EMILY MEGGETT SMILES broadly on the cover of her new cookbook, “Gullah Geechee Home Cooking,” welcoming readers the way she has welcomed countless others — like her 11 children and more than 50 grandchildren and great-grandchildren — into her kitchen over the years. The 89-year-old, known as the matriarch of Gullah Geechee food, has been cooking since her youth, but never with recipes from a book. Growing up on Edisto Island in South Carolina, Meggett learned to cook by her mother’s side, and always for a small crowd, be it family members, extended family, church groups, or the broader community. “I cook big and I cook my memory,” she writes. (The recipes in this book will feed between four and 10 people, often with leftovers. “That’s okay!” writes Meggett.)
Edisto Island, 42 miles south of Charleston, is part of the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor, which stretches along the eastern coast through the Carolinas and Georgia. The Geechee people are descendants of West and Central Africans who were enslaved and forcibly brought to work on plantations in the area. Their relative geographic isolation enabled the preservation of many indigenous African traditions and foodways. Residents of the region also created Gullah, a creole language; it is the only place on earth where it’s spoken. In 2006, Congress designated the corridor a National Heritage Area, a place that holds nationally significant stories that should be preserved. As Meggett writes, “We held on to the old ways of doing things for a very long time, some of it still to this day. Working the land is one of them. It was our way of surviving. It’s how we fed ourselves, empowered ourselves, and kept our ancestral ties intact.”
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Life on the island is lived in close proximity to nature, and dictated by the rhythms of the seasons. “Edisto,” Meggett writes, “maintains a sense of peace and stillness that my people have lived with for many generations.” After working in the fields all day, many of Meggett’s elders would return home to tend to their own gardens. They only went to the store for things like sugar and flour, she recalls, because they grew their own vegetables at home and raised their own livestock. Seafood and rice are the other staples of Gullah Geechee cooking, reflected in many of the recipes in this book. Meggett explains that many Edisto residents have roots in Sierra Leone, a country known for its rice farmers, so the cultivation of the crop was important. “Because we had our own rice pond, we harvested our own rice,” she writes. “Rice is a big deal to the Gullah Geechee people.”
Edisto Island, part of the Sea Islands of South Carolina’s Lowcountry, is also a place where white families have long vacationed, and Meggett spent years working in their kitchens. She treats this fraught experience with directness, writing that she had a choice between working in the fields or working in a kitchen; since she loved to cook, she preferred the opportunity to work for a family. The jobs Meggett had in others’ kitchens helped her support her children and led her to personalize her cooking, so that others would recognize her dishes. “Everybody knows my pink sauce,” she writes. “They know my fried shrimp; they know my red rice.” Still, Meggett acknowledges the starkly undervalued labor of Black women who worked as domestics and cooks. “Many Black women—including those whose names have been lost to history—paved the way for cooks like me to find a career that could support my family and give me the chance to do something I’m good at,” she writes.
The spirit of “Gullah Geechee Home Cooking” is cooking delicious local food in large quantities. The fried chicken recipe will make 20 to 30 people happy. Meggett’s “Deviled Crab” recipe will serve 14 to 16, and the “Crab Casserole” will serve 10 to 12; both look perfect for a special occasion. Her everyday dishes like “Shrimp and Macaroni Salad” and “Slaw” are potluck ready, and numerous recipes for grits and biscuits make for tempting sides. Generous desserts like “Apple Brown Betty,” “Peach Pie,” and “Chocolate Cream Pie,” plus an assortment of beautiful cookie recipes, round out the book’s offerings. Meggett recalls her mother’s words: “Don’t ever cook enough just for you, ’cause you never know who gonna come through that door.”
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Nina Renata Aron Writer
Nina Renata Aron is a senior editor of Departures based in Oakland, California. She is the author of “Good Morning, Destroyer of Men's Souls.” Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Guardian, the New Republic, Elle, Eater, and Jezebel.
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Clay Williams photographs food, drinks, and the people and places that define food culture.