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The Little-Known Food Culture That Shaped Southern Cooking Today

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Gullah cuisine, South Carolina's crowning gem.
Gullah cuisine, South Carolina's crowning gem. Photo by Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce

The checks they cash on Hilton Head Island are deep-fried and smothered in gravy. Nearly three million people visit the summer vacation hotspot every year, filling up the area’s 250-plus restaurants. It’s not surprising that tourism is a major engine in South Carolina’s economy, pouring in over 21 billion dollars. The food industry accounts for nearly half of that.

But lost in the sauce of this resonant movement is the coastal cuisine of the Gullah (aka Gullah Geechee) people, descendants of those brought to America during the Transatlantic Slave Trade from western and southwestern Africa, including Sierra Leone, Senegal, and Angola. (Many historians believe the name “Gullah” is derived from a mispronunciation of Angola.) Prized for their proficiency in farming, Gullahs worked coastal plantations ranging from South Carolina and Georgia to Jacksonville, Florida. They farmed lima beans, okra, and tomatoes. They raised pigs and incorporated oysters, turtles, and shrimp into their cuisine. And they cultivated rice like their lives damn well depended on it.

When the Civil War ended, they entrenched themselves into their secluded areas away from the mainland. Here they created their own world—a hybridized culture consisting of mixed African traditions and American ingredients. Set off in their own timeline, isolated geographically and culturally, the Gullah people were but one thread in an entirely separate lineage of people disconnected from the rest of the country, even from other Southern black communities.

Long revered, Hilton Head’s famed cooking style exists as a testament to the Gullahs’ pronounced ingenuity. And it’s this specific Creolized culture that defines much of Southern cooking today.

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Now, to be clear: Gullah cuisine doesn’t exist as some separate branch of soul food. Staples like macaroni and cheese, fried chicken, and sweet potato pie are found in Gullah food as well. The biggest difference lies in their nuanced relationship with seasonings. Knowing how much and when exactly to add garlic salt to a dish takes an experienced hand, as does pairing paprika with cinnamon, and the like. These unique skills and techniques are dominant in dishes like frogmore stew and okra soup. There’s also a lot of love for benne seed wafers, a cookie-like snack made from sesame seeds.

It may surprise you, then, that finding Gullah cuisine in Hilton Head can be difficult, if not completely impossible.

“In the area I can’t even think of three places. There are other restaurants that sell soul food, but they aren’t built with the Gullah traditions,” says Tim Singleton, owner of local favorite Ruby Lee’s. “The restaurant is named after my grandmother, and she was an outstanding cook. Her family had a Gullah background from Estill (a northwestern South Carolina town closer to the Georgia border), and she told us about all the stories. There has been a lack of appreciation for Gullah cuisines. Our traditions were forgotten about. There are families that have been here for hundreds of years. This is a destination, monetarily speaking, sure, but also historically and from a cultural perspective as well, it’s special.”

Here they sell, as Singleton puts it, a “toned-down” version of Gullah cuisine. Ruby Lee’s claim to fame as one of the few places serving this food is a striking realization. We’re talking Hilton Head and places like St. Helena Island, Beaufort, and even Charleston.

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In areas like Mt. Pleasant, you may smell catfish emanating from home kitchens, but good luck trying to find it in a restaurant. Sure, there are some cooks familiar with Gullah practices, and you might find Hoppin' John at that new spot where the server brags about how the chef studied these recipes. But will this place serve Hoppin' John like it’s supposed to taste? Is it going to have enough black-eyed peas in it? Did they use a yellow onion? It’s hard to tell. Much of Gullah cuisine is based in rooted practice, not in learned culinary training.

One of Singleton’s cooks, Laverne Bolden, is a charming woman with fifty years of Gullah recipes under her belt. She makes everything at the restaurant, but beamed when she spoke about her rice making skills.

“Oh yes, I make rice to go with stewed chicken a lot,” she explained. “Of course I make red rice and all kinds of rice. The secret is: You have to time it perfectly.”

We've all had rice before, but here the rice is gold, and requires care and precision to make it correctly. Each grain must separate individually on your fork, and must have flavor. Simply salting the water isn’t enough—you have to put enough seasoning in there to turn the water into a different color entirely.

“When my kids were young I told them to get in here and learn about this rice,” Bolden continued. “People just don’t have the time anymore. Now they’re adults and call me and ask how to prepare certain things, but growing up they didn’t care to learn.”

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Rice was a cash crop during the antebellum years. Due to the similarities between the Lowcountry and West African climates (subtropical, humid, and wet), harvesting and making rice was something easily adaptable. In the subsequent years, it went on to serve as a foundational ingredient for the entire South. You see it on many Southern menus: The Gullah people’s cultivation of rice, historically, has created a bedrock for South Carolina’s food system at large, one that heavily relies on rice.

“Many scholars have written about how women who came from rice producing regions in West Africa were central to the success of the industry,” says Melissa L. Cooper, a history professor at Rutgers University and author of Making Gullah: A History of Sapelo Islanders, Race, and the American Imagination. “There are lots of stories we can tell about rice that have to do with the survival of African intellectual systems in terms of rice production. Because the Lowcountry was a central place for this production, it became an important part of the food culture and was essential in helping white people understand how to turn rice into something that can be eaten.”

Mention Gullah culture to people, and most will flatly admit that they’ve never heard of it. As an island, literally and figuratively, it has stayed mostly decoupled from the rest of the country. ’90s cult classic Daughters of the Dust is one of the few movies centered on this rich culture. In 2004, the movie was placed by the Library of Congress into the National Film Registry (and was heavily referenced by Beyoncé in Lemonade, her Grammy Award–winning “visual album”). But other than a few documentaries and a pop star’s magnum opus, nothing truly Gullah has ever broken through in a significant way.

It’s worth mentioning that gentrification may be a contributing factor here. Hilton Head, once a snake-infested swamp, is now home to multi-million dollar beachfront properties. Some Gullah folk sold their properties willingly, while others may have been victims of shady maneuverings. As of today, some estimates put the number of Gullahs at under 100,000, roughly half of what they were just a couple of generations ago.

Photo by Hilton Head Island-Bluffton Chamber of Commerce

Historians Michael Smalls and Dino Badger are working hard to make sure the culture has a future. Working in conjunction with Hilton Head’s Coastal Discovery Museum, they hold weekly presentations on how to create traditional Gullah baskets. These baskets are created using the same techniques and materials used by their forefathers for transporting rice and even water (some of their baskets are on display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African-American History & Culture). It’s not a perfect vehicle for teaching, but it’s what they have.

“Gullah history isn’t taught in public schools, so we go in and teach on special occasions,” Smalls explains. “Usually February or March, around Black History Month, and kids gravitate then because it’s a learning setting. We do it in the community as well. There are only maybe 150 to 200 people still making these baskets. Used to be a lot more. Our ancestors did it for income, but we use it as a teaching tool. It’s necessary that we keep doing this. Gullah culture has to survive.”

Tags: Long Reads, Culture, Black History