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Rice Traditions of Gullah Cuisine

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Discover writers share all of the places, activities and adventure that South Carolina has to offer. Read more from some of South Carolina’s locals and discover what’s happening in the Palmetto State.
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Hands holding rice stems
For nearly 200 years, rice was South Carolina's most prized crop.

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.

 

Field-to-Table Meals

Small fanner basket sitting atop large fanner basket
Enslaved field workers wove flat, wide fanner baskets for dechaffing rice.

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. 

One-Pot Wonders

Hand spooning peas and rice from pot
One-pot rice and pea dishes like Hoppin' John are a Gullah staple.

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

Gullah people singing and clapping
Ann Caldwell and the Magnolia Singers help keep Gullah culture alive in the Lowcountry.

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

Shrimp, okra and meat on a bed of rice
A perlou of rice, seafood and okra is a signature Gullah dish.

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. 

Discover Writer
Discover Writer
More from "Discover Writer"
Discover writers share all of the places, activities and adventure that South Carolina has to offer. Read more from some of South Carolina’s locals and discover what’s happening in the Palmetto State.