In Good Taste: A Gullah Christmas
Celebrating the blessings of the season with a traditional Lowcountry feast
As Charlotte and Frank Jenkins welcome guests into their home in the Ten Mile community—where several generations of family gather to share a traditional holiday meal—mouthwatering aromas envelop the newcomers. It’s no small wonder, as the chef at the stove is the same culinary force behind Gullah Cuisine, the popular restaurant that the couple operates in Mount Pleasant.
Adept at preparing meals for many, Charlotte cooks for dozens every Christmas. She speaks of learning the craft at an early age from her mother, Julia Ascue, and her grandmother, Mary Gathers. Though her parents both worked, they chose to farm and raise pigs and chickens to put good food on the table. “My mother’s style was the result of growing up in my grandmother’s house and learning to cook in slave quarters. My grandmother taught me about flavors from the 1800s as well as the life of my ancestors.”
Charlotte grew up in Ten Mile in the house that her father built. Up until the Civil War, plantations populated this area; when the war ended, many freed slaves remained, and their properties have been passed down through generations.
Today, siblings, children, nieces, nephews, grandchildren, and grandnieces gather for this special meal. Frank set the turkey into the fryer on the porch just before guests arrived, leaving more room in the kitchen and ensuring that the main dish doesn’t hold up everything else—a wonderful thing when you’re cooking for a large crowd.
After family members greet each other with hugs and kisses, most of the gentlemen linger in the den while the women help Charlotte put finishing touches on the hearty meal. Some of the older cousins take turns reading their favorite books to the little ones beside a crackling fire, and niece-in-law Tanya Ascue’s stunning voice wafts up the stairs, accompanied by Henry Zellars, Jr., on the piano, singing “Silent Night” to her youngest daughter, nine-month-old Zacora. It is an especially sweet moment on this lovely day.
Though the kitchen has been buzzing for much of the morning, the activity level rises as Frank pulls the golden turkey from the fryer and sets it inside to rest. Son-in-law Martin Antonetti has been designated the turkey carver, and he calls over his oldest, Kevin, to show him how to slice the bird. Hoping to steal a bite, some of the children zone in, sneaking small pieces of the moist bird. Charlotte, sister Rita Worthy, sister-in-law Pearl Ascue, and niece Christi Ascue bustle in and out of the dining room with steaming dishes of okra soup, candied yams, oyster pilau, collards, and Hoppin’ John. Before folks dig in, Charlotte draws everyone into the dining room for to say grace, with many thanks for the blessings given her family and for being together on such a special occasion.
Then wine is poured, and sweet tea passed. Charlotte disappears into the kitchen to help fill the children’s plates—she obviously knows who the picky young eaters are—before directing the adults to dine. With a group that’s too large to all sit in one place, those who can’t squeeze around fill their plates and sit at tables in the den. Dressed in their holiday best, the little ones have a table of their own, colorfully decorated with jars of hard candy and peppermints, though the adults warn them not to spoil their appetites by sneaking the sweet temptations. And the loud hum that has continued throughout the house since guests began arriving at noon lowers to a murmur of oohs and aahs over the delights of the meal.
“People unfamiliar with Gullah cuisine are always surprised at how light it is,” Charlotte explains as plates are heaped with succulent turkey and all the fixings. “The recipes are simple, there’s not a lot of fat, and we use spices for flavor. Garlic and red pepper flakes add to the seasoning, and fresh lemon juice or vinegar can also bring up the taste.”
Simple though they may be, Charlotte’s dishes have come a long way since the first meal she ever cooked—liver with gravy and rice. At nine years old, she was responsible for feeding her father and eight brothers and sisters when her mother went to care for Charlotte’s namesake aunt—legendary for her Lowcountry cooking—who had become ill. “I remember my older brother Danny telling my mother that I did a great job,” recalls Charlotte. “I was so inspired by hearing that from my brother, who never, ever gave compliments, that I really began to take cooking seriously.”
And cook she did. Even during a stint in New York, Charlotte plied her talent by throwing dinner parties for friends. “I met Frank at one, we dated, and then he told me that he enjoyed my cooking so much that he decided to marry me,” she laughs. After they moved back to the Lowcountry, Charlotte developed additional skills helpful in opening Gullah Cuisine while taking classes in restaurant management at Johnson & Wales.
