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Wild at Heart

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Wild at Heart
Written by Emily Storrow | Photos by Andrew Cebulka

Fifteen barrier islands line the coast of Georgia. The largest and southernmost is called Cumberland, a rugged and enchanting island that has long captured the imaginations of mainlanders, from the Carnegies to the Kennedys. At Greyfield Inn, a former Carnegie mansion and the island’s lone commercial establishment, a group of family and friends gathers to celebrate Thanksgiving amid majestic oaks, wild horses, and all the inimitable charms of Cumberland Island

Thanksgiving kicks off with an oyster roast.

By the time the first bucket of oysters hits the table in tumbling thuds, a golden tide of light has washed over its weatherworn wood. The eager clinking of oyster knives quickly follows. Steps away flows the Cumberland River, the wide, brackish water that separates Cumberland Island from mainland Georgia; the salty scent of marsh often carried on the breeze is hard to trace through the sharp amber of burning cedar that blooms into the November air.

Gathered around the table are folks enjoying the roasted delights, a mix of young and old, family and friends. Buttoned up in the light jackets and sweaters required of November in South Georgia, they’re here to kick off a coastal Thanksgiving feast. In the background, the place that ties them together: Greyfield.

The three-story, white clapboard manor is one of four grand homes built on Cumberland Island—the southernmost of Georgia’s barrier islands—by Pittsburgh industrialist Thomas Carnegie (brother of Andrew) and his wife, Lucy, around the turn of the twentieth century. Seeking a balmy winter escape, Carnegie bought up most of the island in the early 1880s. Greyfield was built in 1900 as a wedding present to their daughter, Margaret. Since the ’60s, the property has operated as an inn. Today it’s run by Mitty Ferguson, a Carnegie descendant, and his wife, Mary.

At Greyfield, oyster roasts are part and parcel to fall and winter months. The star is typically the wild bivalves that grow on the island in healthy clusters at the edge of the tide and in marshes amid spartina grass. They develop beautiful briny, clean flavors thanks to the remote waters. “They’re almost the mascot of Cumberland,” says Whitney Otawka, executive chef of Greyfield Inn. (But as circumstance would have it, the inn’s supplier couldn’t harvest them for the gathering. A shame, the group admits.) Their stand-ins, pulled from Virginia’s Rappahannock River, are a worthy treat, though. Plump and chewy, their warm liquor pools in the oyster’s deep shell. The rich bite begs for a drop of the bright citrus mignonette Whitney made for the occasion.

The Southeast’s oyster industry is on the rise, someone says. Mitty nods his head in affirmation. “This will be the Napa Valley of oysters,” he proclaims, prying open another. Christopher Becerra, who’s been heading the beverage side of Greyfield’s dining program for three years, refills glasses of crémant, the same sparkling wine Whitney incorporated into the mignonette. There are a few beers on ice, too—Christopher turned to the highly hopped Jai Alai IPA from Cigar City Brewing out of Tampa, Florida, and, in a playful pairing, an oyster stout from nearby Savannah, Georgia’s Service Brewing Co., made with oysters plucked from the May River. Assertive beer choices, to be sure, but Christopher points to the rich, smoky qualities that develop when an oyster meets the flame. “Roasting brings out a depth of flavors,” he says.

 
Greyfield Inn.

As soon as one batch of oysters is devoured, shells abandoned to the bucket below, more are on the way; shoveled from the fire pit, dropped onto the table. Commence the wiggling of oyster knives. “It’s like a crappy fly-fishing pole versus a good one,” says Mitty, attesting to the difference a good oyster knife can make. More chatter follows; does anyone need more wine? A high hum fills the air like the chirping of birds after a rainstorm.

INTO THE WILD

It strikes you as soon as you set foot on the island: Cumberland is spellbinding. Amid its unfettered landscape it would be reasonable for one to forget about the outside world entirely, if only for a moment. A landmass roughly the size of Manhattan (surely the only quality the two have in common), Cumberland Island has long been an escape from the modern world.

Marsh at low tide.

On any given day, it would be possible to traverse miles of uncombed beaches, ramble inland on a soft, sandy path fringed with saw palmettos, and cut through dense maritime forests studded with saltwater marshes that at low tide expose pungent pluff mud and jagged clusters of sputtering oysters, without so much as seeing a soul. That’s not to say the same for herds of wild horses, or sea birds, or turkeys, or armadillo, or deer, all of which call the island home. Overhead, oak branches swathed in resurrection ferns and Spanish moss stretch toward the sky like twisting streams of smoke. It takes forty-five minutes by ferry to reach Greyfield’s dock from the mainland, but as you leave the boat it’s as if you’ve entered a new world.

That rugged, virginal beauty that makes Cumberland singular is protected thanks to its status as a national seashore; the Carnegie family donated most of the island to the National Park Service in 1972. Today, there are fewer than fifty full-time residents on Cumberland, most of whom are affiliated with Greyfield.

