Gullah

Gullah food wraps the richness of the culture into dishes heaped with flavor. As descendants of skilled rice planters, the cuisine focuses on rice, rice and more rice. A typical Gullah restaurant will serve at least three kinds and I'm not taking about white or brown rice. There's red rice, a mixture of tomato sauce and pork, a mini meal of rice, chicken, shrimp, sausage and vegetables called Gullah rice and the famous Hoppin' John, which blends rice with field peas. At Gullah Cuisine Restaurant, just off Highway 17 in Mt. Pleasant, South Carolina, owners Charlotte and
Frank Jenkins (pictured above left) serve up country charm along with the rice.
The extensive menu offers okra gumbo, shrimp & grits, fish head stew, oyster salad, fried flounder, collard greens and macaroni and cheese. Charlotte hovers over customers like an indulgent mother and the eatery envelopes guests with friendliness. I couldn't finish all of my flounder and Charlotte whisked it off to put in a to-go bag, making me promise to finish it all the next day. The spices are what distinguish Gullah food and I couldn't quite put my finger on what they were. Charlotte shot me a demure smile when I asked her about her recipes. "Why, there's good stuff in there, history and things."

At Gullah Grub Restaurant in St. Helena, South Carolina, the chef, affectionately known as Mr. Bill (above right) is just as particular about his dishes. Mr. Bill explains that the preparation and natural seasonings is what separates Gullah cooking from traditional soul food. After spending hours in the restaurant, which resembles a quaint Southern living room, with shelves of knick knacks, I understood what he meant. The fried whiting, collard greens , corn bread and rice that I sampled looked like typical soul food but didn't quite taste like it. It was less heavy and greasy and the spices left a tingle in my mouth. I bought some of Mr. Bill's packaged spices to cook fish with and it transforms my seafood with a melange of flavors that I can only identify as Gullah.

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Monday, February 9, 2009

Gullah Speech and Spirit

Sunset over Hilton Head Island

My first introduction to Gullah culture came with Julie Dash's seminal 1992 film, Daughters of the Dust. The film showcases the languid beauty of the land and the language. Set at the turn of the 20th century on St. Helena Island, the movie tells the haunting story of three generations of Gullah women. Since the tale took place in the early 1900s, it never occurred to me that the culture was still alive until I stepped onto the dusty roads and marshy landscape of St. Helena myself. The lyrical dialect of the Gullah people floated around me and it drove me crazy. I have a pretty sharp ear for language and what I heard sounded like Jamaican patois, but not quite, like Nigerian Yoruba intonations but not completely, like the sing-song melody of St. Croix Cruzan speech but not totally. When I was told that it was Gullah language that I was hearing, a light went off. I had heard Gullah semi-recently but never realized it. My daughter loved to watch the Nick Jr. children's TV show, Gullah Gullah Island during the mid to late 90s. Somehow, I never connected the snappy songs and amusing folk tales that the show's creators, Ron and Natalie Daise, used to illustrate Gullah speech and customs with the ancient culture I had glimpsed in Daughters of the Dust.

Penn Center Ron Daise with Gullah Bible

But as I explored more Sea Islands, including Hilton Head and Beaufort, I discovered that Gullah culture is vibrantly alive on many levels. One of the highlight's of my trip was meeting Ron Daise
and witnessing Gullah culture firsthand. Ron is one of the leading experts on Gullah culture and dialect and he acted as the dialect coach for Daughter's of The Dust. Hearing Ron roll melodic Gullah words and sing Gullah songs brought everything to life for me. We visited the Spanish moss draped campus of Penn Center, the first school opened for freed slaves in the South.
Founded in 1862, Penn was also where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. came to strategize and meditate in the 60s and where Daise's parents and grandparents studied and became educators.
The school closed in 1948 and changed its focus to community service. The site now hosts dorms, homes and a museum, whose small gift shop is full of plaques with Gullah sayings, handmade quilts and calendars by prominent Gullah artist Jonathan Greene.

Whenever I asked how to sum up Gullah culture, spirituality was always the first response. So it makes sense that the most significant representation of Gullah culture is the Gullah Bible. Called "De Nyew Testament," the bible was translated by the Sea Island Translation Team, of which
Ron Daise was a member. The team translated the bible in 2005, entirely in Gullah with translations in the margins. Here's a verse:
"Dem Wa Bless Fa True. Wen Jedus see all de crowd dem, e gon pontop one high hill. E seddown dey, Jeddus staat fa baan um. E say, dey bless fa true, dem people wa ain hab no hope een deyself."
Don't recognize the passage? It's Luke 16:20-23. In the five Gullah Baptist churches on Hilton Head alone, the singularity of the language flows through the pews. (I visited one but didn't quite make it through the required 3 1/2 hour service.) That lyrical dialect also represents the spirit that sustained the Gullah culture for over 200 years in tact.

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Thursday, February 5, 2009

Gullah, Sweet Grass and History

Learning about a destination's culture and history are important aspects of the travel experience for me. I enjoy gathering insight into a place from a cultural perspective. One of the most fascinating culture's I've ever encountered is Gullah culture. This week, I have a feature story about Gullah culture in Travel Muse. The piece focuses on Gullah history in Hilton Head and St.Helena, South Carolina but the culture extends way beyond that.

The Gullah trace their heritage directly to the skilled rice farmers of Sierra Leone, West Africa. They were enslaved specifically because of those skills and were transported to work on rice plantations in South Carolina, Georgia and parts of Florida. The swampy conditions and malaria that went with it, made it uncomfortable for the plantation owners to live so they left the Gullah people to work the plantations mostly unattended. The isolation allowed Gullah dialect, customs and art to survive undiluted for 100 years. One of the hallmark's of Gullah culture is sweet grass basket "sewing" which mirrors Sierra Leone's centuries-old basket weaving tradition. Jery Taylor, pictured above, represents the fourth generation of her family to create sweet grass baskets. Jery has had her creations displayed at the Smithsonian and I quickly bought one of her designs, not just for the beauty but for the significant culture and history that it symbolizes.

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