Have you ever heard the phrase, “Don’t eat anything your grandmother wouldn’t recognize”? The Gullah/Geechee of South Carolina most certainly understand its meaning, as they bring the recipes, culinary point of view and local ingredients of their ancestors into the 21st-century food scene.
In the 1700s, West Africans from countries like Sierra Leone, Guinea and Liberia were hand-picked and enslaved by plantation owners for their knowledge of rice cultivation in hot, humid climates like those of the Lowcountry and Sea Islands of South Carolina’s coast. Many years later, after emancipation and the construction of bridges to and from 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.
Now residents and visitors of the Palmetto State are embracing Gullah food culture more than ever, with restaurants from the mountains to the coast serving up Gullah classics like shrimp and grits, gumbo and Frogmore Stew. In fact, many of the dishes South Carolinians consider classic Southern favorites are actually derived from Gullah culture. Rice, for example — a Southern staple on its own or traditionally served with gumbo, gravy and stews — would’ve never survived in this area without the Gullah people’s expert cultivation techniques.
The South’s one-pot wonders are also thanks to Gullah culinary tradition. As the Gullah/Geechee worked on South Carolina plantations, they would stew whole vegetables in large pots and let them simmer all day long as they tended the fields. When they returned for supper, the vegetables would be tenderized and perfect for enjoying with homegrown rice and leftover meats from the master’s table. The Gullah cooks are the originators of South Carolina’s farm-to-table movement, and using the same local, seasonal ingredients and cooking techniques of their ancestors, the new generation of the Gullah/Geechee are propelling the time-honored dishes of their storied past into the mainstream.