It was Lucy R. Ferguson, daughter of Margaret and grandmother to Mitty, who made the decision to turn the home built for her mother into an inn. While the Carnegie fortune shrank, Greyfield’s property taxes and cost of upkeep only increased. “The thought was, ‘how are we going to hang on to this for our children and grandchildren?’” says Mary, who considers herself fortunate to have known Lucy for the last ten years of her life. “It was wonderful getting to know her and her perspective on the island,” she says. Raised on Cumberland from the age of 3, Lucy possessed a spirit that rivaled the wildness of the land itself. A striking portrait of her hangs in the inn’s dark-paneled drawing room, a long pink scarf tied around her head and a buck knife on her belt. When Lucy died in 1989, her New York Times obituary cited her dedication to preserving Cumberland Island. Today, the ferry that shuttles guests to and from Greyfield Inn is named for her.

 
From top: The ruins of Carnegie mansion Dungeness; the First African Baptist Church that hosted John F. Kennedy Jr. and Carolyn Bessette's 1996 wedding.

Lucy’s love for the natural splendor of the island lives on in her granddaughter, Gogo Ferguson (Mitty’s younger sister). With her grandmother at her side, Gogo spent childhood summers combing the island’s beaches, forests, sandy roads, and palmetto thickets for her version of treasure: shark teeth and shells and animal bones bleached by the sun. These days, Gogo casts her findings in silver and gold for bespoke pieces of jewelry that have been worn by everyone from Jimmy Buffett to Hillary Clinton to Mikhail Baryshnikov. In 1996, her friend John F. Kennedy Jr. chose Cumberland Island for his secret nuptials to bride Carolyn Bessette. An iconic shot of the newlyweds descending the vine-clad steps of a one-room church on the north end of the island became the picture of romance around the world. He asked Gogo to design their wedding bands—she chose rattlesnake rib cast in gold.

NO CHEF IS AN ISLAND

Leave it to a chef born in California to beautifully interpret the essence of Southern food. Hyper-seasonal and grounded in a sense of place, Whitney’s cooking tells stories—starting with her own.

After working in kitchens while earning a degree in anthropology from the University of California at Berkeley, Whitney found herself pulled to the South. She cut her teeth working under respected chefs Hugh Acheson and Linton Hopkins as she explored the region’s food traditions, always taking a particular interest in its rich agricultural history. She fell in love with her now-husband, Ben Wheatley, in the kitchen of Athens, Georgia, restaurant Five & Ten. They bonded over biscuits, Ben’s specialty in the kitchen. He always saved one for her.

From top: A wild horse grazes near Greyfield; oysters grow along the beach.

As the years went on, Whitney, driven by her career and sense of adventure, wanted to make a name for herself in the Southern food world. She set her sights on Cumberland Island, a place she first learned about on PBS. Whitney was working under Atlanta chef Linton Hopkins when he dined at Greyfield Inn. “I wondered, ‘What’s going on there?’” she says. “Coming from California, I didn’t know what kind of chef I was yet. I thought that was a place where I could do something.” She saw Greyfield as the perfect venue for crafting her culinary identity. “It was low profile—I didn’t take over a high-stakes kitchen. I had this wide playing field where I could create my own culinary stamp.”

She got the job, and even convinced Mary and Mitty to bring Ben on board. “It’s funny to go to a new place where you’re taking over the role of chef and you go to the owner and say, ‘can we hire my boyfriend?’” Whitney laughs. “But I told her she shouldn’t hire him because he’s my boyfriend; she should hire him because he’s amazing and detail-oriented.” Whitney told Mary, “If you don’t like him, you can fire him.” (Ben earned his keep.)

Shortly afterward, Whitney landed a spot on Top Chef. When the show aired, she started thinking she should make her way back to the mainland and work somewhere more accessible. So she left Greyfield and headed back to Athens, where she helped Acheson open Mexican concept Cinco y Diez in January 2014. But the restaurant shuttered after less than a year, and Whitney again found herself at a crossroads. “When I went back to Athens, I had this realization that any environment can be an island when you work so much,” she says. “I kept thinking about Greyfield and how I hadn’t gotten it to where I wanted it to be.” She decided to finish what she started.

 
Greyfield's garden.

Now, she embraces her island. “I can step outside and be in pristine nature. I can ride a bike to the beach and be there in ten minutes and not see anybody. I can see the Intercoastal Waterway from my kitchen,” she says. “That access to nature influences how you cook. It’s not even intentional, it just happens.” And there’s Greyfield’s garden—a one-and-a-half-acre plot that grows the majority of the inn’s produce. This time of year, a renaissance is underway. “We lose so much in the heat of the summer,” she says. Cropping up left and right are braising greens—collards, kale, mustard greens—as well as root vegetables, winter squashes, and a few final late-season tomatoes. It’s all music to Whitney’s ears. “I love playing to the vegetal side of what is Southern,” she says. Indeed, Whitney is in harmony with the bounty and history of Cumberland Island. Both have been key not just in her quest to forge a culinary identity, but to understand Southern food from its heartland to its edges. That’s the other story her plates tell. “My proximity to Miami is the same distance to Atlanta, so I take on a lot of subtropical flavors,” she says. “We have all these citrus trees; bananas grow on the island. I’m on this border of a place—and identity of being Southern.”

