It's almost New Year's day, which means one thing in particular for many Southern families - and especially Gullahs from the Sea Islands along the Carolina and Georgia coast: a lucky bowl of Hoppin' John is on the menu.
"Eat poor that day, eat rich the rest of the year," goes the saying about this iconic dish of rice stewed with black-eyed peas, served with money-green collards and corn bread the color of gold.
Valerie Erwin, though, who grew up on Arizona Street in North Philly with Low Country-born parents, has a more chilling childhood memory of the dish. Peeking inside her mother's simmering bean pot, she vividly recalls seeing a whole hog jowl poking up through the simmering peas - jawbone and all, "with the teeth still in it."
"I didn't like beans until I grew up," she concedes. And little wonder. At 59, the image is indelible.
But Erwin has more than made up for those lost pea years at her Geechee Girl Rice Cafe, the Mount Airy ode to the Low Country rice kitchen that has evolved into one of Philly's most personal and unique BYOBs.
And black-eyed peas (also known as cow peas) figure prominently in one of the restaurant's most addictive dishes - crispy Hoppin' John - a day-after variation whipped up in her youth by her father, Alexander, who would fry the leftover rice and beans in a pan of rendered bacon. The childhood memory of that flavor came back to Erwin just a couple of years ago, but it's so addictive, I'd return to Geechee just for a plate - those grains of jasmine rice all toasty crunch, studded with toothy beans and smoky nuggets of chewy bacon.
The inspiration is just as much familial as it is true to its Southern origin - and the perfect emblem for what Geechee Girl has become over its nearly nine years and a move from the original space in Germantown.
Erwin is a veteran of Philly's first restaurant renaissance who worked for years at Commissary, La Terrasse, Roller's, and the first incarnation of Striped Bass. But it was her sister, Aleathia, who first came up with the notion in 2003 to pay homage to the family's roots - in the African American community affectionately known as "Geechees" in Carolina's Low Country - with a cafe focused on that region's rice culture. (Geechees are often considered a subset of the Gullah community, but Erwin insists the groups are distinct.)
With interest in regional American cooking on the rise, and suppliers of heirloom grains such as Anson Mills making the right ingredients available, the timing was perfect. And so Erwin's kitchen turns out fluffy Carolina Gold rice with every big bowl of gumbo, a soft-spoken vegetarian base snappy with okra pods, fresh squash, and the tingle of jalapeños that comes, upon request, crowned with plump sauteed shrimp. The shrimp and grits, meanwhile, is a study in the satisfaction of simplicity, the pop of tender shrimp against the earthy porridge comfort of stone-ground grits lathered in buttery veloute.
As if to emphasize the region's historic connection to the rice coast of West Africa (where Carolina-bound captives were enslaved, in part, because of their skill with rice agriculture) there are authentic African dishes here, too. Geechee creates a wonderful Ghanaian peanut soup, stewed with chicken, hot chiles, and sweet potatoes, creamed with just the right amount of peanut butter. Yassa chicken, a Senegalese specialty, brings a moist grilled bird with onions, still tingling from their overnight marination in lemon and hot peppers. A side of "Charleston red rice," a tomato- and thyme-tinged Southern variation on Spanish rice, is another family touch, inspired by Erwin's mother, Jessie.
The restaurant, as a whole, resonates with that family feeling, from the black-and-white pictures that decorate the squash-yellow walls over dark wainscoting hung with African-esque fabric prints, to the dining room staff itself. Erwin sisters Aleathia and Michelene are regular servers (with occasional help from Lisa and Alexadria), and the vibe is always friendly. That doesn't mean things always run smoothly, though, as on our first visit, a Saturday night, no less, which saw one server scrambling to keep a full dining room of 52 increasingly impatient diners happy.
That sense of loose ends in the operation - a limited menu and prices that seemed just a little high for Germantown - is part of the reason I never returned to complete a review of Geechee Girl in its first incarnation, a smaller storefront with just 24 seats.
The move 10 blocks west up Germantown Avenue, though, seems to have given this restaurant a bit more substantial footing, in the space, in the menu's concept, and in the breadth of its clientele, as well as in Erwin's kitchen, which is really the reason to come.
To be sure, Southern culinary purists might easily pick this food apart on details - I, for one, wouldn't mind a gumbo made from a deeper, richer stock. But real authenticity here comes from Erwin herself, who simply chooses to cook what she likes, uses good local ingredients, and isn't afraid to play around.
"I make traditional things, but not only that," she says. "I try not to be stuck in the past - that's boring."
And so, while there are perfectly good renditions of such Southern classics as boneless pork loin chops with bourbon-flamed apples and sweet potato hash, fluffy biscuits, or tea-smoked pulled pork in vinegar-tanged, tomato-free Carolina barbecue sauce, alongside a scoop of Hoppin' John, there are some personal riffs, too.
You'll find delightful whims such as tostones made from sweet potatoes (instead of plantains) smashed then fried to a thyme-scented crisp and served with tangy green tomato relish. Or Caribbean fritters flecked with salt cod and Haitian green herbs that come with a chile-spiked syrup dip. Salmon dusted with chili powder and brown sugar is served with nutty black rice, inspired by the emperor's "forbidden" rice of China.
There is a flatbread turned into a sort of Alsatian flammenküche with a Southern twist, a yeasted cornmeal round dabbed with goat cheese, caramelized sweet onion laces, and bacon. My favorite flight of French-Low Country fusion, though, was a special that framed Erwin's Southern take on cassoulet: red beans dusted with duck-fat bread crumbs beside a leg of duck confit, caramelized turnips and wilted greens, a chunk of slab bacon, and a deep-fried parcel of stewed boneless pig's feet.
For dessert, Erwin stays close to home for some simple but satisfyingly Southern sweets. There's a moist gingerbread, standard pecan pie, rice pudding (made with aromatic jasmine grains), and grilled pineapple glazed with gingery molasses. There's also a whipped-cream-dolloped slice of rich sour cream pound cake made, fittingly, to her Aunt Vernetta Edgecomb's recipe. Like so much at the Geechee Girl Cafe, that heartfelt and still vibrant family connection to even the simplest dishes pays off.
Inquirer restaurant critic Craig LaBan hosts an online chat at 2 p.m. Tuesdays at http://go.philly.com/phillytalk.