Before coming to the Lowcountry of South Carolina, we had never even heard the word "Gullah," but now, with our curiosity piqued about Gullah history and society, we set about googling with a vengeance. We searched for articles on anything and everything Gullah, background, historical sites, language and, oh yeah, food.
The first thing we tend to look for when exploring a new region or culture is the food. It's not just that we like to eat, although we do, but foods give an unique insight into how and where people live.
A short drive down the Sweetgrass Basket Maker Highway, a stretch of U.S. Highway 17 lined with little makeshift booths where Gullah women make and sell traditional sweetgrass baskets, would lead us to Gullah Cuisine. According to our newfangled technology, this restaurant is said to have the best authentic Gullah grub in the area. Lucky for us, it was right about dinner time.
The menu features classic Gullah dishes like She Crab Soup, Hoppin' John, fried okra, okra gumbo, shrimp & grits and Gullah rice. With no idea what to expect, we ordered up some She Crab and a gumbo, to see how this compared to Louisiana Creole cooking.
The soup is like a cross between a bisque and a chowder, made with blue crab, cream, dry sherry and crab roe - the roe puts the "she" in the She Crab. The gumbo was similar to the Louisiana variety but with a little less heat in the spices.
Next we went with the Gullah rice and a sampler plate of Hoppin' John, fried okra and collards.
Gullah rice is a close cousin to jambalaya, with sausage, chicken and shrimp jazzing up the seasoned rice. Gullah seasoning employs some of the usual suspects; garlic, pepper, onion, salt, bay leaf and paprika, but then mustard, mace, cinnamon and ginger jump in and give the tastebuds a completely different, and slightly sweet twist. These flavors were also present in the gumbo and the Hoppin' John, the Gullah version of beans and rice, using field peas in place of beans.
At the end of our meal, Charlotte Jenkins, the chef and owner, came out to greet us. To help answer our questions, she brought out a copy of her book, Gullah Cuisine: By Land and By Sea, and allowed us to browse through it at our leisure. Her stories of growing up in the Lowcountry are fascinating and her recipes come from the experience of cooking Gullah foods passed down through generations. It is so much more than a mere cookbook.
With the culinary component of our research complete, we were ready to venture out to the Sea Islands to learn more about Gullah history. These one hundred or so islands along the coast of Georgia and South Carolina became home to thousands of enslaved Africans. Once it was discovered that rice could be grown, slaves were stolen from the West African rice-growing regions.
Generally left alone due to these islands' inaccessibility and the plantation owners fear of malaria, much of the Gullah people's African culture remained intact. They became known as Gullah, perhaps from the word Angola or the Gola people of West Africa.
In our Google frenzy we discovered that we hit the area in time for the 15th Annual Hilton Head Island Gullah Celebration. Hilton Head is only a few hours drive from Charleston, but we had a couple days leeway, so we had a chance to mosey through the heart of the Gullah Sea Islands.
St. Helena Island, South Carolina just might be that heart. Two of the area's most renown landmarks are on this island. Only a couple dozen miles from Charleston as the crow flies, drove over fifty miles to get there because of the bays, rivers and marshland. Once on the island, we proceeded down Lands End Road to the Penn Center.
In 1862 philanthropists, abolitionists, and missionaries from Pennsylvania opened the Penn School to educate the Sea Island slaves who were freed at the beginning of the Civil War. The Center operated as a school for nearly one hundred years before shifting its focus to other services such as child care and health training.
Today the Center is focused on preserving the unique culture of the Sea Islands through the History and Culture Program, the Land Use and Environmental Education Program and the Program for Academic and Cultural Enrichment.
Just down the road from the Center, through a thick growth of live oaks so heavily draped with Spanish moss that they darkened the afternoon sky, we came upon The Chapel of Ease.
Chapels of ease were built by the plantation owners because churches in the cities were too far away. Less travel, more ease. This particular example dates back to the 1740s. We pulled off the road to meander through the haunting, roofless structure and adjoining cemetery.
Upon closer inspection, we found the walls of the chapel filled with oyster shells. The material used, called tabby, employed the local ingredients of lime, water, sand, oyster shells, and ash. The shells were plentiful and, judging by how sturdy these 270-year-old walls still are, made a pretty good version of concrete.
Off to one side of the chapel we found several unkempt graves and an open, empty mausoleum. Many of the headstones bear the name Fripp, one of the island's most prominent families before the Civil War. Peeking in to the broken entrance of the crypt, we got a pretty creepy feeling gazing down at the empty tomb, formerly occupied by Edgar and Eliza Fripp.
Turns out that there are a couple ghost stories that circulate in these parts. One involves the mausoleum, which was broken into and raided by Union soldiers. When repairs were made, the next morning the bricks had all been removed again and neatly stacked next to the broken entrance. Local authorities assured everyone that no one had been allowed near the cemetery that night so naturally supernatural forces were suspected.
The other spooky legend has a eerie orb of light traveling down Lands End Road after dusk on many nights. We didn't learn about this phenomenon until after our visit, but with the way the oaks and moss closed in even in the daylight, it must get crazy dark when the sun goes down and we might have believed anything. Since we didn't see it, we're going to go with that good old catch-all explanation, swamp gas... perhaps from some shrimp and grits.
Anyway, we had a good excuse to keep moving, the Gullah Celebration was waiting.
David & Veronica, GypsyNester.com