GIVING THANKS

In a shaded corner of Greyfield’s lawn beside a palm thicket, the Thanksgiving table is set with a meal that’s grounded in tradition and graced with coastal influence. Whitney and Christopher share the details in tandem (the two worked together for four years before she convinced Mary to bring him on board, too). While Whitney describes the dishes, Christopher pours a couple wines suited for tonight’s spread. “It’s one of the more easy meals to pair wine with, in my mind,” he says. “You want to play to your boldest flavor on the plate.”

 
Christopher Becerra (back left) and Whitney Otawka (back right) address the group while Lilly waits for scraps.

The turkey is a heritage breed; Whitney forgoes roasting in favor of smoking the bird—it frees up her oven and “just tastes better,” she says. Butchering the turkey before cooking means she has more control over the process (and yields more flavorful, juicy meat). Mashed potatoes receive the Cumberland touch with the addition of flaky sea salt. There’s a vibrant bowl of roasted baby carrots and beets; plated atop carrot hummus and finished with a benne seed crumble, it’s a study in flavors and textures. The islands’ bounty also shines in a plate of filet beans and Georgia shrimp tossed with bright citrus. To end things on a sweet note, salted caramel pots de crème.

Unlike so many who work in commercial restaurant kitchens, Whitney hadn’t historically worked on holidays before coming to Greyfield. But she doesn’t mind. “I’m one of these weirdos who likes working holidays,” she laughs. “You have the team to craft this dreamy version of a holiday meal. It’s really fun.” To make it all happen, she intentionally builds a menu with diverse preparations. “It’s about being smart and not exhausting yourself,” she says. Because the turkey is smoking outside, she can use her oven to roast root vegetables. Her marinated filet beans and shrimp and the pot de crèmes are make-ahead friendly—“so you aren’t stressing yourself out,” she says. It’s a good lesson for home cooks planning holiday menus at home, she adds. “We all have the moment when we have stars in our eyes and think, ‘Oh, I can produce all these things and it’s going to be perfect.’ And then you realize you’ve overextended yourself.”

As much as she loves cooking the perfect spread, Whitney admits her favorite part of Thanksgiving is building a sandwich from the leftovers the next day. Probably because of the gravy Ben makes. “It’s the greatest thing that’s ever happened,” she laughs. The dishes make their way around the table. Gogo’s dog, Lilly, lingers at the edge, waiting for a stray shrimp. Two wild horses venture into view, grazing on the lawn. Forget the scene unfolding feet away, they’re merely concerned with those pestering flies, which they ward off with a few rapid-fire muscle spasms. Heads down, they continue on. As evening approaches, the vibrant humming of cicadas and frogs harmonize with the chatter around the table. Then, there’s a pause. It lingers for a few moments as the friends take sips of wine and take in the beautiful solitude that surrounds them, basking in all that is Cumberland.

The Menu:

Smoked turkey

Whipped potatoes with sea salt

Roasted baby carrots and beets with carrot hummus and benne seed crumble

Filet beans with Georgia shrimp and citrus

Salted caramel pots de crème with malted cream

Visiting Cumberland Island

GETTING THERE

The Lucy R. Ferguson sails from Fernandina Beach, Florida, to Greyfield’s dock three times daily. Once on the island, you’ll be shown around the historic property and then to your room—there are sixteen in the inn and four across two nearby cottages.

ACTIVITIES

There’s no Wi-Fi on Cumberland Island, and cell service can be spotty. But you aren’t here to scroll your Instagram feed; you’re here to be enchanted. Afternoons can be spent fishing off Greyfield’s dock (it’s a honey hole for drum), kayaking the calm waters, or biking to the hauntingly beautiful ruins of Dungeness, Thomas and Lucy Carnegie’s fifty-nine-room mansion that burned to the ground in 1959. Or, take a cue from Gogo and search the island for treasures. Greyfield also offers naturalist-led tours of Cumberland. Of course, no one would fault you for choosing instead to grab a blanket and another cup of coffee and make your way to the grand front porch to tuck into a paperback—or do nothing more than take in the beauty of Cumberland Island.

DINING

Whitney Otawka and the kitchen crew prepare three meals daily for guests, all included in the room rate (which tops out at $635 a night). Mornings begin with a hot breakfast that won’t leave you too stuffed for exploring—maybe a slice of cheddar quiche with thick-cut bacon. Lunch comes in the form of picnic baskets stuffed with sandwiches, sides, and freshly baked cookies that await you in the kitchen’s refrigerator and can be carried to the spot of your choosing. A nightly cocktail hour includes small bites from the kitchen—pickled shrimp, anyone?—and drinks from a bar that operates under the honor system (guests scribble their drinks on chits; alcohol is an additional charge). A communal, formal dinner convenes in the Carnegie’s former dining room at 7:30—jackets are required for men. This is where Whitney shines: Imagine a dinner that begins with ethereal gnocchi sautéed with mushrooms from Greyfield’s garden, moves to a main of seared sheepshead (her favorite fish) served atop wilted garden greens studded with olives, and finishes with a sticky-sweet Carolina Gold rice pudding. If you’re at the inn on a weekend, Christopher Becerra will offer wine pairings. You should opt in.