The Juneteenth season is about remembrance and celebration. We remember the day Union troops arrived in Texas, announcing that the Civil War had ended and enslaved people were free. And we celebrate the cultures that have been preserved and reborn out of that time.
One such culture is that of the Gullah Geechee people, one of the oldest communities of Black culture in the United States. Today you can mostly find Gullah Geechee communities in the coastal lowcountry regions of Georgia, Florida, and both Carolinas. And, as with so many other vibrant cultures, food is their lifeblood.
We spoke with a couple of Georgia restaurateurs who have made it their mission to preserve the rich Gullah Geechee cuisine for today’s generation and those to come.
Food doesn’t get much more soulful than Virgil’s Gullah Kitchen & Bar, a mouthwatering spot opened in 2019 by executive chef Gregory (Gee) Smalls and general manager Juan Smalls in downtown College Park, just outside Atlanta.
The Atlanta power couple made their mark by introducing Gullah Geechee cuisine to the community (and providing scholarships to LGBTQ students through their nonprofit organization, The Gentlemen’s Foundation).
As most great stories go, the restaurant wasn’t originally part of the pair’s plan. Gee was a 20-year technology professional with no interest in the food business, but he and husband, Juan, eventually realized Atlanta’s huge Black LGBTQ+ community didn’t have a place for people “like them.”
What better way to represent themselves in a growing community than by carrying forward a legacy and fostering the culture that had been such a huge part of their upbringing?
The entire menu at Virgil’s Gullah Kitchen & Bar — which is named after Gee’s late father, Virgil F. Smalls — is inspired by Gee’s own family recipes from James Island, off the coast of Charleston, South Carolina.
Gullah Geechee cuisine is known primarily for its rice dishes, and the recipes Gee uses go back generations, “passed down from our ancestors who were brought from West Africa over 300 years ago to cultivate rice in the marshlands of South Carolina and Georgia. It’s where soul food started.”
Gee says the rice element is the main difference between what we know as modern-day “soul food” and traditional Gullah Geechee cuisine.
“Growing up in a Carolina lowcountry household, we never mentioned rice as a side dish,” Gee recalls. “It was a staple at every single meal!” Most Gullah Geechee kitchens cook with seasonal vegetables (okra, collards, corn, cabbage), freshly caught seafood (conch, shark, oyster, blue crab), and — of course — rice.
There are many ways to serve Gullah Geechee rice dishes, but most involve a protein-based chicken, shrimp, or crab gravy served over steamed white jasmine rice. Traditional Gullah seasoning — a blend of paprika, garlic, ginger, onion, celery seed, bay leaves, oregano, cinnamon, allspice, mustard, salt, and pepper — is used to season most rice-based Gullah Geechee stews and soups. (If that list of spices won’t fit in your cupboard, you can always buy a premade blend, though of course, Gee would never.)
One of the staples of Gullah Geechee cuisine is a dish known as red rice. It’s similar to West African jollof rice, cooked with tomato sauce, sausage, bacon, onions, peppers, and Gullah seasoning. Elsewhere on the menu at Virgil’s, Gee stuffs red rice, along with shrimp, pork, and fried cabbage, into egg rolls and deep-fries them for dipping in a homemade remoulade sauce.
Gee’s personal favorite rice dish (which is also on the menu at Virgil’s) is crab rice, for which he boils the rice in crab stock for added flavor. Another popular dish is okra perloo, a rice pilaf made with bacon fat, chopped onions, bell peppers, and sliced okra.
Gullah Geechee culture has its own take on shrimp and grits too. Though the classic version of the dish originated in Charleston, Gee says that in the Gullah Geechee version, the shrimp is made with brown gravy (using browning sauce). It’s often served over rice instead of stone-ground grits with cheddar cheese and topped with scallions and parsley to finish. And if you’re making it at home, you should definitely try mixing the crab and shrimp like they do at Virgil’s.
The best way to round out any Gullah Geechee meal is with a Geechee Rita, a take on the classic margarita with a twist of Hennessy and Grand Marnier. And for dessert, you’ll want to try a “chucktown chewie sundae,” Charleston’s version of an ice cream sundae, made with a brown sugar brownie, salted caramel ice cream, chocolate fudge, whipped cream, and pecans.
The Smalls haven’t just stood pat on the success of Virgil’s. As of spring 2021, they’ve opened two more Virgil’s locations in Georgia as well as another all-day restaurant called Breakfast Boys. The goal remains the same: Remember, celebrate, and, most importantly, be yourself.
“By being myself, I am helping keep the culture alive,” says Gee.
With Juneteenth (aka Freedom Day) acting as a catalyst for advancement in the Black community, the Smalls see themselves as a small part of the larger mission to carry the torch forward. Gee doesn’t take for granted that their restaurants have quickly become a staple in the community, and he understands the responsibility that comes with it.
“We have been blessed to open up new businesses, continue to expand, and offer new opportunities to others,” he says.
Sucheta Rawal is an Asian American food and travel writer who has traveled to 100 countries across 7 continents. She is the founder of the nonprofit Go Eat Give, which promotes cross-cultural awareness, and the author of the Beato Goes To series of children’s books on travel. Follow her at www.suchetarawal.com.