Gullah Roots of Southern Cooking

Gullah Roots of Southern Cooking will be our  4th book in the Shrimp, Collards, and Grits Southern Lifestyle series.  We celebrate our 10th anniversary by shining a light on how our rich culinary heritage emerged as we tip our hat to beloved artist Ray Ellis who helped us get it all started in 2011. So pull up a front porch rocker, pour yourself a tall glass of ice tea, and get ready to read the untold stories of the Lowcountry and revel in some of the finest art and recipes ever created. Coastal Carolina is a place of endless fascination.

The painting featured on this post – Last Cotton Field by Diane Britton Dunham




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It has been several decades since I first arrived in Beaufort County and took up residence on Lady’s Island in a remote place called Pleasant Point Plantation, a golf community being built along 6 gorgeous miles of the intercoastal waterway. It was owned by several families in town. I decided I’d tell you about them.  In this book, I will let you know about old Beany Trask, who was no one’s friend, and our beloved friend Willie Scheper, who owned the People’s Bank on Bay Street. If you haven’t heard of the Yankee Tavern, you need to know. My encounter with the High Sheriff came early and I learned firsthand what Dr. Buzzard was all about.

Living so far from town, I learned how to freeze milk and just about everything else. It took about 45 minutes to drive to the Winn-Dixie, the only grocery store in Beaufort. I always had plenty of steaks and shrimp on hand because one of the members of our golf course was a shrimper and another was a restaurant owner.  One liked to pay his monthly dues in shrimp and the other paid in steak. Nothing wrong with that, so we purchased a big freezer and got ready for ’em. Jack Chapman was one of the best shrimpers in the state of South Carolina and pretty good with a set of clubs.

Arthur Barnwell House painting by Susan Pepe.

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It all came in handy for Sunday night gatherings at the plantation house after a day on the golf course. That’s when my new friends who were true Southern ladies brought a covered dish, not just any covered dish, but their finest. There was a certain pride that came with each dish and each one always had a good story.

Some things were standard fare like Georgia’s Shrimp Scampi, Nancy’s crab dip, and always delicious casseroles. Oh, and I have to mention Julie’s fried chicken –  she was the wife of a Marine Corps general and one of the finest cooks in Beaufort County. She lived next door and was my closest neighbor for many years. Well, we swapped stories and recipes each time they came. My friend Elodie who lived over on Brickyard Point could make a strawberry-rhubarb crisp worth fighting over. I saved every recipe never knowing someday I’d write books about them. It’s been fun to share them with all of you over the years.

My signature appetizer was always Wahoo Dip.  We brought Wahoo back from the Gulf Stream and always had plenty to share. Billy Hatfield was our boat captain from the Florida Keys and taught me everything I know about cooking fish. I’ll share that in a future post.

African- American art by Kevin Chadwick

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The Soul of Gullah Cuisine

But the real cooks on the island were the Gullah folks – my neighbors, my friends.  They were the ones who taught me to catch blue crab with a cane pole and a chicken neck, taught me to throw a cast net for shrimp, and catch fish as we dangled our feet from the dock on a hot July afternoon. And they were masterful storytellers; tales of their ancestors, their beliefs, and struggles.

Resourceful and proud are the words that come to mind when I think about them.  I  learned so much about the Gullah Roots of Southern Cooking from my close friend, Dora, who worked at the house.  Dora was Gullah through and through.  She knew how to shoot a raccoon out of a tree and skin it for Sunday supper. After all, she had lived off the land all of her life – no grocery stores where she grew up. When she got hungry and needed some lunch, it meant – head out to the river and bring back some blue crab. She had a garden full of collard greens, would slap ’em on her arm to get the sand out, bring ’em in and cook them in the biggest stock pot I ever saw.



Gullah Customs and Beliefs

Along with the tens of thousands of captured slaves from Sierra Leone who poured into the Lowcountry came their customs and beliefs.

I had always been a big city girl which made what I experienced here all the more intriguing. Witchcraft, voodoo and traditions, all came with them from West Africa.

Shortly after getting settled into our house on the bluff of the Beaufort River, I was sitting on the porch one night just watching the shadows of evening fall across the land. The sound of cicada-filled trees and the soft flow of the river as waves hit the shoreline was the only sound. Then, in the distance I began to hear drums beating rhythmically, the cadence drifting across the marsh on the gentle breeze created by the changing of the tide.

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The next day I decided to go out and discover what this might be all about. These sounds seemed to be coming from St.Helena Island. Driving down the dirt and gravel roads of this rural island off the Atlantic Coast, I passed small clusters of houses, many painted haint blue. Women sat on porches wearing head wraps and aprons and weaving baskets from seagrass. I passed by centuries-old graveyards, small white clapboard churches, and tin-roofed shacks. I later learned St. Helenas had been a point of entry for slaves brought here to work in the rice and cotton fields in the years before the Civil War. They brought their traditions with them along with their music and folklore.

                                              Drumbeats often kept evil spirits away especially when the moon was full and haints and ghosts roamed the land.

Along with these beliefs, they brought watermelon seeds, okra, peanuts, collard greens, benne seeds, sweet potatoes and so much more.  They came and cooked in the plantation kitchens throughout the Lowcountry, and taught landowners how to grow the rice that made Charleston the wealthiest city in the nation before the Civil War.

Gullah Cuisine

Gullah Red Rice derived from the West-African dish Jollof rice.  It has an intense tomato flavor but it’s not overly acidic thanks to the addition of a little sugar.  The addition of smoked pork sausage makes it a very robust side dish.

Gullah Red Rice

Both the enslaved and freed cooks from the Lowcountry, through their expertise, created the most authentic Southern cuisine still alive today.

Their one-pot dishes and the likes of long-cooked collard greens, rustic cornbread, hoecakes, pirlous, and gumbo have deep roots in black American culture, the original farm-to-table cooking – America’s first and most authentic cuisine. Throughout The Gullah Roots of Southern Cooking, we pay tribute to those who arrived on our shores so many years ago and brought some of the greatest traditions and cuisine still cherished today. We honor the chefs of today whose dishes reflect this great heritage. Throughout the book, we have updated some old recipes and given them a modern twist.

With Appreciation to our Artists

We are also proud to present the works of some of the greatest artists of our time. Below is the work of Paula Holtzclaw whose paintings will take your breath away.  And we are also truly honored to publish the works of Kevin Chadwick who paints the Gullah people with such emotion that one feels right there with them.  You don’t look at a Kevin Chadwick painting, you step into it. Even if you’ve lived in the Lowcountry for a lifetime, you’ll feel as though you are seeing it for the very first time.

PaulaHoltzclaw Banks Channel



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