She’s a grits missionary. An okra apostle. A bourbon devotee.
Celebrity chef Virginia Willis sounds as Lowcountry as a fiddler crab in those bona fides, proudly listed in her Twitter description.
There is a lot to the South.
But her journey to the bright lights started at the apron of her mama and grandmama Meme on a farm near the hell-fire licks of Augusta, Ga. So, yes, she’s Southern as a smokehouse, raised around hog-killing and butter-making. And she sashayed that early understanding of food and its place in our lives into degrees from L’Academie de Cuisine in America and Ecole de Cuisine La Varenne in France.
She’s directed the TV kitchens for Martha Stewart, Bobby Flay and our own maven o’ the larder, Charleston’s Nathalie Dupree.
She’s written a shelf full of books, like “Bon Appetit, Y’all” and one all about okra, and one that won a James Beard Foundation Award this year called “Lighten Up, Y’all: Classic Southern Recipes Made Healthy and Wholesome.”
In all this, and in her blog and an upcoming Southern Living column, her roots are still showing.
That’s why we talked by phone last weekend.
Willis will star in the “Roots: A Taste of the Lowcountry” fundraising dinner at the Callawassie Island Club on Friday, Sept. 9 to celebrate the first anniversary of the new museum in an old gas station in Ridgeland: The Morris Center for Lowcountry Heritage.
‘Bred for flavor’
The message of this uptown event, as well as the Morris Center itself, seems to be, “Hey, y’all: We IS somebody.”
Celebrity chefs like Willis and Sean Brock in Charleston are serving up delectable ways of life, really, that we once thought were too common or too poor to matter.
Our cuisine was depicted by Hollywood as RC and MoonPies, maybe on a good day fried baloney — even dirt. As my Granny would say, “If you believe that, you’d follow somebody’s dog off.”
Now the stuff we grew up on, fresh from the garden or the river, is gourmet. An agricultural and culinary resurgence is trying to save it, savor it, and sell it.
In this new world, Ridgeland can be proud. The Gullah can be proud. It hasn’t always been this way. We can finally spit out that sauteed snail we felt we had to eat to be suave. And we can do as Emily Elizabeth Wallace did at the University of North Carolina and write a master’s degree thesis on pimento cheese in the Carolina Piedmont.
And the keynote speaker will be Glenn Roberts, owner of Anson Mills, headquartered in Columbia. It is rescuing heirloom plants, like Carolina Gold rice.
“Seedsmen of the 19th century bred for flavor — not for transport, not for visual appeal, not for shelf life, not even for disease resistance,” the web site says. “Agriculturists of the period sought to impose the maximal beneficial effect of terroir on their ingredients. By doing these things as well, Anson Mills will continue to reintroduce the diverse and flavorful foodways of the Carolina Rice Kitchen.”
A pot of rice
Last week, Willis was in Charleston for a photo-shoot with “Clammer Dave” Belanger, among the new entrepreneurs getting back to the Lowcountry’s pluff-mud roots. It was for her upcoming book and PBS series: “Secrets of the Southern Table: A Food Lover’s Tour of the Global South.”
It’s global now, Willis said (“Did you know that Houston has the fourth-largest population of people from Vietnam in America?”).
And it has been global from the beginning of recorded history — especially the Lowcountry, where Africans, Native Americans, French, Italians, English, Jews, Germans, Scots, Scandinavians, prisoners, aristocrats and hayseeds left us to unearth a cuisine with a soul deeper than Port Royal Sound.
“There is a lot to the South,” Willis said.
As a “recovering history major,” it certainly won’t be lost on Willis that she will be preparing a main dish for today’s foodies right around the corner from the first known European settlement in the New World — Jean Ribaut’s French Charlesfort in 1562.
I asked Willis to imagine Southern cooking, French cooking and Lowcountry cooking as rivers. Where would they run together?
“It would happen in a big pot of rice,” she said.
The okra apostle sure can preach.
If you go
“Roots: A Taste of the Lowcountry”
Friday, Sept. 9, 6:30 p.m. to 9:30 p.m.
Callawassie Island Clubhouse, 176 Callawassie Island Drive, Okatie.
A four-course dinner event with celebrity chefs Virginia Willis, Sallie Ann Robinson and Benjamin “BJ” Dennis and Anson Mills owner Glenn Roberts; with locally-sourced food, wine, beer and music.
Tickets: $125, to benefit the Morris Center for Lowcountry Heritage in Ridgeland; 843-284-9227; firstname.lastname@example.org.