On the thick pluff mud-padded coastline of the southeastern United States, the phrase Gullah Geechee has multiple meanings. It means culture, one steeped in a tradition where generations follow in their ancestors’ occupational footsteps. It also describes a dialect formed centuries ago to help different cultural groups communicate.
But above all, it’s the people. It’s the West African slaves who were brought to the United States more than three hundred years ago. It’s the farmers, fishermen, weavers, and cooks whose resilience, resourcefulness, spirituality, and community ensured their survival. And it’s their present-day offspring, woven as tightly as their iconic sweetgrass baskets, who honor and keep tradition alive today.
Brought to the United States in the early 18th century, the people now known as Gullah Geechee were from Sierra Leone and other West African countries. From a wide variety of ethnic groups, many of whom spoke different languages, they landed in tidewater communities of South Carolina and Georgia, and were forced to work on plantations farming crops such as rice, cotton, and indigo.
The Lowcountry’s warm climate, fertile land, and crops were similar to those in their homeland, making these transplants good farmers. And their basket-weaving and fishing net-making skills made them even more valuable. But this didn’t mean conditions were easy. These were people torn away from the lands they knew and brought to a place where their language was obsolete, and the customs and traditions they knew were nonexistent.
In the years surrounding the Civil War, many white planters and plantation owners abandoned their Sea Island properties in fear of invasion or for lack of profit. The Gullah Geechee people were then left alone, isolated on these coastal islands. They didn’t have much, but they had what they needed: access to land and each other.
“They supported each other,” says Gullah expert and cookbook author Sallie Ann Robinson. “They refused to let someone go hungry, or be sick and unhelped. Folks were there for you no matter what. Even if they weren’t well off, they would support someone in need.”
A sixth-generation Gullah Geechee descendent, Sallie Ann grew up on South Carolina’s Daufuskie Island in a close-knit family where everyone worked together—especially when it came to preparing a meal.
“We were never hungry,” she explains. “We grew up [surviving] off the land. The land was the ocean, the garden, the woods, the backyard. Whatever mom decided she was going to make that day, we were a part of it. If she was going to make chicken, she’d go kill the chicken, and we’d clean it and get it ready for her. We tended the garden so that it would grow well and produce well so that we could have fresh vegetables to eat. We’d catch fish, crab, and shrimp for our next meal. It was greatly rewarding.”
The Gullah Geechee cuisine is a fusion of African cooking techniques and locally available ingredients. Fresh-from-the-ocean shrimp, crab, and fish comprise many of their favorite dishes, while ingredients including rice, okra, and watermelon are also staples. But this type of diet wasn’t isolated to the Gullah Geechee people. Because many enslaved African women became cooks in white homes, African-influenced dishes became regional staples. And those regional staples became what many consider as typical Southern food today.
“Southern food and Gullah food are well connected,” Sallie Ann explains. “When people didn’t know what to call Gullah, they called it Southern. It was shrimp and grits, fried chicken, collard greens, lima beans, cornbread, biscuits, gumbo, and cabbage. It was a little of everything.”
With dishes like Frogmore Stew, a seafood, potato, and sausage boil reminiscent of African stew pots (also commonly referred to as shrimp boil, crab boil, or Lowcountry boil), and Hoppin’ John, a rice and field pea pilaf dish similar to a West African mainstay, the Gullah Geechee cuisine permeated the Southern palate, becoming not just a Lowcountry favorite, but popular throughout the South. Through importation, they introduced their new home to staples like okra, peanuts, benne (sesame), and peppers.
And through farming, they taught plantation owners how to grow rice. The Gullah Geechee people were resourceful with their food and fully utilized the ingredients they could grow and find. It was through gumbos and rice dishes that they’d breathe new life into kitchen scraps for flavorful, soul-warming meals.
But such meals weren’t just for sustenance. Food in the Gullah Geechee culture was, and continues to be, about community and tradition. It’s about passing on the techniques to younger generations and sharing the love of hand-prepared food while honoring the past.
