SUU Festival of Excellence Gullah PechaKucha

Four semesters ago I returned to Souther Utah University to finish my undergraduate degree. I started on a new major. This time around I am a Sociology major and I am focusing on the topic of food whenever possible. Annually the school holds a conference where students can present the academic experience they have participated in. This year I had the opportunity to present on my work connected to a  series of trips I took to South Carolina. I chose to do a PechaKucha presentation to take advantage of the photos I took throughout my travels.

What is a PechaKucha? It is a presentation style in which 20 slides are shown for 20 seconds each (6 minutes and 40 seconds in total). PechaKucha is a Japanese word that means chit-chat. The focus of this type of presentation is to simultaneously be less formal and present concise information. The hope is that a presentation like this can start a conversation.

The following are the slides I used and the notes I wrote to accompany them.

#1Today you will be reminded of the true roots of the South. African ingredients are essential to southern cuisine. The African American contributions to the region have become invisible. Through selective narratives many have forgotten who fed the south. Slaves and black domestics prepared much of the essential foods.

#2 In the Carolinas and Georgia the descendants of forced migration are now called Gullah. Connected in identity with the creole dialect over half a million people still speak today. Just like there is no monolithic south, in the words of Psyche Williams-Forson, “Black food is more than kitchen scraps; black women are more than mammy figures, and black culture is more than a monolith.”

#3 Cornbread. Shrimp and grits. These are two iconic dishes of the south. They both feature key Gullah ingredients. Cornbread and grits were made from the corn meal included in most slave rations. South Carolina slaves were often allotted more time away from work. This time could be used to harvest shellfish, like shrimp.

#4 This cake is made of a lesser known African ingredient called sorghum. The cereal grain is also used to make a sweetener similar to molasses. Over the past year I have been studying Gullah culture and cuisine. I have traveled to South Carolina twice and had the opportunity to attended a fundraising dinner prepared by two Gullah chefs. These two chefs were instrumental guideposts in my research previous to meeting them.

#5  The first chef was Sallie Ann Robinson. Her Gullah cookbook was the first I found and read. She promised to cook me raccoon the next time I am in town. The second was Chef BJ Dennis. He says it is his goal to expose others to the Gullah roots of southern cooking.

#6  It was an honor to meet BJ because it was through him that I was exposed to such an extensive range of Gullah food. Tasting his food was a transformative experience. Through my culinary exploration of South Carolina I attempted to seek out particular ingredients of African origin and African inspired preparations.

#7 Much of African American language can be traced back to Africa through the understanding of Gullah. The creation of this creole can mirror the creation of the distinct culture that in the isolation of the sea islands. Referred to by some as the cultural heritage corridor.

#8 Chef Dennis aimed me toward Verna. She is the owner of a Gullah restaurant named after her late mother, Mama Lou. Verna wants to help people connect with their community and culture. She believe that knowing their history and providing an opportunity for creative outlets will help decrease violence and crime in her area.

#9 South Carolina slaves often had time to hunt, fish, and grow their own gardens. Ravenel Seafood is one of the road side icons of Gullah cooking. While I was there they brought in baskets of freshly caught seafood some of which was destined for tomorrow’s garlic crab. This dish is considered to be one of the most authentic representations of Gullah cuisine according to BJ Dennis.

#10 In 30 meals and 80 dishes during my travels I wanted to have a basis for understanding certain ingredients, spices, and preparations of southern food, Charleston food, and Gullah food. This was an enlightening and overwhelming experience.

#11 Many slaves brought to the lowcountry were sought out specifically because of their understanding of rice cultivation. Beyond this knowledge slaves brought with them West African cooking techniques, African ingredients, and even reintroduced unique preparations of new world ingredients. Rice is what brought Gullah people to the south, and okra is what they brought with them from Africa. The use of okra as a thickener is one of the deepest connections the South has to West Africa.

#12 Gumbo is essential to South Carolina the cuisine. Though it differs from the New Orleans dish of the same name. This soup has shrimp, is thickened with okra, and is topped with Carolina Gold Rice.

#13 We see the echoes of slave rations throughout African American cuisine. The off cuts, or offal, that the main house didn’t want were transformed in the pots of slaves and the Gullah people. They were resourceful to use what they were provided with stretching it with what they could grow, hunt, and fish.

#14 This restaurant, Hannibal’s, is one of the most highly ranked culinary experiences in Charleston. Here we see collard greens cooked with a larger portion of seasoning meat than traditionally used. Everything tasted fantastic but the building does not represent the expectations of an elite dining experience. This building is indicative of the simplicity embraced by Gullah traditions.

#15 At each of the restaurant I visited I scanned the menu for various indicators of authenticity. I photographed each menu and each dish ordered. I made the hard choice of connecting my hunger with my research. What we see in Gullah cuisine and culture is a respect for artistic expression and the ability for food to be a representation of skill, love, self, knowledge, and a nearly endless list of other symbols.

#16 The isolation of the sea islands allowed for the unique distillation of language, culture, and cuisine. Many island plantations didn’t even employ white overseers. Slaves took their rations and prepared them in the custom they were used to. The time after work held the memories of their West African life.

#17 The Penn Center was one of the first schools for freed slaves. It is on the barrier island of St. Helena, which holds the highest contemporary concentration of Gullah people. In this cabin Martin Luther King, Jr. found rest and restoration. He stayed here for the last time just a few months before his death. It is said that he drafted parts of his I have a Dream Speech on this marsh.

#18 Chef BJ Dennis told Civil Eats, “Doing this work is paying homage to the folks that came before me. Oftentimes, Gullah living was looked down upon by our own. It’s about respecting my ancestral lineage and embracing the culture.”

#19 Gullah food is a representation of love, a means to identity, a creative expression, translation of the self and soul, and always a reflection of seasonality. There is a simplicity in Gullah cuisine, akin to folk art creations.

#20  I will leave you with this closing thought, “Sometime I wonder if the so-called sophisticate hasn't lost something more precious than he has gained with all his culture and education, all his conveniences, and his complicated way of living.” Thank you.


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