Have you ever heard the phrase, "Don't eat anything your grandmother wouldn't recognize"? The Gullah people of South Carolina most certainly understand its meaning. Descended from enslaved West Africans who possessed impressive knowledge of rice cultivation, they are the keepers of their ancestors' most time-honored recipes – one-pot meals made with rice and seasonal, locally grown ingredients. Farm-to-table was not just a movement for them. It was a way of life.
The enslaved forebears of the Gullah who toiled on South Carolina plantations were an industrious people. Before heading to the fields, they would fill large pots with vegetables and set them to a low simmer. At day's end, the tender vegetables were mixed with meat scraps from the master's table and spooned over hot cooked rice. To prepare the rice for cooking, the grain was separated from the chaff by tossing or "winnowing" it into the air from fanner baskets handwoven from sweetgrass – another African tradition.
South Carolina was a major exporter of rice for nearly two centuries. But war, hurricanes and emancipation spelled the end of the rice industry in the late 1800s. The freed slaves settled on the Sea Islands and in the Lowcountry where they grew rice for their own sustenance. Red rice, crab rice, okra with rice and Hoppin' John, a seasoned rice and field pea dish, were among the one-pot mainstays of their dining tables.
Spreading Gullah Culture
With the construction of bridges that connected the sea islands to the mainland, the customs of the Gullah people spread throughout the area and their spiritual, musical and culinary traditions eventually became part of South Carolina's cultural identity. Many familiar old spirituals and Southern cooking techniques were derived from Gullah customs. In fact, the spiritual is the offical state music of South Carolina.
Preserving Gullah Foodways
Now, residents and visitors to the Palmetto State are embracing Gullah food culture more than ever, with restaurants from the mountains to the coast serving up classics like shrimp and grits, Frogmore stew (a boil of shrimp, sausage, corn and potatoes) and perlou (a seasoned meat and rice dish). Using the same local, seasonal ingredients and cooking techniques of their ancestors, the new generation of the Gullah are propelling the time-honored dishes of their storied past into the mainstream.