Story and Photos By Colleen Thompson
Mention the word Gullah or Geechee in culinary circles, even in the Southern U.S. and you’re likely to get blank stares. An often overlooked and rarely documented culture, the Gullah Geechee culinary heritage has permeated Carolina and Southern food culture for generations, even if you were completely unaware of it. Many beloved specialties can be traced back to the Gullah ancestral heritage from Africa’s rice coast. Over generations, the cooking and the recipes were largely left behind in family kitchens and small neighborhood joints sustained by loyal local diners. Often overshadowed by more well known southern offerings and masked behind the tagline of “soul food,” Gullah cuisine is still very much alive and claiming its rightful place amongst the foodways of the US.
Peanuts, okra, rice, yams, peas, hot peppers, sesame seeds, sorghum and watermelon were all brought to the US by enslaved ancestors of the Gullah Geechee. But it is the rice-based dishes, more than any others, that set the Gullah apart. Rice combined with bountiful amounts of fish, oysters and crabs they caught in the oceans surrounding the isolated islands where they have lived for generations. Served alongside collard greens, peas, beans and okra, these foods were the building blocks of a cuisine created out of pure necessity, piecing together meals and essentially creating what we know today as the ‘farm-to-table’ movement.
In the 1700s, West Africans from countries like Sierra Leone, Ghana and Angola (many historians believe the name “Gullah” is derived from a mispronunciation of Angola) were hand-picked by Southern plantation owners for their knowledge of rice cultivation in hot, humid climates. The Gullah or Geechee people, as they came to be known, were enslaved together on the isolated sea and barrier islands that span what is now designated as the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor – a stretch of the U.S. coastline extending from Pender County, North Carolina to St. Johns County, Florida and for 30 miles inland.
Forced together from different countries, cultural backgrounds and languages these slaves lived a rural and relatively isolated existence. The Gullah people soon developed their own unique, English-based Creole language along with a new way of life, but with a culture always closely linked to their African heritage. They raised pigs and incorporated oysters, turtles, and shrimp into their dishes, with rice forming the basis of many of the meals, all cooked in one pot at a slow boil throughout the day resulting in rich, complex flavors from simple ingredients.
After emancipation, the customs and traditions of the Gullah people spread throughout the Carolina’s but they entrenched themselves into their secluded areas often away from the mainland, where they created their own hybridized culture consisting of mixed African traditions and American ingredients. Isolated geographically and often culturally, the Gullah people were a thread in an entirely separate lineage of people disconnected from the rest of the country, even from other Southern black communities.
Deeply rooted in the seasons many of the dishes we know as classic Southern favorites are actually derived from Gullah culture. The import of the red hulled African strain of rice through the slave trade set the foundation for some of the most notable Southern food traditions. Today, we can still see clear similarities between one-pot rice recipes like jambalaya and Jollof, a wildly popular traditional dish in many West African countries. Other dishes, like Hoppin’ John, bear resemblance to Ghana’s waakye, and Senegalese thiebou niebe.
Okra soup is the gumbo of the Gullah people. A variation on the Nigerian Igbo language, okwuru became the English word for okra and was most often prepared in a stew and eaten with rice or millet and was later called “limpin’ Susan.” For okra soup, unlike the potage of other recipes that use a roux base, the Gullah use a tomato and onion base to which they add shrimp.
Frogmore stew – not a euphemism for the ingredients – also known as Low Country Boil, Tidewater Boil or Beaufort Boil is a dish that involves bringing a large pot of water to a boil and adding corn, shrimp sausage and Old Bay seasoning. It is credited to Richard Gay of Gay Fish Company, located in the community of Frogmore on St. Helena Island, the heart of Gullah culture in the Sea Islands off the coast of South Carolina. The quintessential Southern rice-and-beans dish Hoppin’ John, which is eaten on New Year’s Day, for good luck and prosperity, can also be traced all the way back to the Gullah.
Southern food icon and cultural anthropologist Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor highlighted Gullah Geechee cuisine and culture, long before Southern food was having a moment. Her 70s cookbook, “Vibration Cooking, or the Travel Notes of a Geechee Girl,” was part memoir and part recipe book and introduced readers to Gullah food culture. She famously wrote in her book, “When I cook, I never measure or weigh anything. I cook by vibration.”
Sallie Ann Robinson’s first book, “Gullah Home Cooking the Daufuskie Way” (2003) used her mother’s recipes to describe her childhood on the Daufuskie Island, five miles north of the mouth of the Savannah River. She introduced readers to recipes like Smokin’ Joe Butter Beans, Ol’ ‘Fuskie Fried Crab Rice and Sticky-Bush Blackberry Dumpling.
In the last few years, Gullah cuisine has received renewed interest as celebrity chefs like Sean Brock, of famed Husk Restaurant in Charleston, and the late Anthony Bourdain, shined a spotlight on a cuisine that had essentially been ignored by media.
Possibly the biggest advocate for Gullah cuisine right now is Charleston chef Chef BJ Dennis, who has become sort of champion for the culinary heritage. Dennis travels the country, cooking pop-up dinners for guests to try Gullah dining. He has dedicated much of his time to rediscovering the heritage rice grain, known as hill rice. Like David Shields of the Carolina Gold Foundation, which seeks to preserve and restore heirloom grains. he believes that the story of this rice is able to tie together many of the strands of the great African food diaspora. His hope is that in time the rice will make its way back into the Gullah Geechee community.
As more voices like Chef Dennis start to resonate, the more exposure is given to this vibrant and fascinating piece of the puzzle that makes up our region’s vibrant food heritage.
7 Things You May Not Know About Gullah Food
- Red Rice sautéed with onion and garlic is a staple for most of the Gullah people. Millet is often used as a substitute for rice, which gives the dish a slightly sweet and nutty taste.
- Perloo is a pot of slow-cooked and flavorful meat-and-rice stew similar to jambalaya.
- Soup bunch includes green and red cabbage, collard greens, rutabaga, turnips, onion, ginger, garlic and hot peppers.
- Benne seeds – were grown in all great Carolina kitchen gardens, in particular in the forbidden subsistence gardens of African slaves who brought benne to Carolina and introduced it to the region’s nascent rice culture and cuisine.
- Shrimp & grits can trace its roots to the sea islands. Plantation owners provided grits to the Gullah people as part of their food allowance. Grits became a fundamental ingredient in Gullah food as they added shrimp, crab and oysters.
- Monkey Bread is a traditional Gullah sweet bread that is made with coconut and molasses.
4 tbsp butter
1 tbsp olive oil
1 onion, diced
1 red pepper, diced
1 clove garlic, minced
1 lb peeled white shrimp
2 tbsp finely chopped flat leaf parsley
1 sprig fresh thyme
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp black pepper
1/2 tsp red chili flakes
28 oz canned tomatoes with juice
2 cups fresh young okra chopped
2 cups cooked rice
In a large skillet, melt the butter and olive oil.
Add the onion, red pepper, garlic and okra and cook until okra is browned.
Add the thyme, parsley, salt, black pepper, smoked paprika and chili flakes.
Add the tomatoes and simmer or 5 minutes.
Add the shrimp and cook until translucent, about 5 minutes.
Ladle into bowls over ¼ cup of warm rice in each.