In recent times, more and more black chefs have started searching their roots to celebrate the culinary history of the African diaspora.
Among the foods they’re using in both traditional and interpretive dishes, okra, black-eyed peas, red peas, watermelon and even coffee crossed the Atlantic from Africa to the United States through the slave trade.
At Virgil’s Gullah Kitchen and Bar in Atlanta, chef and co-owner Gee Smalls is highlighting the unique culture and foodways of the Gullah Geechee people of the Sea Islands of Georgia, Florida, North Carolina and South Carolina.
Smalls grew up in Charleston, S.C., with Gullah family roots in nearby James Island. His restaurant is named for his late father, Virgil F. Smalls. And the recipes for most of his dishes were passed down from Gullah relatives, with descriptions for many menu items playfully written with a nod to Gullah patois.
Shrimp and crab gravy is “white shrimp cooked in crab gravy ova steamed white rice.” Okra soup is “fresh okra stewed wit’ corn, smoked turkey and tomato.” And “Watuhmelon and Cucumba” salad is “mix greens tossed ina herb dressing wit’ spiced pecan, pickled shallots and goat cheese on a watermelon slice.”
“I’m a Gullah Geechee boy at heart,” Smalls told me when I visited Virgil’s. “It’s just who I am. We are from the coastal region, so you will find a lot of seafood. But our ancestors were brought over to be rice farmers. They grew rice in West and Central Africa, and along the coast where we reside, we eat a lot of rice because of our ancestors. It’s a staple in our homes.
“We have five or six different rice dishes on our menu and a lot of seafood and a lot of classic soul food dishes, as well. We pretty much take the white rice and make it into our own rice. Our No. 1 rice is red rice, and we take that and transform it into all different types of dishes.”
Currently the executive chef at the Lawrence in Atlanta, Cleophus “Chef Ophus” Hethington is a Miami native with an impressive resume that includes working with leading chefs at fine dining restaurants such as the Yardbird Southern Table & Bar and the Surf Club Restaurant in Miami, and the Optimist and Lazy Betty in Atlanta.
But beyond that, Hethington created an ongoing pop-up dinner series, Ębí Chop Bar, to share his cultural heritage through the stories and history of the foodways of the African diaspora. Ębí is a Yoruba word that translates to “family” or “hunger,” depending on the accent mark.
The most recent Ębí dinner was five courses that elevated common dishes, including a starter of curried chickpeas, known in Trinidad as “doubles,” and a main course of king crab with stewed black-eyed peas, known in Ghana as “red red.”
“For me, the way I cook now is all about the stories and the history of the food,” Hethington said. “My family is from the South — South Georgia and Alabama, and distantly from the West Indies. But all cuisine in this country is very regional. Black people in California grew up eating their version of soul food that was a lot different than what I grew up eating in South Florida. I ate goat and lamb and oxtails growing up because of the heavy influence of the Latin and Caribbean culture there.
“We came up with the name Ębí for the pop-up because that name ties in to a lot of things for me. We’re all about family, and as a race or a culture, we’ve always been ready for more. Most people, all they see and take from the African diaspora is Africa. We’ve been scattered and displaced all across this world. So my food is inclusive of Africa, of Latin America, of the Caribbean, and of Southern America.”
These recipes from Atlanta chefs Gee Smalls of Virgil’s Gullah Kitchen and Bar and Cleophus Hethington of the Lawrence explore and celebrate the culinary history and foodways of Gullah Geechee culture and the African diaspora.
Most of the dishes chef Gee Smalls cooks have been handed down and adapted from family recipes. His take on red rice is a staple that shows up in many forms on the menu at his restaurant, Virgil’s Gullah Kitchen and Bar in College Park.
A classic side that’s always on the menu at Virgil’s, Smalls’ okra soup is made with smoked turkey necks and okra stewed with corn. Packaged smoked turkey necks are easy to find in most grocery stores in the South.
Red Red and Bucatini Pasta With Crab
A hearty, no-fuss tomato stew from Ghana, red red is traditionally made with black-eyed peas. In this interpretation from chef Cleophus Hethington of the Lawrence in Atlanta, the peas are replaced with bucatini pasta, and elevated with crab and Pecorino cheese.
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