A Taste Of Gullah

Southern-style Gullah food captures the African heritage of slaves brought to the shores of the Carolinas, Georgia and Florida. Garret Fleming, chef at the Eatonville Restaurant in Washington, D.C., recently opened his kitchen to Gullah chef Charlotte Jenkins, owner of the Washington restaurant Gullah Cuisine. The two chefs offer host Michel Martin a taste of their creations while discussing Gullah food.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

In a moment, we remember soul singer Teena Marie. She died over the weekend.

But first, good food at the holidays. Those who can't make it home may be preparing some of the meals or dishes that remind them of home. And if home is South Carolina's southernmost coastal area, the low country there, then that means the unique Gullah style.

Now, Gullah incorporates elements of the heritage brought by enslaved African slaves brought to the shores of the Carolinas, Georgia, and Florida. And while remnants of the life remain in the craftsmanship of basket weaving, ironwork and Gullah language, the aspect of the culture that probably shines most brightly is its food.

Washington, D.C.'s Eatonville Restaurant wanted to let its customers in on the flavor and culture of Gullah style, so the executive chef of Eatonville decided to share his kitchen with one of the most celebrated Gullah chefs.

Here to tell us more are both chefs, Garrett Fleming of Eatonville Restaurant in Washington, D.C., he happens to be a native of Charleston, South Carolina. Also with us, Charlotte Jenkins, head chef and owner of the restaurant Gullah Cuisine in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina. She's the author of a book titled, Gullah Cuisine. I welcome you both. Thank you so much for joining us.

Mr. GARRETT FLEMING (Chef, Eatonville Restaurant): Thank you.

Ms. CHARLOTTE JENKINS (Head Chef/Owner, Gullah Cuisine): Thank you for having us.

MARTIN: Chef Jenkins, tell us a little bit more about Gullah cuisine. Just give us a little bit of a flavor of what kinds of foods would be typical of Gullah cuisine.

Ms. JENKINS: On our vegetable stuff, we do collards, and we do that in two different styles. We do that with ham hock, and also we do it like on a vegetarian. We have a signature rice called Gullah rice. It's a rice based on -my mom cooked - years ago we did a yard chicken and we stew it and we make rice, and it's called flavored rice. And this flavored rice has now turned into Gullah rice, which is shrimp, chicken and sausage, and vegetables. It has carrots and green pepper and that's our signature rice at the restaurant.

MARTIN: What do you think characterizes Gullah cooking per se? If you just landed on this planet and didn't know anything else, how would you know you were eating Gullah cuisine?

Ms. JENKINS: Because of the intercultural way - the seafood, definitely, and rice because of the rice plantation. Also, the flavor. It's more seasoning.

MARTIN: I know you don't want to tell us your secrets, but what seasonings?

Ms. JENKINS: Well, the basic seasoning, garlic, onions, pepper. Those three seasoning can make anything taste good if you apply it right, don't overdo it.

MARTIN: Now, Chef Fleming, as we mentioned, you grew up in South Carolina, so did you grow up eating Gullah cooking?

Mr. FLEMING: We always heard about Gullah cooking kind of as whispered. It meant a different way of eating than kind of what was referred to as low country cuisine.

MARTIN: What's the difference?

Mr. FLEMING: We've had actually several discussions. It's a complicated issue, but they both use the same kind of bounties of local fish, rice, corn, it's just the influence of which culture upon the same ingredients.

For instance, Ms. Jenkins, her restaurant is called Gullah Cuisine, and it kind of epitomizes what is Gullah cuisine, and that draws from a very serious African root. And I think low country draws from African influence, particularly what they brought to the region in terms of culinary techniques and seasonings, but it's still much more European-based.

But they have almost exactly the same dishes through and throughout. It's just - I don't the know, the differences are subtle and many.

MARTIN: Well, how about that, Mrs. Jenkins, does that ever bug you that you feel people are claiming to be Gullah-inspired or serving Gullah cuisine and they're not? Is there anybody you want to call out?

Ms. JENKINS: No, not at this point. Because, you know, I look at it like this, when we were brought back from Africa, and we were on the plantation, we prepared food for Europeans. And their diet and our diet come together. So we used some of their food, they used our type of food.

