History of Gullah Geechee Southern Cuisine
My family culinary roots are deeply embedded in Southern food and creole cuisine – more specifically, creole Gullah cuisine. I'm always preparing Gullah-Geechee recipes. Most people associate the term “Creole” only with Louisiana, but there was another important group in the southern U.S. who spoke a creole language. They inhabited the islands and coastal areas of northern Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, and southernmost North Carolina.
What is a "creole"? According to the dictionary, there are several definitions. One entry defines the word this way:
"A black slave born in the Americas as opposed to one brought from Africa."
"Creole" is also a language. Encyclopedia Britannica describes "creole language" as:
"Any pidgin language that has become established as the native language of a speech community. A creole usually arises when speakers of one language become economically or politically dominant over speakers of another. A simplified or modified form of the dominant group's language (pidgin), used for communication between the two groups, may eventually become the native language of the less-powerful community. Examples include Gullah (derived from English), spoken in the Sea Islands of the southeastern U.S...."
This particular group of people, the Gullahs, began with Africans who were brought to America as slaves in the mid-1700s. Their language and most of their customs, traditions, and culture were heavily influenced by those of West and Central Africa, along with the West Indies. When these slaves were first brought to the U.S. coastal South, many Native Americans still occupied the region, so they also had an influence on the Gullahs, especially in the area of culinary arts. From the Native American presence, the Gullahs learned to cook dishes made of corn and cornmeal and to gather and use sassafras leaves.
The name "Gullah" probably originated from Gola, an ethnic group living near the borders of Liberia and Sierra Leone in West Africa, where many of the Gullahs' ancestors had lived.
Charleston and Savannah
Charleston and Savannah were two of the most important ports in North America for the slave trade. Some slaves were brought directly from Africa to one of these ports, while others came by way of the Caribbean or Brazil. The slaves who came from rice-growing regions in Africa were eagerly purchased for the rice plantations of Georgia and South Carolina because of their experience and knowledge.
Slaves from Africa's "Rice Coast" were experts at cultivating rice. In fact, the slaves were much more knowledgeable about rice growing than their masters were. Remarkably, many of the Gullah ancestors shared their knowledge willingly with their oppressors. The rice plantation owners became wealthy with the help, sweat, and suffering of the black slaves.
My great-great grandparents, the Hollemans (for whom I'm named - my middle name is Holleman; Holle for short), owned such a plantation in the Low County of South Carolina, along with many slaves. This isn’t something I’m proud of, but it is part of my family history. My great-great-grandmother Jane had a Gullah house servant who served as a cook, and my grandmother used to tell me stories about this cook and all the wonderful foods she prepared, which she had learned about from her mother. Needless to say, my grandmother’s childhood stories had an impact on her culinary skills, which have been passed down through our family.
My great-grandmother and my grandmother spent much of their lives in Charleston and Savannah. Both cities were heavily influenced by the local slave culture, which is generally referred to as “Gullah” or “Gullah Gullah” in South Carolina and “Geechee” in Georgia, named after the Ogeechee River near Savannah. To avoid confusion, I’ll try to stick to the term “Gullah.”
I recently found my great-grandmother’s collection of recipes, and I was overjoyed to find many Gullah dishes among them. I’ve spent countless hours pouring over the colorfully named dishes, and I’ve prepared many of them. The recipes, along with the stories my grandmother had shared, piqued my interest in the Gullah culture, so I began researching extensively.
A Note to Readers
I never intended for this article to be so long, but once I got started, I couldn't seem to stop. Every time I researched a part of this puzzle, I found something else that interested me, leading to further exploration. I ended up reading numerous first-person narratives told by the slaves themselves, which really made history come alive. I also made phone calls to people on the Georgia coast who were knowledgeable about the Gullah-Geechee culture. I phoned relatives and poured over my family history, too.
Grammatically, this was a difficult article to write. In several instances, I had a hard time deciding between past and present tense. Since I’m trying to explain the history of the Gullahs and their cuisine, I often use the past tense. Remember, however, that this rich culture still exists, and most of the same cooking techniques and foods can still be found in the South. Many have come down to us as “Low Country” cuisine, or as “soul food.”
