“There are two things always on time in McIntosh County, Georgia,” says Doc Bill. “The lunch counter at Bubba’s Quick Stop and the ferry to Sapelo Island. The rest goes at its own pace.”
We race to the coast to catch the morning ferry, fully aware it waits for no one. I cradle a bag of freshly harvested produce from Doc Bill’s mainland farm, Georgia Coastal Gourmet Farms, breathing in wafts of lemongrass, arugula, fresh ginger, kohlrabi, winterbor kale, Thai basil, kaffir lime leaves, and peppercorns picked right off the bush, all still shimmering with dew. Doc Bill (a.k.a. William Thomas) is an Atlanta-based neuropathologist by trade and a serious foodie at heart. He plans a Vietnamese pho for our lunch on the island. But that is not the dish we are most looking forward to. We seek to eat Cornelia Walker Bailey’s red peas.
Cornelia doesn’t cook for just anyone, but she trusts Doc Bill and his wife, Annita, and I can sample her dish by way of their introduction. The honor is not lost on me.
Red Pea Revolution
Sapelo’s residents, self-proclaimed Saltwater Geechees, have grown a red pea unique to the island for centuries, ever since their ancestors were forcibly brought here across the Atlantic. Sea island slaves produced long-staple cotton by day but also tended to their own plots of native produce. Okra, red peas, sweet potatoes, and rice provided sustenance and the tastes of home. The protein power combo of peas and rice gave birth to dishes like Reezy Peezy and Hoppin’ John.
You might enjoy sea island red peas in some of the South’s finest restaurants, served as a pillow for quail or a complement to heritage pork or even whipped into hummus. But sea island red peas are not Sapelo red peas. In fact, sea island red peas are not, well, red. The Sapelo red pea is intensely colored, a darkish-purple ruby with a delicious, almost smoky, center.
The Sapelo red pea grabbed Atlanta chef Linton Hopkins’ attention when Doc Bill showed up delivering live crabs from the coast along with a bundle of other Sapelo goodies. Hopkins was cooking with the paler sea island red peas and, as Delta Air Line’s new consulting chef, added them to the menu of trans-Atlantic flights. Then he set his eyes on Sapelo’s truly red pea.
“It’s a small pea with great flavor,” Hopkins tells me. “It retains its color and dyes out into the rice you’re cooking. Texturally, it holds its integrity on the outside. It doesn’t turn mushy. There’s a little snap to it. But inside, it’s rich and creamy. Culinarily, it’s a great product to cook with.”
So good, in fact, that Hopkins committed on the spot to guarantee the purchase of the entire crop. Then he enlisted a culinary army to get the word out.
Hopkins alerted the Mississippi-based Southern Foodways Alliance to the Geechee red peas, and soon SFA filmmaker Joe York was on Sapelo shooting a documentary. Hopkins also called on heritage grain champion Glenn Roberts of Anson Mills to help market and distribute the pea among like-minded culinarians.
None of this would be possible if Cornelia Bailey and her family and friends didn’t agree to grow more peas. It just so happened that they have a strong incentive. Sapelo Geechees are currently in a battle with county officials over drastically inflated property taxes. Last year, with no notice at all, some residents received tax bills equivalent to 1,000 percent increases. Cornelia likens the tax hike to cultural genocide.
A successful, mobilized red pea cash crop might provide jobs and income that residents needed to fight back. Thus the Sapelo Island Geechee Red Pea Project was born.
Outsiders tend to label the few remaining communities of sea island African-Americans as Gullah, but Sapelo people balk at that. They are defiantly Geechee. Not just Geechee, but Saltwater Geechee (their inland cousins are Freshwater Geechee). The term Geechee probably derives from ancestral ties to the “Kissi” tribe in West Africa, pronounced “Geezee,” whereas the South Carolina Gullahs likely descend from the neighboring “Gola” tribe. So the story goes. Whatever the initial differences, Gullah/Geechee cultures have blended.
The story of how the Geechees acquired Sapelo land speaks to the resilience of their ancestors. When the Civil War erupted, Yankee ships targeted the coast. Sapelo’s cotton baron Thomas Spalding determined to protect his human “property” by marching them inland, far inland, to the tune of almost two hundred miles. Those who survived the journey, as luck would have it, marched straight into freedom. Spalding had unwittingly led his slaves directly into Sherman’s path. Now war refugees, the freed people dispersed, but many followed Sherman’s wake of smoldering embers back to the coast by foot. Sapelo’s land called them, now theirs to claim and farm for their own benefit.
I first visited the island last fall for Sapelo’s eighteenth annual Cultural Day Festival. Thousands of visitors, mostly African-American, about a third of them descendants of Sea Island slaves, journeyed to the isolated island by plane, car, then ferry; there is no bridge from the mainland. The October marsh grasses waxed yellow as we pulled away from the wharf.
Old school buses picked us up at the dock, jostling us along dirt roads toward the one remaining community on the island, Hog Hammock, a scattering of modest cottages and trailers dwarfed by massive moss-draped live oaks. We arrived at Ground Zero for Gullah Geechee culture.