Soon the youngsters are clamoring for dessert, and as at all good Southern Christmas dinners, there’s an array of choices. In addition to Charlotte’s traditional sweet potato pie and Georgann’s apple pie, there’s bread pudding with hard sauce—a house staple at the restaurant. Tanya has also brought a carrot cake from Connie’s in Williamsburg County. “She made Craig and my wedding cake, so I ordered another special cake for today,” says Tanya, who married Charlotte’s nephew. It gets a decided thumbs-up from this discerning audience, no mean feat for a family spoiled by Charlotte’s cooking.
Champagne comes out for a toast to the meal and glasses are raised in thanks to the hosts. Happy children finally raid the candy jars. Young and old head for the piano. And the merriment of the day can be heard throughout this full and happy home.
“Through the years,
We all will be together,
If the Fates allow.
Hang a shining star
Upon the highest bough.
And have yourself
A merry little Christmas now.”
- 1/4 lb. diced cooked picnic ham
- 1 tomato, chopped
- 3 cups water
- 2 12-oz. cans tomato sauce
- 2 lbs. fresh or frozen cut okra
Place diced ham and chopped tomato in a pot with water. Bring to a boil, reduce heat to medium, and simmer for 30 minutes. Add tomato sauce and simmer for 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add okra and continue to simmer for 25 minutes, or until okra is tender and its seeds turn dark.
(Serves 4 to 6)
- 1/2 lb. dry cow peas or field peas
- 2 small smoked ham hocks
- 6 cups water
- 1 small onion, finely chopped
- 1/4 tsp. black pepper
- 1 Tbs. dried thyme
- 1 1/2 cups raw converted rice (such as Uncle Ben’s)
Rinse peas with cold water and pick out any stones or bad peas. Soak in warm water for 35 minutes. Drain and set aside.
Combine ham hocks and water. Boil for two hours and 45 minutes. Add peas, onion, black pepper, and thyme. Cook for 45 minutes to an hour, or until tender. Add rice, stir, and simmer over medium heat for 20 to 25 minutes or until rice is tender.
(Serves 8 to 12)
- 1 small onion, finely diced
- 3 green onions, finely diced
- 4 oz. butter
- 1/4 cup flour
- 2 cups oysters, strained and liquor reserved
- 4 cups fish stock or clam juice
- 2 cups raw converted rice (such as Uncle Ben’s)
- Salt and black pepper, to taste
Sauté onions in butter until translucent. Stir in flour and cook, stirring, until flour browns. Measure liquor from oysters and add enough fish stock or clam juice to total four cups. Whisk stock and oyster liquor mixture into onions and cook for 10 minutes, stirring frequently. Add rice and cook for 20 minutes, or until almost tender. Fold in oysters and cook with rice. This should be no more than 10 minutes before serving, or oysters will be overcooked. Season with salt and pepper. Serve immediately.
(Serves 10 to 15)
- 6 large sweet potatoes, washed and pierced with a knife
- 1 stick butter, melted
- 2 1/2 cups brown sugar
- 2 Tbs. cinnamon
- 1 Tbs. allspice
- 2 Tbs. fresh lemon juice
Preheat oven to 350°F and grease nine-by-13-inch baking pan. Bake sweet potatoes for about 35 minutes, or until soft but not mushy. Cool, peel, and cut into quarters. Place potatoes in baking pan. Mix remaining ingredients together. Pour over potatoes. Bake for 20 minutes.
- 6 medium smoked ham hocks
- 3 qts. water
- 8 lbs. collard greens
- 1 tsp. sugar
- 1 tsp. crushed red pepper flakes
Rinse ham hocks. Place in large pot with water, cover, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat and simmer for two and a half hours, or until ham hocks are tender. Cool. Remove meat from bones and place back into cooking pot, discarding any fat and unnecessary parts.
Place collard greens in a sink filled with cold water and sprinkle with salt to wash out the sand. Wash again with salt and a third time without salt. Cut leaves off stalks and into thirds.
Remove ham hocks from pot. Place collards in pot with ham hock liquid. Sprinkle with sugar. Top greens with ham hock meat. Cover and cook for one hour, or until tender. Add crushed pepper flakes for the final 10 minutes of cooking.
10 to 12 lb. turkey
Crushed red pepper flakes
5 gals. peanut oil
If using a frozen turkey, thaw in refrigerator for at least 24 hours per five pounds of turkey. Remove wire or plastic truss that holds legs in place and pop-up timer in breast if applicable. Remove giblets and neck from interior. Remove excess fat around neck to allow oil to flow through turkey. Wash turkey under cold water and pat dry. Season inside and out with salt, pepper, garlic, and red pepper flakes.