Maintaining the Culture
Unlike most other groups of slaves, the Gullah people were somewhat isolated. For the most part, they lived on remote sea islands, where few whites ventured.
This separation from European settlers became even more pronounced when malaria and yellow fever ran rampant through the coastal regions. Black slaves had some natural immunity from the diseases, but whites did not. As a result, many plantation owners moved inland during the rainy season to avoid the onslaught of disease-carrying mosquitoes. The fields and the running of the plantations were left in the hands of the Gullah “rice drivers.”
Because many groups of the Gullahs were left alone for long periods of time, without direct influence from whites, there was a powerful sense of family and community, and sharing food and meals with others was prevalent. Their distinctive culture flourished, with their language, folklore, farming practices, cooking techniques, and traditions being handed down from generation to generation, largely unchanged.
Learn more about the first Gullahs:
When the U.S. Civil War broke out, most of the coastal plantation owners fled their sprawling farms, and once again, the Gullahs were left to themselves - until a few Quaker missionaries from Pennsylvania came to the area to educate the slaves. The Gullahs were among the first slaves in the South to experience their freedom, and the missionaries built a school on South Carolina's St. Helena Island, the first in the nation for newly freed slaves.
Because of the war, labor issues, and devastating hurricanes, most of the coastal plantations remained abandoned by their owners. The former slaves, however, remained behind, cut off from the outside world more than ever. Most of the plantations were divided and sold to the former slaves. Since some of the islands inhabited by the Gullahs were without bridges until the 1930s, the culture flourished untouched for decades.
In general, the Gullahs handled emancipation better than most inland slaves. They were used to being left unsupervised and depending on each other, and they were adept at taking care of themselves and their close-knit community.
Instead of the outside world's influencing the Gullahs, the Gullahs had a major impact on Southern cuisine - and not just on the custom of eating rice. I didn't realize just how many of the dishes I cook, along with those prepared by my mother, grandmother, and great-grandmother before me, are steeped in Gullah tradition until I was deep in my research.
The early Gullahs were masters of survival. They made good use of whatever foods were available, and they invented creative ways to cook and season dishes. If they lacked an ingredient for a dish, they substituted it with something else.
Recipes were, and still are, practically unheard of among authentic Gullahs. Each dish was very personal – the cook added his or her own individual preferences. Even today, if you chat with one of the lovely Gullah women you might see weaving a basket of sweetgrass in the Charleston market and ask her for a recipe, she’ll probably share ingredients with you. If you press her for exact amounts, however, she’ll likely respond with something like, “ ‘Cordin’ to taste.”
The original Gullah slaves each received an allowance of food periodically from the plantation. This usually included rice, cornmeal, flour, salt meat or fish, molasses, peas, grits, butter, buttermilk, and sweet potatoes. At specific times of the year, other foods were added.
Unlike the “gang” labor on other plantations, where slaves worked from dawn until dusk, most of the sea island plantations used a task system. Each slave was assigned a duty to complete every day, and once the job was done, the slave was free to pursue other activities. Most spent this time hunting, fishing, working in their own garden plots, or tending their own livestock. There were exceptions, however. Some of the sea island plantation owners worked their slaves all day and gave them little food. As a result, a few of the Gullahs almost starved to death. Fortunately, this was rare.
Because of all the foods available for most of the sea island slaves, Gullah cuisine was rich and varied. Many of the dishes were cooked in one big pot. Meat, poultry, or fish were often cooked together with vegetables, peppers, legumes, and rice or potatoes. The original Gullahs had few items of cookware, so big iron kettles were used to their full advantage. Some foods, especially sweet potatoes and white potatoes, were often cooked in the ashes of a fire. Meats, fish, game, and poultry were also smoked or cooked over an open flame.
Cooking and sharing food meant much more to the Gullahs than simply supplying the body with sustenance. It was often almost ritualistic in nature, feeding the soul as well as the body. As the Gullahs themselves describe their cuisine, it’s “food that speaks to ya.”
The French Connection
Like the Louisiana Creoles, the Gullahs were influenced by the French, albeit to a much lesser degree. In the late 1600s, Huguenots from France and Acadians from Nova Scotia began settling along the southeastern coast from northern Florida to North Carolina - the same areas that would be occupied by the Gullah people.
