Preserving Gullah Geechee Cuisine Through Cookbooks

Cuisine Noir. September 2021.

Many African American decedents of enslaved people lived along the barrier islands and along the coast of Georgia, Florida and both Carolinas. “Instead of dying after their landowners abandoned their cotton, indigo and rice plantation, the Geechee thrived in collectives that shared their bountiful resources as well as their own language, music, art and spiritual traditions,” writes Matthew Raiford in his new book, “Bress ‘n’ Nyam: Gullah Geechee Recipes from a Sixth-Generation Farmer.”

Over the years, chefs, historians and authors around the country have made it their mission to preserve Gullah Geechee culinary traditions for today’s generation and those to come. In the 1970s, Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor put Gullah-Geechee cultural identity in front of Americans for the first time. Her seminal cookbook, “Vibration Cooking: Or, The Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl,” documented recipes from her South Carolina Lowcountry home and gave a glimpse into the lives of Black migrants.

Today, Raiford and his wife, Tia, work tirelessly at their sixth-generation family-run Gillard Farm in Brunswick, Georgia. They encourage their young sons to learn the sustainable farming techniques and cooking traditions passed down from their West African ancestors over 300 years ago. “Good food and good community go hand in hand. Maybe it’s the key to resilience. And maybe now, we know our worth,” says Raiford.

Gullah Geechee cuisine is often called the “birth of soul food” and includes cooking with seasonal vegetables such as okra, collards, corn and cabbage, as well as freshly caught Lowcountry seafood, such as conch, shark, oyster, blue crab and locally grown rice.

To learn more about Gullah Geechee food and culture, check out these recent cookbooks.

Bress ‘n’ Nyam: Gullah Geechee Recipes from a Sixth-Generation Farmer” by Matthew Raiford and Amy Paige Condon  

Raiford’s new book pays homage to his forefather Jupiter Gillard, who purchased the land he currently tills back in 1912 as a free person. The title Bress ‘n’ Nyam means to bless and eat in Gullah Geechee dialect. “It is what we said for grace before we ate,” says Raiford. The recipes organized by the universal elements – earth, water, fire, wind, nectar and spirits, are based on his own heritage and inspired by his global travels. Highlights include sweet potato pone, smoked Ossabaw Island hog, and molasses stone fruit gelato with apple-lavender compote.

Sallie Ann Robinson’s Kitchen: Food and Family Lore from the Lowcountry” by Sallie Ann Robinson

Daufuskie Island, South Carolina, native, cookbook author and celebrity chef Sallie Ann Robinson is also a sixth-generation Gullah. Robinson, who is nicknamed “Gullah Diva,” has written three cookbooks and a photography book about the island. In her most recent hardcover, find passed down recipes for Carolina country broils, island pineapple and coconut chicken and Gullah chicken gumbo.

Also, check out her legendry books, “Gullah Home Cooking the Daufuskie Way: Smokin’ Joe Butter Beans, Ol’ ‘Fuskie Fried Crab Rice, Sticky-Bush Blackberry Dumpling, and Other Sea Island Favorites” and “Cooking the Gullah Way, Morning, Noon, and Night.”

“Mama Doonk’s Gullah Recipes 2nd edition” by Theresa Jenkins Hilliard

Hilliard grew up in a Gullah Geechee household in Charleston, South Carolina, and likes to take readers on a cultural and culinary journey through her books. Named after her grandmother, Mama Doonk, the book’s 2ndedition was released in summer 2021. In it, you’ll find recipes that Hilliard learned by watching the three women in her house (aunt, mother and grandmother), using proteins such as rabbit, raccoon and possum. For more traditional flavors, there are also instructions for pound cake, biscuits and corn muffins.

“Jubilee (Recipes from Two Centuries of African American Cooking)” by Toni Tipton-Martin

James-Beard award winner, Tipton-Martin, is one of the most celebrated culinary historians who takes a kaleidoscope view on African American cuisine. In her cookbooks, she identifies chefs, entrepreneurs, recipes and techniques beyond southern and soul food. In “Jubilee,” named “one of the best cookbooks of the year” by The New York Times, you can find recipes for classic dishes such as sweet potato biscuits, seafood gumbo, buttermilk fried chicken and pecan pie with bourbon, among many others.

~ Written for and published by Cuisine Noir. All rights reserved.

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