The only thing is that if you're going to do it, if you're going to cook in the Gullah style, just do it right. Make it taste right. That's my feelings of it. We can't take it back.

MARTIN: Chef Fleming, I was wondering, one of the interesting things about your sort of teaming up here, is that you're both used to eating tradition foods of the region, but you're both also classically trained. You've both been to culinary school, and that's - I think a lot of people are more familiar now with the whole concept of culinary school than they might have been, say, a decade ago, because there have been these reality shows that involve cooking, and...

Mr. FLEMING: Right. Right.

MARTIN: ...a lot of people kind of opened the door to the kitchen. But is there ever a conflict, or do you ever feel, like, a tension between the way you're taught to cook growing up and then what you're taught in school? Or have those rules relaxed? I don't know if - Chef Jenkins, why don't you - do you want to start?

Ms. JENKINS: Yes. The rules are totally different. In school, everything is done different. And I found while attending culinary school, the food as(ph) seasoning, that was hard for me to reckon with, because I was taught one way. And, for instance, like with gravy, I think gravy is a sauce, you know. But the way we do it, it's a gravy, you know, with a flour base and onions and everything, but the sauce, you know, you make a roux. And - but that's totally different. So that was hard...

MARTIN: Did you ever feel like you were made to be wrong?

Ms. JENKINS: No. It's...

MARTIN: I do hesitate, but I don't tell your age, you know, because ladies don't tell their age. But there were not a huge number of women at the time that you went to culinary school who were - had the kind of opportunity for the kind of classical training that you have had. And do you think that's fair to say? And also, you're a pioneer is I guess what I'm saying.

Ms. JENKINS: Yeah.

MARTIN: Women - and an African-American woman. And did you ever feel like you were made to be wrong, like you have to play by those rules in order to be accepted?

Ms. JENKINS: Definitely.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. JENKINS: Because first of all, it was a second career. I went - I decided to do it, most of the students in my class, they were much younger, and they didn't think the way I do and they didn't prepare their meal the way I do. And most of the time, the chef would say, well, you know, that's your way, but do it my way.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MARTIN: Well. And what about you, Chef Fleming? I guess - I don't know. You came along in a different era. You're on the younger end of the continuum. But do you ever feel like, in a way, you were being sort of taught to turn against your roots when you went to culinary school?

Mr. FLEMING: I don't think so. I see the reasons - I think first and foremost, I was classically trained. And so it's strange to go back to dishes that I ate growing up and then see - you know, there's no French way to do fried chicken. But I did see that, in culinary school, there were many kind of cultures that have different ways of cooking things.

For instance, I had a Ghanaian chef where - you usually take off the fat off sauces or soups anything like that. It's called depouillage. But in all his soups and sauce, he said, you know, in Africa, you would never do that. You just mix it back in, because that kind of carries the flavor. It's very French. So there are - since classical training is technically French-based, there are a lot of distinctions between doing things the right way, one way, and doing things that are culturally the right way.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin, and I'm speaking with Chefs Garret Fleming and Charlotte Jenkins, and we're talking about Gullah cuisine.

Eatonville, by the way, tell us a little about the history of Eatonville. It's named because it's what?

Mr. FLEMING: Zora Neale Hurston's hometown in Florida, which was historically the first black town in all of America, and in turn kind of is meant to celebrate the culture and the history, particularly the cuisine of that region, being the Southeast. So it's really meant to - if you ever get a chance to go to Eatonville, it's covered with beautiful murals - not quite as beautiful as the book that Ms. Jenkins has, if you page through. But they're very beautiful murals, and it kind of draws you back into this very Southern, strange atmosphere that's a great place to work and a great place to eat. Yeah.

MARTIN: Okay. Tell me about you, Chef Fleming, how - is it exciting for you now to - first of all, to be an executive chef at your age, it's - that's an achievement. So congratulations on that. But what do you think that people who are not exposed to this cuisine will learn to enjoy about it? What do you hope to bring them?

Mr. FLEMING: I think, particularly at Eatonville, I think that people have gotten - not in Eatonville, that people have gotten the concept that Southern food is generic. But I think people in general have that concept, that there are a couple of dishes and they love soul food, Gullah food, low country, New Orleans, all of those things are lumped together. And so if you see a shrimp and grits plate, you're going to see fried chicken. You're going to see gumbo. You're going to see - I mean they are all kind of mushed together, and it's this generic Southern food.