The French settlers undoubtedly had an influence on white European plantation owners. After the importation of slaves, cooking duties in the manors were assigned to the Gullahs, who followed orders from the mistress of the house, including her recipes. Needless to say, some of the French-inspired cuisine and culinary terms made their way into Gullah cooking. One example of this is "Huguenot torte," the most famous dessert of the Low Country. Another example is etouffe.
What Gullah cooking is all about:
The Importance of Rice
Rice was the most important staple for the original Gullah slaves. My mom told me that the first thing my great-grandmother did when she entered her kitchen to cook a meal was to put on a big pot of rice – evidence of the Gullah influence on Charlestonians and other inhabitants of the Low Country. Rice was usually eaten every day, sometimes even for breakfast, where it was often served with milk, raisins, and sweeteners like honey, cane syrup, or molasses.
At dinner and supper, other foods were usually spooned over a plate of rice or mixed with rice, as in red beans and rice or peas and rice. Rice was also made into bread and into a dessert, in the form of rice pudding.
How to make rice pudding:
Sweet Potatoes and White Potatoes
Sweet potatoes, often called “yams,” were another important crop of the Gullahs. Yams, which are actually a little different than sweet potatoes, had been a staple crop in Africa for over a thousand years prior to the slave trade. The Gullahs had no problem substituting sweet potatoes for their familiar yams, and they even began to use the names for the tubers interchangeably.
The sweet potatoes grew well in the long hot summers, and after they matured, they were “cured” for 10-14 days at high humidity and temperatures ranging from 80-85 degrees – perfect for Southern coastal summers. The curing process gave the tubers time for their starches to turn to sugar.
After curing, the sweet potatoes were usually placed in burlap bags and stored in barns, sheds, or closets. If cured properly, the potatoes would keep until May, and by that time, several other garden vegetables would be ready to harvest.
White potatoes were dug in the early summer and could be stored by packing them in dry rice or sand – both of which the Gullahs usually had a plentiful supply.
Both types of tubers were added to soups and stews or baked in the ashes of the fire. Sweet potatoes were made into pones, fufu, and pies.
Make a homemade sweet potato pie:
Because the Gullahs lived along the coast and on barrier islands, seafood was plentiful and made up a large part of the diet. Dishes were often created from fish, shrimp, crab, mussels, clams, turtles, and oysters, and nothing was wasted. For example, a stew was made from the fish heads that were left over after the day’s catch had been cleaned.
Finned fishes inshore and near shore were available year round. Some of the species caught and eaten included flounder, redfish, weakfish, black drum, whiting, spots, sea trout, pompano, spadefish, sheepshead, bluefish, catfish, shark, and Spanish mackerel. In the fall months, mullet were caught at night with large nets, and in the early spring, shad were thick in the rivers. Most fresh fish were dredged in cornmeal and fried in hog lard; sometimes they were soaked in buttermilk first. Many species of fishes were salted down or smoked to preserve them. Eels, alligators, and turtle eggs were also consumed.
Crabs were usually caught in traps or lifted from the water with a dip net after being lured by a chicken neck tied to a string. The crabs were boiled, and the meat was "picked" and made into dishes like crab cakes, stews, and soups.
Fish were netted with cast nets woven in a West African pattern. Homemade poles and hooks were also used for finned fishes, but the Gullahs were artists with cast nets, and they could catch fish much more quickly in this manner, without having to use bait.
Cast nets with a small mesh were used to catch shrimp. The shrimp were eaten fried, boiled with corn and potatoes, or cooked with rice or grits.
Clams were dug from the shallows of coastal rivers and along the beaches. Oysters were “picked” at low tide from the numerous beds and were usually eaten only in the cooler months. The clams and oysters were usually dredged in cornmeal and fried in fat, made into a stew, or roasted in the shell over a fire. Oyster and clam shells were often cleaned and used as spoons.
Shrimp, clams, crabs, and mussels were sometimes boiled in a big pot with corn, potatoes, sausage, and spices, and the concoction was referred to as “Frogmore stew.” Today, a very similar dish is called “Low Country boil.”
