A Lowcountry dinner at Wormsloe connects community, Gullah-Geechee foodways and rich heirloom crops
Photography by SOMI BENSON-JAJA, SHOT BY SOMI STUDIOS
IN GULLAH-GEECHEE FOOD CULTURE, one-pot cooking with a slow simmer is the common method of blending a variety of flavors and ingredients. In many ways, the March 11 dinner at Wormsloe was an expression of this method, with the coastal community gathered in one location to celebrate the Lowcountry’s foodways and heirloom crops (vegetables and meat originating locally for generations), all while spotlighting Gullah-Geechee cuisine.
Sarah Ross, executive director of the UGA Center for Research and Education at Wormsloe (UGA-CREW), organized the event to highlight the rich agricultural history of the coastal region. She describes Lowcountry foodways as having emerged from the integration of several cultures, globally sourced ingredients and distinctive cooking techniques with culinary influences from Indigenous Americans, Europeans and Africans.
“Southern cuisine is truly a melting pot of ingredients and cultural influences,” Ross says. Lowcountry food incorporates old and new elements, creating a vibrant, culinary kaleidoscope in the South. And when Ross decided to organize a dinner party highlighting heirloom foods, she knew exactly who could help bring the event authentically to life. “I called local friends who are professional chefs as well as those who farm and harvest local seafood and fish.”
The Lowcountry dinner hosted 120 guests at the edge of Jones Creek at Wormsloe and featured Georgia musicians (Savannahian Patt Gunn and her Saltwata’ Players Gullah Geechee performing group) and, of course, local chefs preparing the heirloom-inspired menu, from Matthew Palmerlee’s lamb rillettes to Natasha Gaskill’s wood-oven-baked rice bread and profiteroles with whipped cream and strawberries.
“ Whether it’s rice or vinay seeds, pork or Sea Island or Sapelo field peas, you get a rebirth of what the people tasted and how they cooked it.” — William “Doc Bill” Thomas, preservation advocate
Benjamin “BJ” Dennis, Gullah cultural bearer and head Chef for the evening, slow-roasted an heirloom pig alongside Chef Modou Jaiteh (of Lowcountry Fresh in Bluffton) that was provided by Marvin Ross of Peculiar Pig Farm, located in Dorchester, South Carolina, for the menu’s entree. The food was also prepared with the help of Chef Fatmata Binta based in Ghana.
“When we talk about Gullah-Geechee food, it’s about the freshness,” Dennis says. “In its truest form, it’s not coming out the can, or if it is, it’s out of a mason jar that was preserved by somebody locally.” Moreover, it’s very seasonal: “It’s from the farmer, from the land, from the sea,” Dennis says. The personal chef adds that he’s often at Wormsloe because he’s able to get seeds through Social Roots, Ross’s seed-saving project of heirloom cultivars. Through Social Roots and UGA-CREW, Ross grows about 500 varieties
of heirloom vegetables alone each year.
“Heirloom produce is very important because it brings back a part of our culture that’s been lost,” Dennis explains. “The more we’ve gotten away from agrarian roots, for better or worse, the more that has been lost. [Heirloom crops] give the real taste of the cultural foods and not the commodity crops and produce that we’re accustomed to.”
Dr. William “Doc Bill” Thomas, Sapelo and Geechee preservation advocate, was also in attendance and spoke to the dinner’s setting, in addition to the significance of the heirloom crops as they relate to Gullah-Geechee culture. “You could smell the aspects of the food before it was served,” Thomas says, referring in part to the dinner’s setting on the Intracoastal Waterway. The use of heirloom cultivars also provides a better perspective on what Gullah-Geechee people would’ve eaten hundreds of years ago. “The people you don’t see because they’re all gone, but at least you can get an idea of what the food tasted like,” Thomas says. “Whether it’s rice or vinay seeds, pork or Sea Island or Sapelo field peas, you get a rebirth of what the people tasted and how they cooked it.”
“When we talk about Gullah-Geechee food, it’s about the freshness. In its truest form, it’s not coming out the can, or if it is, it’s out of a mason jar that was preserved by somebody locally.” — Benjamin “BJ” Dennis
For Dennis, heirloom crops define local culture and history at once. “I think it’s important for us to reconnect with those values because that’s what our ancestors did. They did it because of survival and necessity, but that was part of our ancestor’s heritage as agrarian people.”
Wormsloe, like so many parts of Savannah and the larger South, contends with a painful past. The space, a former plantation, once had as many as 1,500 enslaved people working the fields and living close to the marsh at the edge of the plantation where this very dinner was held.
“For me personally, to be on old plantations where we’re there on our own accord, not forced, and we’re getting paid — if the ancestors’ spirits are still around there, they’re looking and saying ‘wow,’” Dennis says. “It’s probably their wildest dreams to see us in control as businesspeople and not subjected to servitude and enslavement.”
Indeed, the event provided an opportunity for attendees to reflect on the historical significance of the land while also creating new memories for the future, reviving and reinforcing our relationship with nature through foodways and farming, and reconnecting Southern heritage foodways with heirloom vegetables and the local farming landscape.
When it comes to honoring and reviving the area’s relationship with Gullah-Geechee culinary traditions, Thomas says people can begin by spending time on the land. “The land is the key thing,” he says, “because the land determines what you cook — and what you’re going to reflect upon.”