No culinary tour of South Carolina’s Lowcountry would be complete without sampling Gullah cuisine at least once. In the Lowcountry, Gullah represents several things: people, culture and language. As a people, the Gullah represent a distinctive group of African Americans living along the island chains and coastal plains which parallel the South Carolina and Georgia coast. The Gullah people are directly descended from the thousands of slaves who labored on the rice plantations in the moist, semitropical country bordering the South Carolina and Georgia coastline.
Because of their relative isolation, the Gullah have managed to preserve their dialect and culture more completely than virtually any other group in the country. Where Gullah culture is most in evidence is in the foods of the region. Gullah cuisine reflects the rich bounty of the islands: crabs, shrimp, fish, oysters as well as vegetables (greens, corn and tomatoes). Rice is omnipresent, served at nearly every meal. You can’t really say you’ve experienced Lowcountry cuisine unless you’ve had Gullah cuisine.
It’s often been said that necessity is the mother of invention. Because the original Gullahs had very few cookware provisions, many of the dishes they prepared were cooked in one large pot. Fish, poultry and meat were cooked together with rice, vegetables, peppers, potatoes and/or legumes to create stews and soups still served today. Meats, fish and poultry were also smoked over an open flame, advancing the development of barbecue techniques still in use. Traditional Gullah cooking uses a special spice blend similar to Cajun seasonings in their assertiveness.
It can also be said that without the presence of the Gullah culture, there would be no Lowcountry cooking; it would all be Southern cooking. To the Gullahs, preparing and sharing food has always meant more than sustenance. Preparing and serving meals was often almost ritualistic in nature, feeding the soul as well as the body. The Gullahs describe their cuisine as “food that speaks to ya.” It certainly did speak to me!
The epicenter of contemporary Gullah cuisine lies just east of Charleston in the burgeoning hamlet of Mount Pleasant. That’s where Chef Charlotte Jenkins plies her creativity, serving the best Gullah-soul food in the country. That’s not just my opinion. Southern Living magazine, Gourmet magazine, The New York Times and a phalanx of other publications have said so as well. Chef Jenkins is a peripatetic presence at her restaurant and is as friendly as can be. When she asked to see the photograph I took of her, she intercepted my “you’re very photogenic” response, replacing “photogenic” with “cute.” I’ll grant her that. She is very cute.
Chef Jenkins had to surmount humble origins to achieve the acclaim she has earned. She learned to cook Gullah the way her mother, grandmother and all other mothers that preceded her–by working alongside one another. The work ethic and discipline she learned from her upbringing prepared her well for more regimented training at Johnson & Wales University in Charleston where she learned to adapt healthful elements into traditional recipes. She launched Gullah Cuisine in 1997.
While pondering the menu, a single cupcake baking cup nestling a sweet crumbly cornbread with butter was delivered to my table. It’s as simple and no-frills as cornbread can be, but that purity is what makes it so good. The only thing wrong with the cornbread is that two or six more weren’t brought to my table.
If it’s sexist to admit preferring she-crab to he-crab, picture me a male chauvinist pig. A week in South Carolina has left me besotted with she-crab soup. Made from crab stock, blue crab meat, heavy cream and most notably, crab roe then finished with a splash of sherry, it’s a Charleston specialty. The “she” portion of this soup, of course, is courtesy of the female crab roe. Charlotte’s she crab soup is unctuous and replete with blue crab. The sherry is discernible with its crisp, sweet, spicy and refreshing properties.
Daily specials are priced ridiculously low, especially considering the quality and portion size. Great fortune smiles upon diners when smothered chicken is served. This isn’t a de-boned chicken breast out of a bag. It’s a whole, moist thigh with an attached wing. White meat a plenty is just below the surface of a thin-crusted skin. Smothered means gravy and though thin, this brown gravy is flavorful (corn bread would have been useful here). The collard greens and red rice are excellent, too.
The dessert menu lists only five items, but savvy diners stop reading after bread pudding. This is no pedestrian bread pudding. It’s in the pantheon of great puddings I’ve ever had, in no small part due to its simplicity. Served hot, it’s stuffed with spiced peaches and punctuated with raisins. The spiced peaches are a revelation, pairing wonderfully with a soft, spongy bread.
American cuisine owes much to the Gullah culture. So much more than Southern cuisine, soul food and even Lowcountry cuisine, it’s great cooking incomparably exemplified by Chef Charlotte Jenkins.
1717 North Highway 17
Mount Pleasant, South Carolina
LATEST VISIT: 16 April 2014
# OF VISITS: 1
BEST BET: Smothered Fried Chicken, Bread Pudding, Collard Greens, Charlotte’s She Crab Soup