Watch how a cast net is used to catch sheepshead:
How fish are caught with a cast net:
Most plantation Gullahs fished, trapped, or hunted in their spare time to supplement the family’s diet. The local woods held rabbits, wild turkeys, squirrels, opossums, raccoons, quail, doves, woodcock, and the occasional deer, while the marshes and wetlands were sources for ducks, geese, and other waterfowl. Some slaves were allowed to borrow firearms from the "big house," and a few marksmen owned their own guns as part of their job procuring game for the plantation. Gullahs who didn't have guns set snares and other kinds of traps.
Rabbits, squirrels, woodcock, dove, and quail were usually fried or cooked on a spit over the fire, while raccoons, ducks, and geese were usually baked or barbecued. To learn to fry quail, watch the video below.
Opossums were often trapped alive and kept penned for several weeks, during which time they were fed a diet of corn and clean water. Opossums are scavengers and largely survive from carrion in the wild, so feeding them corn vastly improves the taste of the meat. Dressed opossums were often baked with sweet potatoes.
Deer were butchered much the same as cattle and hogs. The loins were usually batter-fried and served with gravy, while the shoulders and hams were usually baked or smoked.
In the winter months, the woodland animals had thick coats, which were fairly valuable when cured. Even the meat of animals trapped for their fur was not wasted. Several accounts tell of the Gullahs' eating fox meat.
The Gullah males were proficient hunters and trappers, often trading surplus game and furs to plantation owners and other whites for molasses, sugar, flour, or other food items.
How to fry quail:
Much of the pork the Gullahs procured were the leftovers from pigs the plantation owners had slaughtered. These consisted largely of the feet, ears, liver, stomach, jowls, spare ribs, and the intestines, which are called “chitterlings,” or “chitlins.” The feet were often brined or pickled, and intestines were cleaned, stripped, and boiled or fried. Hog killing was usually done in the late fall or winter, when the weather was cold enough to prevent spoilage.
Some of the Gullah people had a few hogs of their own. The animals were cheap to feed, as they were able to turn food scraps, acorns, roots, and garden refuse into high-protein meat. Much of the pork was cured. Hams, shoulders, and hocks were salted down and smoked over a slow fire in smokehouses. Bacon was made from cured pig bellies and side meat. Salt-cured pork would keep a long time without refrigeration.
The neckbones, pork chops, and ribs were usually eaten fresh. Neckbones and rice was a popular dish, as was smothered pork chops. Ribs were grilled over a fire or dredged in flour and fried in a skillet.
The scraps from the hog carcasses were usually chopped finely or ground, mixed with spices, and stuffed into pig intestines for sausage. Most of the sausages were smoked, but some were eaten fresh.
Pigs had another important role, too. Lard was rendered from their fat and was an important ingredient for frying and baking.
The Old-Fashioned Method for Curing Fresh Pork:
Many of the early Gullahs kept chickens. They were cheap to feed and were a constant source of eggs and meat. The birds would be ready to eat in less than three months after hatching. The females were often kept for laying eggs, while most of the young cockerels were grilled, baked, or fried. The practice of deep-frying chicken parts in hot oil was prevalent in West Africa, so this was nothing new for the Gullahs. The chicken feet were usually boiled with rice.
A hen might lay as many as 300 eggs a year. Once her egg production sharply decreased, after the age of about 12-18 months, the hen was slaughtered and eaten. Since the meat was tougher than that of a young chicken, the "spent layers" were often stewed, slow-cooked, or used in soups.
Below is a Geechee-Gullah recipe for chicken and rice soup:
Chicken and rice soup:
Fresh Summer Vegetables
With the long growing seasons in coastal Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina, summer crops were readily available for several months. Yellow squash, tomatoes, butter beans, eggplant, green beans, peppers, and okra were popular in Gullah Gullah cuisine.
Summer squashes were often stewed with onions, while tomatoes were eaten raw, made into sauces, and cooked in stews and soups. Fresh beans were usually boiled with ham hocks, while eggplant was baked, fried, or stewed. Green tomatoes were sometimes sliced, battered with cornmeal, and fried in hot lard. Peppers added flavor to a wide variety of dishes.
Okra was one of the most important foods in the Gullah culinary culture. The West African name for okra is okingumbo, from which the popular dish "gumbo" gets its name. Some of the most popular okra dishes, in addition to gumbo, were fried okra, okra and tomatoes, and okra soup. Okra was also used as a thickening agent.