A makeshift stage fronted an old clapboard white house, the Farmers Alliance Hall, where ring shout singers performed for a captivated crowd. Stanley Walker, Cornelia’s son, sat weaving a casting net. Off to the side, Iregene Grovner tended to butterflied mullet smoking over an open fire. Flames licked the mullet. Rising smoke merged into a veil of Spanish moss above. The crackling fish, some topped with roe sacks, turned a golden hue.
I helped myself to a heaping plate of smoked mullet, ribs, deviled crab, shrimp and grits, fried chicken, collards, and of course, Sapelo red peas, then paused my gluttony as a reverend led the crowd in the day’s opening prayer. Gospel singers took the stage. Then a hush swept the crowd. A flag raising began, conducted by reenactors of the 54th Cavalry, the Civil War’s first all-black volunteer infantry regiment in the Union Army, who marched from afar in lockstep and full colors.
Cornelia took the stage. “There are two types of Saltwater Geechees: the Benyams and the Comyams. My people been here [“benyam”] since the 1700s: the Walkers, Smiths, Greens, Halls. When I grew up, there were five communities on the island with roughly four hundred fifty people. Now there is only one, with forty-seven people, and we’re struggling to keep it. In one year, our taxes went from three hundred dollars to three thousand dollars. They thought we wasn’t gonna fuss. But we fussed. And we gonna fight!”
I looked down at the mighty little red pea on my plate and how something so small was now a key player in a Geechee revolution. It turns out that the red pea now lies at the center of Sapelo’s cultural identity.
Planting for the Future
It is early summer in the new year. Planting time. Doc Bill, Annita, and I pull up to Cornelia’s house in Hog Hammock. A peacockcaws in the distance, followed by a rooster’s crow and the intermittent squeals of young pigs being chased by grandchildren for fun. I spot Cornelia’s husband, Julius “Frank” Bailey, tilling a field buffered by wild persimmon trees, then approach him respectfully, cognizant of the fact he might not want to talk to me. Geechee residents are understandably suspicious of outsiders who come to ogle their land or rubberneck their culture.
“Are you planting?” I ask.
“Later today,” he nods.
“Can I help?” No sooner do the words leave my mouth than the naïve idiocy of my request sears my brain. Who am I to ask to participate in an age-old Geechee custom informed by generations of oral wisdom and spiritual beliefs?
“Come back at five,” he replies. “I plant on the growing moon, not the wasting.”
A screen door slams and Cornelia joins us, wrapping a colorful scarf around her shoulders. “We plant when the moon is full and when the tide is coming in. I’m told a pregnant mother is good for planting, likewise a little child.” I was neither. Geechees also wait to plant after the pecan trees flower, signaling the end of cool weather. Pecan trees don’t lie.
We head inside and pull chairs around a kitchen table as Cornelia’s red peas and rice simmer on the stove. Over glasses of Georgia peach cider, she regales us with island stories for hours. She speaks of the elusive chakalaka bird that loves to eat the young pea shoots (per Cornelia, “They’ll put a hurtin’ on the new tender!”). Of the big buck that visits at night that one day will make good eating. Of the sweet summertime scent of a heritage watermelon cut in the late afternoon. Of moonshine, gathering whelks, hunting alligators, making tea with blackberry roots and coffee from okra pods. Of a wild peppery island green called “smart ass grass.” Of the forest reclaiming the island (“If you stand in one place long enough, things will start growing on you!”). Of Blackbeard’s treasure, which residents believe is hidden on Sapelo’s north end, just across the creek from Blackbeard Island. Of the tax dilemma and Cornelia’s efforts to grow the island’s economy with a mixture of agriculture and tourism.
The red peas continue to simmer with chunks of ham as we leave to explore the island and walk its empty beaches. Returning at five, Frank is ready to plant. The sandy black dirt is aerated in long rows. He takes the lead, gently spacing shallow holes with his hoe. Cornelia follows, dropping seeds, instructing me to cover the seeds by kicking dirt over the holes. I feel honored to participate, yet fearful that if the Geechee spirits don’t approve, a failure of the crop to sprout would and should be blamed on me.
Frank and Cornelia discuss Jay-Z and Beyonce’s much-publicized spat as they plant, and Cornelia’s grandsons play videogames on my iPhone. I realize there’s no stopping the outside world from getting in. Sapelo’s people will continue to mix ancient customs with modernity, but that is their right.
Planting done, Frank announces, “That’s some pickin’ there!” In three to five days, the young tendrils should push through the soil, or as Cornelia says, “get up.”
Cornelia sends me back to my rental cottage with fresh chicken eggs (she keeps the peacock egg) and a large pot of red peas and rice. I savor the dish and marvel as the full moon crests the spartina grass, its blood-red reflection dancing on a flooded marsh. With the support of the culinary community, I pray that this island can be retained by its rightful inhabitants, not cleared in a shifting tide of golf courses and ritzy subdivisions. I wish to return and experience it as wondrously as before. The planting of the red pea will have something to say about that.