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New food company finalist for gumbo creation

Debra McFadden Bryant, owner and founder of Geechee Girl Foods, grew up on the South Carolina coast “group cooking with her aunts and uncles. Bryant said her seafood gumbo dish, which is a current finalist in The Flavor of Georgia food product contest was created through shared “phone cooking” with her uncle.

Debra McFadden Bryant, owner and founder of Geechee Girl Foods, grew up on the South Carolina coast “group cooking with her aunts and uncles. Bryant said her seafood gumbo dish, which is a current finalist in The Flavor of Georgia food product contest was created through shared “phone cooking” with her uncle.

ALBANY, Ga. -- Geechee Girl Foods, a startup institutional food company in Albany, is a finalist in The Flavor of Georgia food product contest, 2012.

The annual competition, sponsored by the University of Georgia College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences Center for Agribusiness and Economic Development, has selected the company's Seafood Gumbo as one of four finalists in its Meat and Seafood Product Category.

Company owner, Debra McFadden Bryant, an Albany resident and former Procter and Gamble employee, was excited to hear the news.

"I heard the telephone message from (The Albany Herald) wanting to speak with me and wondered if that was why. They heard about it before I did," Bryant said.

Final judging of the Flavor of Georgia food product event will be March 12-13, according to contest sources.

Bryant said the unusual name for her food enterprise came from the coastal region of South Carolina where she grew up, and from the language of the people, many of whom are descendants of West African slaves. Geechee is a variation of Gullah, a mixture of West African and English, spoken originally by slaves who didn't want their masters to know what they were saying.

According to Bryant, the flavor of her dishes evolved from "group cooking" with her grandmother, aunts and uncles as they would share the different seasonings they used to create a dish, and each subsequent preparation would include a little something from their "own private stash" of herbs and spices.

It was this traditional type of sharing, taken to the long-distance tool of the telephone that led to the fine-tuning of her current stable of recipes, Bryant said.

The seafood gumbo came from "telephone cooking" with one of my uncles," Bryant said. "I'd be cooking in Albany and he'd say 'add such and such' to simmer for 20 minutes, then taste it and call me."

Bryant says her South Carolina style tomato and okra base seafood gumbo features American shrimp, scallops and crab meat, with no preservatives. In addition, Geechee Girl Foods offers Chicken Gumbo and a Vegetarian Gumbo.

According to Bryant, her company is currently in "stage one" of operations and expects to begin wholesale shipment of the gumbo dishes and some other food items to supermarkets this fall.

Bryant said she had been thinking of developing and marketing the specialty dishes for a long time and had been "showered with compliments" for her recipes at gatherings with friends. After her husband died and she retired from Procter and Gamble and her consulting firm, she began to think back to one of those gatherings where a respected international chef had encouraged her to take her gumbos and other dishes to market. She decided to go for it.

Bryant had been working with the Southwest Georgia Project for Community Education, Inc., she said, a non-profit group in Newton, which focused on "community-building" and "the empowerment of people," economically. That group and another non-profit, the East Baker 21st Century Center, had been able to obtain a grant to establish a center to incubate, teach and assist companies and individuals in business success. A part of the center was a commercial kitchen participants could utilize for food-related startups. Bryant took full advantage, she said.

For now, Bryant works alone at the commercial kitchen or at her office on Jefferson Street in Albany, but she expects to hire "four or five" employees when her products begin shipment a few months from now, she said.