How to make fried okra:
Cool Weather Crops
Because of the South’s mild climate, several vegetables can be planted for spring and fall harvests. The most popular cool weather crops with the Gullahs were cabbage, onions, garden peas, carrots, celery, and different types of lettuces and greens.
Cabbage and green onions were often grown through the winter because they can withstand temperatures as low as 20 degrees, and in much of Gullah country, the temperature rarely dropped that low. Collards, mustard greens, and turnips, which were used for their roots as well as for their greens, will survive a light frost, so they were also popular fall crops.
Peas and carrots were often boiled together, and onions and celery were used to season a wide range of dishes. Greens and cabbage were seasoned with bacon grease or bits of cured pork and boiled in a large pot.
How to prepare and cook collard greens:
Dry beans had been grown in Africa for hundreds of years before the first slave was forced onto a ship. Undoubtedly, the Gullahs already knew how to grow, store, and cook dried beans before they arrived in the New World.
According to my great-grandmother, many of the produce farmers and plantation owners would share their bounty with the local Gullahs. After beans had been harvested, those missed by the gleaners were left on the vines to mature and dry. The Gullahs and poor whites would be allowed to gather the dried beans, which could be successfully stored for months without need of refrigeration.
The legumes gave the Gullahs a protein source when meat was scarce. Lima beans were a favorite, and they were often cooked for hours in a wash pot outdoors while the women were doing their weekly laundry. The limas were flavored with chunks of cured pork, onions, and peppers, then cooked down until the starches in the beans made a thick gravy.
Other types of dried beans were often cooked with rice. The mixture was seasoned with sausage, ham, peppers, herbs, and spices, according to the cook’s personal preferences.
Peanuts were another legume that figured prominently in Gullah cuisine, as they had been grown in West Africa and were a favorite with the Gullah people. The food had been introduced to Africa in the 1500s by Portuguese traders. Peanuts were often boiled in large pots over the fire or made into a paste and mixed with chicken stock and tomatoes to create a sauce.
How to make boiled peanuts:
Although flour was available, it wasn’t usually locally grown, so most of the breads were made from cornmeal – dried corn that had been ground or chopped into a coarse powder. This could be done manually, but most often the corn was taken to a grist mill for processing. Many large plantations had their own grist mill.
Cornmeal was turned into cornmeal mush, muffins, corn pones, and cornbread. The cornbread could be baked in an iron skillet or fried by spoonfuls. Sometimes leftover cornbread was mixed with chicken stock, onions, and celery for "dressing." Another popular dish was crackling bread – cornbread that contained bits of pig skin and fat from rendering lard.
Grits were another important staple. Corn was dried, soaked in lye, and rinsed to make hominy. The hominy was then dried and ground into grits. Grits were eaten for breakfast and often accompanied shrimp or fish at other meals. This practice is still common in the Deep South.
Flour was usually reserved for biscuits, pie crusts, cobblers, and dumplings.
Fresh corn was often boiled on the cob. Sometimes the niblets were scraped from the cob and made into fritters or added to stews.
How corn was turned into meal:
Locally grown fruits included watermelons, figs, pears, grapes, scuppernongs, cantaloupes, and peaches. Sometimes apples were purchased from inland orchards. In the woods, wild fruits could be found in the summer. These included blackberries, “hog” plums, persimmons, and blueberries. Muscadine grapes also grew wild and were often referred to as “bullis grapes” or “swamp grapes.”
The favorite among the fresh fruits with the Gullahs was the watermelon. Watermelons had been grown in Africa for almost 4,000 years, so they were familiar to the slaves.
Mayhaws, small fruits that grew along creeks and in marshy areas, were picked in May and made into jelly.
The peaches, blackberries, pears, apples, and blueberries were often baked into pies and cobblers, and sometimes the grapes were dried into raisins. Even the skins of the grapes were saved and made into pies.
As mentioned earlier, nothing was wasted. After the flesh of a watermelon was eaten, the rind was turned into preserves or pickles. See the pickling process below:
How to make watermelon rind pickles:
Most plantations had their own "milk cows," so fresh milk and buttermilk were available in the winter but spoiled quickly in the warmer months. Any type of cheese was pretty rare. The most common dairy product was clabber, which was often eaten with breakfast, sweetened with molasses and flavored with nutmeg.
