Tuesday, September 25

We Saved You a Plate: A Geechee Girl Speaks

Photo by Marion Post (Wolcott), 1940. Courtesy of the Library of Congress
"We Saved You a Plate" is a weekly series showcasing an article from Gravy or Cornbread Nation, or a past symposium presentation. We serve it up, you gulp it down.

This week's piece is adapted from Valerie Erwin's presentation at the 2010 Southern Foodways Symposium on the Cultivated South. It also appeared in print in Cornbread Nation 6 (UGA Press, 2012). Valerie Erwin is the chef-owner of Geechee Girl Rice Cafe in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. 

A Geechee Girl Speaks
by Valerie Erwin

I was born and raised in Philadelphia, my mother was born and raised in Philadelphia, and my father, who was born in Savannah, came to Philadelphia when he was sixteen. So in some ways I am thoroughly a product of the Northeast. Yet because of my family heritage—my mother's parents were from Charleston—I've always had an affinity for food from the South. And if your family, like mine, came from the Lowcountry, loving Southern food means loving rice.

Geechee Girl Rice Cafe, my Lowcountry restaurant in Philadelphia, is named for the Geechees, who live on the coast and on the islands of Georgia and Florida. They are the descendants of the enslaved Africans brought there from West Africa's Rice Coast. They have many of the same foodways and folkways as the Gullah people of South Carolina. Africans from rice-growing areas were particularly sought-after as slaves because of their agricultural expertise. Geechees were historically rice cultivators, and their descendants remain rice eaters.

My father taught me to cook. He learned from his grandmother. She must have been a very determined teacher, because my father had a thorough culinary knowledge by the time he arrived in Philadelphia at age sixteen to live with his uncle. My father's uncle was the pastor of the AME church to which my mother's family belonged. The Erwins, my father's family, are wonderful cooks. The Petersons, my mother's family—well, what my sister Lisa says is,"You know the Petersons don't cook." And of course that isn't, strictly speaking, true, but they never looked at cooking as the recreational activity that the Erwins did.

Valerie Erwin, proud Geechee Girl. Photo courtesy of Philly360.com

I learned from my father how to use a knife, the importance of planning, and how to taste carefully. He taught me, sometimes inadvertently, how to be an adventurous eater. I remember him bringing home scallops: white, gelatinous-looking, almost alive-looking. I had no intention of eating them. But once they were fried, they looked delicious: golden and crispy, and I was in this unfortunate position of having adamantly declared that I'd never eat those nasty white scallops, and wanting desperately to eat the golden-brown ones. So I learned not to prejudge food, or at least not to do it out loud.

My mother was a skilled and careful cook, but my father was the celebrity cook in our family. He was the source of the fancy and sometimes unusual food in our home, but it was my mother who made all my favorites, like crackly fried chicken, yellow layer cake with chocolate icing, and a perfectly cooked pot of rice.

When I read Judith Carney's book Black Rice, a parallel struck me between rice eaters in West Africa, in the Lowcountry, and in my own family. Judith says that the Africans in Africa and in America  considered rice culture "women's work." It was that way in my house, too. My father was immensely talented. He could fix a car and rewire a house. He could make ravioli from scratch. But he was, by his own assessment, a dismal failure at cooking rice, even though he expected it on the table every single night. When his grandmother wanted to teach him to cook—and to sew—my father protested that these were things that his wife would do. Apparently, he was overly optimistic, because according to my father, my mother didn't know how to cook when they got married. He thought she could cook, but it turned out that all she knew how to make was cake. And rice.

We ate rice every day. I didn't question it, but I knew, even as a child, that it wasn't universal. Once I had dinner at a neighbor's house, and when my parents asked me how the meal was, I said, "It was fine, but Mrs. Jackson forgot the rice." When I was charged with the task of making dinner for the family and inspiration proved elusive, my father would give his best menu-planning advice: "Put on a pot of rice, and then decide what to make to go with it."

