New cookbook explores the hidden culinary heritage of Cumberland Island

The Saltwater Table: Recipes from the Coastal South by Whitney Otawka (Abrams, $40).
The Saltwater Table: Recipes from the Coastal South by Whitney Otawka (Abrams, $40).

Growing up in a small town in the Mojave Desert of California, Whitney Otawka dreamed of becoming an Indiana Jones-style archeologist. Then as a student of anthropology at the University of California, Berkeley, she discovered farm-to-table dining and turned her passion to produce instead.

In 2005, she relocated to Athens, Georgia, where she fell in love with fresh-picked okra and stone-ground grits at Hugh Acheson’s Five & Ten, and a fellow line chef named Ben Wheatley. Now her husband, he turned her on to family traditions of whole hog barbecue and caramel cake, inspiring her to dig deeper into Southern foodways.

Little did she imagine that these moves would lead her to a remote Georgia barrier island accessible only by boat to discover her own culinary identity.

Otawka had seen a PBS special about Cumberland Island, a national seashore famed for the wild horses that gallop on its pristine coastline, and the luxurious Greyfield Inn tucked among the palmettos protected from development by heirs to the Carnegie family who built it. She pitched a hyper-local culinary program to its proprietors that would capture its abundant resources and rich history with ties to the Caribbean, West Africa and Europe. After tasting her cooking, they hired her.

A decade later, Otawka continues to explore the island's flavorful secrets, and shares what she's learned in "The Saltwater Table: Recipes from the Coastal South" (Abrams, $40). Enchanting prose and photography capture the wild beauty of her adopted home. Interspersed among recipes for Cumberland Paella and Banana-Walnut Bread with Salted Coffee Butter are guides to oyster-roasting, picnic-packing, campfire-cooking, and throwing a Lowcountry Boil her way, with Burnt Lemon Aioli and Cubanelle Pepper Butter for dipping.

Cooler temperatures prompted me to make her Winter Root Vegetable with Ham Hock and Turnip Green Pistou, then stock my freezer with Sea Island Red Pea Chili. Both dishes are delectable reminders of the rewards that await us when we slow down, step into nature, and “embrace the cultures that inspire us.”

Susan Puckett is a cookbook author and former food editor of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Follow her at susanpuckett.com.


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