To make butter, the cream was skimmed from the top of a pail of milk and allowed to clabber. The clabber was then placed in a wooden or pottery churn and agitated with a "dasher" attached to a wooden handle. Slave children were often assigned this tedious task, and they would usually sing or chant to maintain a rhythm for churning. Butter would slowly accumulate into flecks. The mixture in the churn was then strained, and the solids were creamed together as butter, while the remaining liquid was referred to as "buttermilk."
It was extremely rare for a slave to own cattle. Unlike pigs, cows are expensive to feed and are slow to mature. Also, they require a large amount of grazing land, which of course, the original Gullahs lacked.
Many plantations raised beef cattle, but the meat was largely reserved for the plantation owner and his family, or the live animals were sold to the beef market. Typically, when a steer was butchered, the only parts that might go to the slaves were the tongue and the tail, which was referred to as "oxtail."
The tongue was often smoked or boiled, and oxtails were usually sliced into small segments. Because they're tough, bony, and cartilagenous, they were usually braised or stewed for several hours in order to make them palatable. Sometimes they were made into a soup with rice, vegetables, and/or potatoes.
If you'd like to make your own oxtail stew, follow the instructions in the following video:
How to make oxtail stew:
By far, the most common drink was water, which was sometimes sweetened with sugar, molasses, or honey. Sometimes a drink was made by adding roasted okra to water, along with a sweetener.
A few generous plantation owners might include a little coffee in the slave rations, but this was fairly rare.
On special occasions, especially Christmas, the plantation owner might dispense small amounts of rum, whiskey, or wine to the slaves.
Sassafras, which has a rootbeer-like flavor, could be found growing in the woods and was a popular ingredient for making teas. Both the roots and leaves of the wild plants were used.
How sassafras was harvested and used:
The Culinary Trinity
The Gullahs, like the Louisiana Creoles, held the “holy trinity” of cooking in high esteem. This trio consists of onion, celery, and bell pepper. Any color of bell pepper can be used, but green and red were the most common among the Gullahs.
The culinary trinity was used to season many dishes, giving food a distinctive Creole taste.
Seasonings and Sweeteners
The Gullahs used a wide range of herbs, spices, and other seasonings, in addition to the ever-present trinity. Among the most popular were sesame seeds, nutmeg, basil, savory, thyme, parsley, cayenne, garlic, and black pepper.
Another important seasoning was learned from Native Americans: file powder. To make file, sassafras leaves were dried and ground. In addition to adding flavor, file was also used to thicken soups, stews, and sauces.
Hot peppers were used widely to give foods a “bite.”
Many of the slaves produced their own salt from boiling down seawater. Salt was also usually included in the monthly food allowances from the plantation masters, but it was often in short supply.
Also included in the usual food allowances were sugar, molasses, and honey. Industrious Gullahs might find more honey from wild hives in nearby woods.
In the fall, cane syrup was made. Stalks of sugar cane were fed into a mule-powered "grinder" that squeezed the juice from the cane. The juice was then boiled down into a syrup.
To see the process, watch this old home movie:
A cane grinding on the Georgia coast:
Gullah Cooking-Related Terms
Aig - egg
Aipun - apron
Ash cake – cornbread wrapped in a damp towel and baked in the ashes of a fire
Ashish - ashes
Bakien – bacon
Barruh - a male hog that has been castrated before being slaughtered for its meat
Benne – sesame seeds. The seeds were made into cookies and candies and were believed to bring good luck. The seeds had arrived with the slaves in necklaces and were planted near the cabins or in the gardens.
Bile – to boil
Bittle – foods
Bryaberry - blackberry
Brekwus – breakfast
Brunswick stew – a mixture of corn, tomatoes, onions, rice, lima beans, potatoes, and chicken, pork, ground beef, and/or squirrel and other small game. The term “Brunswick stew” was not used widely in the Gullah region until the late nineteenth century. Food historians disagree as to the name’s origin, but most Georgians are convinced it originated in Brunswick, on the Georgia coast. A big iron wash pot and plaque in Brunswick, Georgia commemorate the first batch supposedly ever made.