Occasionally we had a complicated rice dish. My mother would make red rice, the Lowcountry version of Spanish rice: crisp bacon with onions, celery, and peppers fried in the drippings, made into a pilaf with rice and tomatoes. Or a supper dish that she said she and my father invented, of rice sauteed with onions and peppers and served with scrambled eggs. My mother made Hoppin' John on New Year's Day: Black-eyed peas intensely flavored with ham and cooked up with rice so that it was perfectly fluffy. There was, to my consternation, always a hog jowl in the pot, teeth and all. But most of the time, we had plain rice: rice with gravy, rice with beans, rice with stew. A pot of white rice at the ready to serve as a foil for whatever else we ate.

I never intended to be a chef. In fact, my career plan, such as it was, could be boiled down to "avoid manual labor." At Geechee Girl, I cook six days a week, seven meals a week—so that plan didn't go that well. But my love of food and cooking eventually led to my working in restaurants. I had the usual culinary trajectory for someone who started working in the late ’70s: Continental, International, French, New American. I loved everything I learned during those years, but I always felt a nagging disconnect between what was in my soul and what was on the plate. The first time I made Osso Bucco a la Milanese, my immediate reaction was that it tasted just like my father's neckbones and tomatoes. I remember that era as the "everybody makes Osso Bucco, but nobody makes neckbone" years. Or, in an analogy even closer to my heart, "everybody wants fresh, handmade pasta, but Uncle Ben's rice is just fine." When I was in a position to make menu choices, I'd serve some of the food I loved: ham and red-eye gravy, fried fish rolled in cornmeal—but not rice. Neither the customers nor my employees seemed ready. And the quality of the rice in every restaurant I'd worked at was abysmal.

I opened Geechee Girl Rice Cafe in 2003 out of a confluence of circumstances. I wanted a nice restaurant in my neighborhood; someone I knew was selling a nearby turn-key operation; I had run out of places where I really wanted to work. The restaurant had a small dining room and a minimally equipped kitchen, so we'd have to do a simple concept. It was my sister Alethia's idea: "We could call it Geechee Girl," she said, "and serve rice." I wasn't looking to preserve a culture; I was looking to cook. But a few things happen when you put the words "Geechee" and "rice" into the name of your business. People with Lowcountry roots come in to talk. People for whom "Geechee" had been a pejorative term are thrilled to see it rehabilitated. People who've vacationed on the Sea Islands have a sense of nostalgia. Expat Southerners want a little taste of home. People from other places where rice is the staple grain—which is just about everywhere except Northern Europe—love the idea of a rice restaurant. People from Africa or the Caribbean see our logo—a turbaned black woman winnowing rice—and wonder where we're from. In fact, everyone wonders where we're from. I think they're all a bit disappointed to learn that my sisters and I are from North Philadelphia.

I design our menu to pay tribute to tradition, but not to be bound by it. For a cook, taste trumps tradition every time. And for a businessperson, salability wins over authenticity. But that being said, I am more aware each year of the responsibility I've assumed for preserving Lowcountry cuisine. So now, although my mother made Hoppin' John only on New Year's Day, we serve it every day. Just like in my house when we were growing up, at Geechee Girl we serve a lot of plain rice: rice with gravy, rice with beans, rice with stew. We serve traditional Lowcountry rice dishes like red rice and purloo.

I feel a particularly close culinary kinship with the food of the African diaspora. We serve curried goat from the Caribbean and peanut chicken stew from West Africa. We search for home cooks from around the world who are willing to partner with us in presenting special dinners, and over the years, these partnerships have been a great source of menu ideas. I struggle sometimes with the decision to keep rice in the restaurant's name. When people see the word "rice," they sometimes think we're vegetarians, or that we only serve rice. How ridiculous is that?! The word remains because of how fundamental rice was to my ancestors. They grew it, they ate it, they were captured and sold in its service.

I'm proud of my part in introducing Lowcountry cooking to a wider audience, and I treasure making foods that act as a thread back to Africa. I look around my city, and I see a shocking dearth of black restaurant owners. I see an even more shocking dearth of black employees in restaurant dining rooms. I search for opportunities to expand my business for one fundamental reason: If we have more, we can do more. I want to take our food and our message to a larger audience.

I believe that the South is more than a location. It is history; it is memory; it is culture. And for me, most of all, it is food.