The Gullah People: A Forgotten Face of Nuevo-Southern Cuisine | The Riveter Magazine
The Gullah People: A Forgotten Face of Nuevo-Southern Cuisine
How the Gullah people were forgotten, and what the culture’s “tastemakers” are doing to correct rectify past marginalization.
by Ashlie Stevens
A typical spread at Dye’s Gullah Fixin’s on Hilton Head Island, S.C., starts with the meat: country fried chicken or flounder or catfish. Add two sides: choose from macaroni and cheese, fresh collards, speckled butter beans, country red rice or candied sweet potatoes. Maybe add some shrimp and grits. If these entrees are too heavy, there are sandwiches, too — a fried green ‘matos BLT (“only served in season” from mid-summer into the fall), a crab burger, and a shrimp burger which, according to the menu, is made of “fresh hand picked local blue crabs, other thangs made into a patti, on a toasted bun wit lettuce, matos, tater on the side.”
Many foods that Americans think of as traditional Southern cuisine, like the aforementioned shrimp and grits or country red rice, actually derive, in part, from the Gullah people and their ancestral African cooking techniques; yet the Gullah are a people often forgotten in both history books and cookbooks — especially when compared to the widespread popularity of Creole and Cajun food and the well-known association of these foods with their creators —though they should be the face of nuevo-Southern cuisine.
Who are the Gullah exactly?
According to the New Georgia Encyclopedia, the Gullah people have influenced the culture of the islands along the southeastern U.S. coast since the mid-1700s:
“Modern-day researchers designate the region stretching from Sandy Island, South Carolina, to Amelia Island, Florida, as the Gullah Coast — the locale of the culture that built some of the richest plantations in the South. Many traditions of the Gullah and Geechee [people of the islands surrounding Georgia] culture were passed from one generation to the next through language, agriculture and spirituality. The culture has been linked to specific West African ethnic groups who were enslaved on island plantations to grow rice, indigo, and cotton starting in 1750, when antislavery laws ended in the Georgia colony.”
Even within the past few decades, for many growing up Gullah was a difficult process filled with racism and stereotyping. Veronica J. Davis, who is the author of the 2002 The Ultimate Gullah Cookbook, said that before scholars, linguists and even tourists paid serious attention to the Gullah, they were ridiculed as a group by both other African Americans as well as white Americans; dismissed for their singular style of speaking — what outsiders referred to as “their geechee talk” — and their cooking style, which was a hybrid of traditional African cuisine and Southern resources and necessity.
For example, according to the 2014 Deep South Magazine article “Shrimp and Grits: A History,” there are known writings from the Gullah that mention meals resembling shrimp and grits. “This is most likely because the Gullah slaves would periodically receive allowance or food, including grits. Making the most of their local resources on the coast, the Gullahs would catch shrimp and other fish in nets and cook them in a variety of ways, including with grits.”
“The more we were ridiculed, the more we tried to remove the tell-tale signs of language and strove to perfect the more coveted art of talking ‘propah,’” says Davis. “We embraced fast foods and were ashamed of those who spoke the language and maintained the old food ways. Our goal was to assimilate, blend in, hide our distinctions and move away from, not towards, our heritage.”
However, as the Gullah took a step back, Southern food was slowly moving toward a renaissance of sorts through the last ten years. What long had been thought of as regional cooking, lacking in refinement, has over the past few years established itself as veritable American cuisine, propelled by chefs who have reinvented old favorites with varying levels of finesse and pioneered the appreciation for each recipes’ inherent simplicity.
Yet many dismiss the contributions that African Americans made to get to this point. In a 2013 interview with PBS, Chef Joe Randall, a 50-year veteran of the food and hospitality industry, detailed how the service industry was something that was pretty much dominated by African Americans in the early years.
“Prior to 1977, chefs in America were considered domestic workers, then the U.S. Department of Labor reclassified them to professionals. Prior to 1977, most people [in the south] in the industry were African Americans. Considering food service as a whole — African Americans and Caribbean immigrants —that was the work that was left open, that was one of the doors that was open,” Randall said.
According to Randall, in 1964 when Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, one of the first things African-American leaders said was that we don’t have to work in your restaurants anymore.
“Parents sent their children [to college] to be somebody, not to do domestic work, with low wages, long hours, hard work,” he said. “It still is [hard work], we just happen to have a different face on it since it’s been reclassified and celebrity chefs have emerged. African Americans have been the backbone of the food service industry.”
And in turn, African Americans have been the backbone of the nuevo-Southern cuisine movement, yet remain a forgotten face in the process. However, Gullah chefs and historians are working to change that.
Celebrity chef, television personality and authority of Gullah tradition, Sallie Ann Robinson — perhaps known better as The Gullah Diva — is a sixth-generation native of Daufuskie Island, S.C. She’s renowned for her culinary expertise, entertaining presentations and knowledge of Gullah culture.
In 2003, when the University of North Carolina Press published Robinson’s first book, Gullah Home Cooking the Daufuskie Way, the New York Times Book Review praised it as “a fascinating cookbook,” bringing national attention to this regional cuisine. Then in 2012, Robinson was featured on Bizarre Foods with Andrew Zimmern, making her famous baked raccoon.
On the show though, before getting into the kitchen, Robinson walked with Zimmern through areas that are important to her and that showcase her heritage. She gave him a tour of the old church where families used to congregate and the schoolhouse for Gullah school children, both locations formerly popular for large family and church picnics among the Gullah, complete with baskets of fried chicken. Robinson is knowledgeable, effervescent and passionate about her background.
Finally, when she gets into the kitchen, Robinson begins preparations for baked raccoon, a dish that she grew up eating — and one that hasn’t made it yet onto trendy restaurant tables.
“Raccoon, it’s a wild game,” she explains “It is not a fatty meat, [it is] a very lean meat. It depends on how you cook raccoon, you will not taste the wild in it. When I cook raccoon, and I’ve cooked it for numerous people who have never had it, and they say it does not taste like a wild game meat. Some people soak and put it in vinegar, and I’m like, ‘Y’all are killing the meat!’ I use herbs. I use my basic thyme and garlic for wild game that really eliminates that wildness.”
After letting it simmer in a pot, Zimmern sticks his fork in the dark meat. “You see him smack [his lips],” Robinson says. He chews for a second: “Really interesting taste —- but really, really good.”
At that point, as he goes in for another bite, Robinson’s face spreads into this wide grin. Finally, a face for Gullah cuisine.