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Steve Williams column: The Soul of Pawleys Island

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Steve Williams

Every Mother’s Day, we pause to honor mothers. We do so because they deserve it.

You would think with 7 billion people populating the earth, we would pause for something unique. That is to say, everyone has a mother, or at least had one. So what’s so special about mothers? It’s a rhetorical question, of course, because mothers are, for most of us, the most special person in the world.

Even when they’ve left us, they remain dear to our hearts. We find ways to pay tribute to them, perhaps laying flowers on their graves, adding their names to a Mother’s Day church booklet / keepsake, or just meditating on fond memories of her.

And if we’re fortunate enough to still have mothers in our lives, on Mother’s Day, we telephone them, send them a card with flowers, visit them, or take them out for dinner- all in the name of love.

However, I suspect this Mother’s Day we will not be taking our mothers out for dinner. Sitting in a swank restaurant with our faces covered with masks just seems to spoil the occasion.

Nonetheless, food will be a part of celebrating mothers this year. Some will buy dinner and eat it at home, others will prepare dinner, and even some will cook their mother’s favorite dish, thinking she’ll be pleased to see her family recipe, which was properly passed down to them is in good hands with the next generation.

So in honor of Mother’s Day, this Mother’s Day, I’d like to pay tribute to two local mothers, one who recently passed, and one who’s still with us. No, I am not related to either mother. I’ve never met them, but I’ve come to know them through their recipes. I first heard of these talented mothers ten years ago when researching my history book — Ebony Effects.

The mother who recently passed away I will name (for now) in my Gullah tongue as ‘bin yah’ and the mother who is still with us, I’ll designate as, ‘cum yah.’

Despite no longer being with us, the mother who went “gentle into that good night” two weeks ago will always be with us — more about her in a moment.

The ‘cum yah’ mother grew up in the Buckhead section of Atlanta, but ever since she was a baby, she vacationed in Pawley’s Island. “My uncle,” she said, “had a house on the south end of the island, and there was a lot of laughter and picking shrimp on the screened porch. I remember that smell and that feeling. It was the time everything was good and happy.”

While in Atlanta, she met her future husband. He grew up in Louisiana, loving his mother’s homemade recipe. In the 1990s, he and his then- girlfriend enjoyed his mom’s special dip whenever they went tailgating. After they were married, his wife came up with her own recipe whipping up batches of her delightful southern-style dip and concocting her own mixture. It became a staple for their tailgating parties.

“I made it for my boyfriend now husband and took it to the tailgating parties at Braves games,” she said.

Growing tired of bustling Atlanta and wanting to raise their two daughters in a less congestive environment, in 2002, they left Atlanta and moved to where her fondest memories as a child were — Pawley’s Island.

Between her fond memories and her work as a corporate chef, she learned that a local bed & breakfast was up for sale. It was a fixer-upper, but they bought it anyway.

Built in the 1930s, the Sea View Inn featured 20 rooms and plenty of common areas for their guests. With big-named hotels and resorts not permitted on Pawley’s Island, the historic beach side inn was a simple, laid-back, old-school comfortable, affordable place to enjoy the Pawley’s Island experience.

Guests were treated to three homemade meals a day. The new owners also inherited a six-person staff that had been preparing food there for more than 25 years. The new owners were not going to mess with their good thing. They wanted staff to consider themselves part of their family, rather than the help.

“They were using however many generations of knowledge, and we thought it was neat if they brought that to the inn.”

But the cooks were quite surprised when the new owners asked them what they cooked at home. “They weren’t used to anyone asking their opinion,” said the owners. “It took a good year or two for them to understand that we wanted to give them autonomy.”

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The new owners weren’t exactly crazy about the menu they inherited. The previous owners had insisted on a menu that included Mexican, Thai, and Curry cuisines. They welcomed the opinions of their staff, especially the cooks.

“That’s how we started serving soul food on Saturday nights — smothered pork chops, collards, speckled butter beans, pickled okra, biscuits, and fruit cobbler.” The ‘cum yah’ said

Even before the new owners acquired the inn, one of the cooks, the ‘bin yah,’ enjoyed a reputation for her delicious Gullah cuisine. She was legendary for cooking authentic Southern-style low country dishes with a different ingredient that was not on the menu.

So it was not surprising when the “cum yah” added her special dip as an appetizer on the weekly menu for guests, and the ‘bin yah’ “tweaked the seasoning mixture to enhance its soulful Southern taste.”

“Most Southerners,” said the ‘cum yuh,’ “associate it as a memory food that their mothers or grandmothers made.”

Upon tasting the soulful flavor, guests craved more of the dip and it became a guest favorite. As guests began asking how they could take the addictive appetizer home with them, the ‘bin yah’ started whipping up batches for them.

As more and more people requested the delicious appetizer, staff and owners worked assembly-line style to fill the requests. Pretty soon, demand was so high that the ‘cum yahs’ began marketing their product to local supermarkets like Food Lion, Piggly Wiggly, and Publix.

Word continued to spread about their product, and it was evident that they needed a manufacturer and distributor for it, which they found in the Upstate.

With a steady and persistent approach towards growth, the husband of the ‘cum yah’ used his experience in management and marketing to expand the business skillfully.

Today, eighteen years later, their food dip is sold in over 5000 locations in nearly every state and every major supermarket. You will find their modest rise to success in hundreds of industry trade books, newspapers, magazines, and social media. The ‘cum yahs’ have done well, and justly deserves the credit for their hard work.

But on this Mother’s Day, I want to also shine the light on the ‘bin yah’ who I first wrote about ten years ago. She recently passed away, and with the current stay-at-home crises, I’m afraid she quietly left with few people celebrating her life or knowing her accomplishments.

Relatives and friends tell me that she was one of the nicest people you could ever meet. They rave about her cooking skills, especially her collard greens, crab quiche, and soul food. They tell me her kindness was only matched by her extraordinary culinary talents. Each Thanksgiving, she’d cook for family and friends, and all were welcomed. Throughout the year, she’d often blessed friends and neighbors with her mouth-watering goodies.

Over the past few years, she faced personal challenges, including the death of her son and grandson as well as health issues. But as long as her face still covers the container of every Palmetto Cheese Spread sold in America, she will be remembered.

It was Vertrella Brown (the bin yah) who added the “soulful touch,” the “secret blend,” and “tweaked the seasonal mixture to enhance the southern soulful taste” of Sassy Henry’s (the cum yah) pimento cheese dip recipe.

Brian and Sassy Henry may have grown their business to the national phenomenon it is today. Still, it was Vertrella Brown from Pawleys Island who popularized their product by added her soulful flavor. Perhaps that’s why the Henrys labeled their product — ‘Palmetto Cheese’ — pimento cheese with soul.

On this Mother’s Day, Vertrella will surely be missed, but I’m pretty sure she’s sharing her soulful treats with the people in the Upper Room.

May her soul rest-in-peace.

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