Gullah barbecue challenges what many consider traditional ’cue. While many Southern grill masters have their style down to a science, with painstakingly precise measurements in their signature spice blends or strict method of preparing sauces and meats, Gullah cooking is more spiritual journey than scientific process – a journey easy to experience on St. Helena Island.
According to Gullah storyteller Anita Singleton-Prather, “Barbecue is and always has been an event more than a meal. It’s a place to gather family and friends.”
Recipes are practically unheard of in Gullah culture. The barbecue is characterized by a distinct “taste” that’s interpreted by the cook’s taste buds. It’s “right when it’s right.”
“Try to obtain a recipe from Gullah cooks and you’re more likely to get a shopping list,” says the co-author of “The Ultimate Gullah Cookbook,” Veronica Davis Gerald. “When pressed for measurements, they will tell you that they cook ‘’ccordin’ ta taste.’” Flavor is a journey, rather than a destination.
“You gotta keep it simple,” says Solomon Williams, better known as the Carolina Rib King, who believes the rub makes the barbecue. “My big three are salt, pepper and sugar. That’s 50% of the recipe.”
And while traditional grill masters might place the emphasis on their equipment – the right grill, the right fuel or a pair of lucky tongs – this king believes equipment has little to do with it.
“You used what you had as a grill – dug a hole, old cement blocks. You could use an old refrigerator if you had one lyin’ around,” says Williams.
Chef Bill Green of Gullah Grub on St. Helena Island says to fully understand Gullah barbecue, you have to imagine growing up in a beautiful, sunny island community where everyone farmed, fished and raised their own livestock in a natural setting.
“Without access to mass transportation or expensive imports, Gullah families on St. Helena Island only ate local and in season. That’s what we do,” says Green.
Barbecue in traditional Gullah culture was a seasonal preparation, cooked mostly from November through February. A whole hog was cooked and shared with friends, family and neighbors because in the days before people had large iceboxes, it would have been difficult for one family to eat that much food before it spoiled. People shared what they cooked when they cooked it, and a day or two later, someone else would do the same thing. Barbecuing in the Gullah community was truly a community experience.
So what does a good plate of Gullah barbecue look like? According to Williams, sauce should be an afterthought, family should be the forefront and pork done so right you shouldn’t even need to put sauce on it.
“Put [the sauce] on the side. Good barbecue’s gotta be able to stand alone.”