“They didn’t just mix things together; they were serious about what they were going to serve their family,” Sallie Ann says. “They took time to teach young girls like me just how they cooked the dish, so that one day I could do the same. They were so passionate about what they did and how they did it. They had such a connection with food.”
Out of hardship came community. These displaced peoples merged to create new customs and traditions heavily influenced by each of their African origins but also representative of their new home. They developed a rhythmic language to communicate with one another, as well as slave holders and traders.
They were artists and makers, weaving stunning sweetgrass baskets for agricultural uses and cast nets for fishing. And their spiritual beliefs, combined with the praise melodies they inspired, helped sustain and guide them through conflict and heartache.
Today, much has changed in the lives of the Gullah Geechee. The once isolated islands of Georgia and South Carolina are now home to resorts and tourists. The Gullah language is still understood by most locally born African Americans of Gullah descent, but it’s spoken less. And the cuisine is spreading and popularizing, yet its origin isn’t being taught.
“Many of the younger generations aren’t sure about the meaning of Gullah themselves, so they aren’t teaching their children,” Sallie Ann says. “The older people are passing on, and their stories of hard work and making a better life aren’t being shared as much.”
But it’s generations-old traditions, like sitting down for a family supper of just-caught shrimp or an elder teaching basket-making on a balmy Sunday afternoon, that keep the Gullah Geechee culture alive and well in the coastal islands.
Try your hand at a traditional Gullah Geechee meal with Sallie Ann’s Gullah Bacon Corn Muffins and ’Fuskie Seafood Gumbo, the dishes her mother made growing up that bring back those cherished memories.
- 16 slices bacon, cooked until crisp
- 2 cups all-
- 2 tablespoons baking powder
- 1½ teaspoons sugar
- 3 cups
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 3 large eggs
- 2½ cups warm milk
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted Butter, to serve
- Preheat oven to 350°. Spray 3 (6-well) cast-iron muffin pans with baking spray with flour.
- Chop the bacon into small pieces; reserve 3 tablespoons. Sift together the flour, baking powder, sugar, cornmeal, and salt in a large bowl.
- In a medium bowl, beat the eggs, then blend in the warm milk and melted butter. Combine with the flour mixture; fold in bacon pieces mixing all together. Spoon mixture into prepared pans until wells are about three-fourths full; sprinkle with reserved 3 tablespoons bacon.
- Bake until tops are golden brown, 15 to 20 minutes. Serve hot or warm with butter for best taste.
- 2 pieces fatback bacon or 3 slices thick-cut bacon
- 2 pieces smoked pig neck bone or 1 smoked ham hock
- 3 pieces fresh pig tail or 1 smoked ham hock
- 2 quart shot water
- 2 (14½-ounce) cans stewed tomatoes
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- 1 bayl eaf
- 1 teaspoon dried thyme
- 2 to 3 cloves garlic, diced
- 1 stalk celery, diced
- 1 large onion, diced
- 1½ dozen littleneck clams
- ½ to 1 pound lump crabmeat
- 1 pound medium to large shrimp, peeled and deveined, tails left on
- 3 to 4 cups okra, sliced
- 1½ teaspoons sugar Salt and ground black pepper, to taste
- Place a large cast-iron Dutch oven over medium heat. First, fry the fatback bacon; when it is done, remove and set aside, leaving the rendered fat in the pot. Add the neck bone, pig tail, (or ham hocks, if using) and hot water to the pot, and let boil for about 30 minutes.
- Stir in the tomatoes, tomato paste, bay leaf, thyme, garlic, celery, onion, clams, and bacon. Let this cook for 30 to40 minutes, stirring occasionally. The soup should begin to thicken.
- Remove neck bone and pig tail (or ham hocks) and save for other uses. Add the crabmeat, shrimp, okra, and sugar, plus salt and pepper to taste. Let this cook for 20 to 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. If the soup gets too thick and you need to add more water, make sure it is hot.
From COOKING THE GULLAH WAY, MORNING, NOON, AND NIGHT. Copyright © 2007 by Sallie Ann Robinson. Used by permission of the University of North Carolina Press. www.uncpress.unc.edu