I believe that any restaurant that has kind of a genuine presence has focus and direction towards a specific region, or at least a specific type of cuisine from that region. And at Eatonville, I really want to focus our efforts in really exploring through the history and the culture a specific cuisine, and that is of the low country.

MARTIN: Chef Jenkins, did you ever fear that this heritage would disappear?

Ms. JENKINS: That's why I'm trying to keep the Gullah Cuisine open, because yeah, it's a possibility because people, eating style are changing. And not to say that the food that we prepare is not healthy for you, but it's the way it's prepared and we are working on changing some of those stuff - like with the collards, remove the ham hock, remove the pork on some of the dishes, and people will have choice. Now, you have people that if you don't have that in there, they don't want it. So, you know, we will have to do it, you know, you could have it for the people who are vegetarians and the people who eat meat. So I think that it should be that way.

MARTIN: Chef, final question - Chef Fleming, final question for you, too. Do you - on the one hand, there's been a revived interest in American cooking, locally produced foods, you know, artisanal foods. We've seen a lot of that in recent years. People are focusing on the food that's available in their own communities. You know, on the other hand, there are some of these sort of heritage foods where people are saying, you know, enough with that. It's too heavy. I don't have time for that, you know, that kind of thing. I'm wondering if you're concerned at all with this particular food heritage will at some time be - you know, pass away.

Mr. FLEMING: No. I think as long as there's cheese and pig, and, you know, corn, that people will necessarily come and eat shrimp and grits and bacon. And they'll cure their own pigs and they'll serve them because it's delicious. Of course, we try and get more people intrigued with the cuisine that we do by offering - you know, making dishes vegetarian, as Mrs. Jenkins was saying, because we can do that and make them flavorful, still. And I think as long as we do that without sacrificing the idea behind the dish, then we'll keep people entertained in what we do.

MARTIN: I'll be interested in how the collaboration is going, because just to let people in on it, I mean the fact is that you are a senior diva, Chef Jenkins, and Chef Fleming, you know, you're a young white guy. And here you are bringing your skills together in the kitchen. It's not want to be kind of like "Iron Chef." You're not, like, competing.

Ms. JENKINS: No.

MARTIN: But I am interested in how this collaboration will go. Like jazz? Do you think it'll like jazz? Do you think it'll be like - what do you think? How's it going to work out?

Mr. FLEMING: Well, I think, at least from my end, just like in jazz, people, if they play the same instrument, there's often a deference shown almost immediately towards the person with more experience and skill. So - and then one person plays the rhythm, and the other one takes the lead. And this is absolutely going to happen in our kitchen over the weekend.

I've always heard about Mrs. Jenkins throughout my time in Charleston cooking, and it was - her restaurant was known as, you know, it's - I think in New York when people are asked, like a lot of top chefs, like, where do you go out? What's your secret thing? What's your secret food, favorite food? Jean Georges and people are saying oh, it's hotdog - this hotdog stand here, everything there. And there are hotdog stand places, but they are secret places that chefs never really let other people know that they go. And Mrs. Jenkins, out of all the chefs that I knew in downtown Charleston, all of them go to Gullah. All of them.

MARTIN: Okay. Secret's out. Secret's out.

Ms. JENKINS: Yes. His boss was a regular.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. FLEMING: That's true. My old boss.

Ms. JENKINS: Ex-boss. I'm sorry. Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLEMING: Yeah.

Ms. JENKINS: Yeah.

Charlotte Jenkins is owner and head chef at Gullah Cuisine. It's in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina - along with your husband, I think. You two...

Ms. JENKINS: Frank Jenkins.

MARTIN: Frank Jenkins. She's the author of the book "Gullah Cuisine: By Land and By Sea." And she's, this weekend, bringing her Gullah style cooking to Washington, D.C.'s Eatonville Restaurant. Garret Fleming is executive chef at the Eatonville. They were kind enough to stop by our Washington, D.C. studio.

Thank you so much, and Happy New Year to you both.

Mr. FLEMING: Happy New Year's to you.

Ms. JENKINS: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

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