The Gullah Geechee phrase “bress 'n' nyam,” means “bless and eat,” which could not be a more fitting title for Matthew Raiford’s new cookbook. Raiford, who refers to himself as a “CheFarmer,” as both cooking and farming are equally integral to his lifestyle, calls this book his “origin story.” Weaving together his family history through heirloom recipes, Bress ‘n’ Nyam is a true farm-to-table cookbook in the Gullah Geechee tradition, highlighting local produce, grains, meat, and seafood. The recipes in Bress ‘n’ Nyam are organized, as Raiford writes, “according to their elemental beginnings: earth, water, fire, wind, nectar, and spirits.” The following is an excerpt from the “Eart/Earth” chapter.
When I returned to Gilliard Farms in 2011, I was full of ambition. I had been to Hyde Park! I had studied sustainable food systems in California! I wanted to recreate rice fields in two depressions beneath a canopy of oaks and seed them with the robust heirloom grains once cultivated by my great-great-great-grandfather Jupiter. I envisioned bountiful rows of tomatoes, squash, corn, peppers, peas, sweet potatoes, and watermelons.
Nana watched as I tilled that fallow, silty soil in preparation for late spring plantings. Up popped nutsedge—the most unforgiving weed—then scarlet runner and coffeeweed. All those seeds raised from the soil to feed off the sun and rain after years of lying dormant in the earth. They went wild!
Then I planted fruit trees, thinking I’d revive the orchards. I toured Nana through all of my back- breaking work.
Leaning on the broken broomstick she used as a cane, she pointed to one tree, “W’at dat is?” “Apple,” I said. And it went on like that row by row. Every time I answered, she raised a brow. When we got to the fig sapling, she said, “Tell me when that come in.”
Every tree, except the fig, died, and I thought, Nana done put a hex on things. Really, it was me not knowing what I didn’t know. She would tease me that I had gone and got a degree in everything she had already taught me.
That’s when Nana gave me the keys to the kingdom, pulling out old letters, dating as far back as the 1940s and stashed away in boxes, that detailed what was planted and when. What worked. What didn’t. The weather. Together, these letters and Nana’s advice are my lodestar.
Now we grow ginger and turmeric—some of the original crops cultivated by General James Oglethorpe in 1733 at the Trustees’ Garden in Savannah, Georgia, the first city in the state. We have hibiscus for teas and shrubs, and we have Sea Island Red Peas for Reezy-Peezy and fritters. We’ve harvested tomatoes for jams and pizzas, and strawberries for ice cream. Soon there will be greens to stew and ladle atop grits, and we’ll have herbs for tinctures, kombucha, and spice blends to season our dishes, instead of salt.
And that little fig tree? Despite an overzealous mower that cut it down in its youth, it’s growing again, soon to bear fruit.
Excerpted from Bress ‘n’ Nyam: Gullah Geechee Recipes from a Sixth-Generation Farmer. Copyright © 2021 CheFarmer Matthew Raiford and Amy Paige Condon. Photography © 2021 by Siobhán Egan. Reproduced by permission of The Countryman Press, a Division of W.W. Norton & Company. All rights reserved.