To fry the turkey, set up cooking pot with burner base and propane tank according to manufacturer’s directions. Remember, cooking should always be done outside, not in a garage or other enclosed area. As a safety precaution, measure amount of oil needed to fry by filling pot first with water and covering turkey (which should be in a plastic bag) by one inch. Remove turkey and basket and mark fill line on side of pot. Pour out water and dry pot. Fill pot with peanut oil and heat the oil to between 350 and 360°F.
Place turkey in basket and slowly lower into hot oil wearing thick rubber gloves and apron. Keep a close eye as the oil bubbles. A whole turkey will take four minutes per pound to cook. The internal temperature should read 170-180°F on an instant-read thermometer. Lift basket out of hot oil. This can be done by inserting a broomstick through the basket handle and having two people lift basket from the pot.
Transfer turkey to roasting pan lined with brown paper bag and let stand for 15 minutes before removing and carving.
- 5 cups self-rising flour
- 1/2 cup vegetable shortening
- 8 Tbs. ice water
- 5 Granny Smith apples, peeled, cored, and thickly sliced
- 3 oz. butter
- 1/2 cup packed brown sugar
- 1 Tbs. cinnamon
- 1 Tbs. allspice
- Zest of 1 lemon
Place flour in bowl. Add shortening, cutting it in with pastry cutter or two knives until shortening is blended and resembles coarse meal. Sprinkle in ice water and toss to mix. Gently form dough with hands and pat into disk. Divide disk in half and refrigerate one half. Roll other half out on floured board into a circle larger than the outside rim of a nine-inch pie plate, so there’s an edge to crimp with top crust. Lay dough inside pie plate and refrigerate while preparing filling.
Preheat oven to 350°F. Cook apples in pot with butter, sugar, cinnamon, allspice, and lemon zest for five minutes. Keep warm.
Line crust in pie plate with aluminum foil and fill with raw rice or dried beans to weight the crust while baking. Bake for five minutes. Remove rice/beans and foil. Spoon in warm apples. Roll out remaining dough and gently drape over apples. Seal edges and cut several slits in top to let out steam.
Place pie on baking sheet and bake for 35 minutes, or until top crust is golden brown. If edges darken too much while baking, cover with a strip of aluminum foil.
- 2 1/2 cups self-rising flour
- 1/4 cup vegetable shortening
- 4 Tbs. ice water
- 6 peeled, cooked, and mashed jumbo sweet potatoes
- 2 eggs, lightly beaten
- 2 Tbs. pure vanilla extract
- 1 tsp. fresh lemon juice
- 1/4 cup all-purpose flour
- 2 1/2 cups granulated sugar
- 1 packed cup light brown sugar
- 3 Tbs. cinnamon
- 1 Tbs. nutmeg
- 1 Tbs. allspice
- 1 Tbs. cardamom
- 1 tsp. orange zest
Place flour in bowl. Add shortening, cutting it in with pastry cutter or two knives until shortening is blended and resembles coarse meal. Sprinkle in ice water and toss to mix. Gently form dough with hands and pat it into disk. Roll dough out on a floured board into a circle larger than the outside rim of a nine-inch pie plate, so there’s an edge to crimp. Lay dough inside pie plate, crimp edge, and refrigerate while preparing filling.
Preheat oven to 350°F. Beat together sweet potatoes, eggs, vanilla, and lemon juice. Combine flour, sugars, spices, and orange zest, and beat into potatoes. The mixture should be uniform. Pour filling
in pie crust. Bake in preheated oven for 35 minutes
(Serves 6 to 8)
- 10 slices day-old bread
- 3 eggs, lightly beaten
- 1 cup granulated sugar
- 1 cup light brown sugar
- 2 cups milk
- 1 Tbs. cinnamon
- 1 tsp. allspice
- 1 Tbs. cardamom
- 1/2 cup sliced peaches, canned or fresh
- 1/4 cup raisins
- 1/2 stick melted butter
- 2 pasteurized egg whites
- 1 cup powdered sugar
- 1 tsp. pure vanilla extract
- 3 Tbs. melted butter
Preheat oven to 350°F and grease nine-by-13-inch baking pan. Place bread in a large bowl. Whisk eggs, both sugars, milk, and spices in a separate bowl. Stir in peaches and raisins, then butter. Pour over bread and mix gently. Pour mixture into baking pan. Bake 45 minutes, or until golden brown around edges.
Beat egg whites in an electric mixer until fluffy. Add sugar, vanilla, and butter and beat for three minutes. Refrigerate until ready to serve with hot bread pudding.