Buckruhbittle - food eaten by whites
Cawch - to scorch
Cawn – corn
Cawn puddin’ – a baked mixture of creamed corn, cornmeal, and eggs
Cawnmeal dumplins – cornmeal and water dropped by spoonfuls into boiling greens
Chiney - glass or china plates, cups, and saucers
Chitlins – pig intestines
Chitlins and maw – pig intestines and stomach boiled, cut into small pieces, and seasoned with the trinity and hot peppers
Chow chow – a sweet, hot relish made of vegetables, peppers, vinegar, and sugar. This was a way to use and preserve late-season vegetables that might remain in the garden. When there weren’t enough of one type for a “mess,” the odds and ends were harvested for chow chow. The first mention of “chow chow” relish was in an eighteenth-century South Carolina cookbook. It was often eaten with dried beans and cornbread.
Clabbuh – curdled milk with a yogurt-like taste and texture
Coota – a soft-shell turtle that was often made into a soup
Corn fritters – fresh corn, cornmeal, and egg, dropped by spoonfuls into hot fat
Cracklins – crisp bits of fried pork skin
Crackuh salad - stale crackers, tomatoes, onions, mayonnaise, and seasonings
Cyasnet - cast net
Dub - dove
Fannuh - a shallow basket woven of grass, used for winnowing rice
Fiyah - fire
Flaybuh - to add seasonings to a dish
Feeduhm - to serve a meal
Frogmore stew – shrimp, sausage, corn-on-the-cob, spices, and potatoes, all boiled together. Sometimes crabs and clams were included.
Frybakien - fried bacon
Fufu – pounded yams mixed with egg and onions, often served with stews or roasted meat
Gatuh etouffe - strips of alligator meat, butter, flour, the trinity, and stewed tomatoes
Goobers – peanuts
Greece - to add lard to a pan
Grunnuts - peanuts
Gullah rice – rice, sausage, chopped chicken livers, and the trinity
Gumbo – a thick stew of okra, the trinity, shrimp, sausage, chicken, and/or ham
Gyaadn - garden
Hahbis - harvest
Hibe - beehive
Hobo bread – flour, eggs, lard, raisins, nuts, sugar, and boiling water, baked in a loaf pan
Hoe cake – a bread made of salt, cornmeal, and water, traditionally cooked on a greased hoe over an open fire
Hog maw – the stomach of a pig
Hom’ny - hominy
Hongry - hungry
Hoppin’ John – rice, black-eyed peas, ham, onions, cayenne, and bacon grease
Hull pie – a pie made of grape skins
Hush puppies – a mixture of cornmeal, buttermilk, egg, and onions, fried in hot fat
Jumble cakes – small sweet cakes. The dough was rolled into small ropes and formed into circles, then baked.
Kush – cornbread cooked on a griddle and topped with raw onions and ham gravy
Lahd - lard
Lassis cake – cake sweetened with molasses instead of sugar
Limpin’ Susan – shrimp and rice flavored with bell peppers and onions
Muhlassis – molasses
Mustud grins - mustard greens
Mynaze - what the Gullah descendants call mayonnaise
Nyam – eats, eating, ate
Onion pie – onions, cheese, cream, and eggs baked in a pie crust
Osituh – oyster
Peanut chop – a chicken stew flavored with tomatoes, hot peppers, and peanuts
Pilau – rice with salted fish, pork, or wild game
Pinduh – peanuts
Possimmun - persimmon
Pot likker – the liquid left over from a pot of greens. This was “sopped” with cornbread.
Purloo – a mixture of bacon, onion, okra, ham, tomatoes, rice, and herbs
Rashin - rations
Red rice – rice cooked with bacon, onions, and tomatoes
Rice bread – a heavy bread made from ground rice
Rokkoon - raccoon
Roostah pie - the stewed flesh of an older chicken baked in a pie crust with vegetables
Seafood muddle – a stew of fish stock, onions, celery, garlic, tomatoes, potatoes, fish, clams, shrimp, and mussels
Shahk - shark meat
She-crab soup – a rich mixture of blue crabmeat, crab roe, cream, butter, and spices
Shrimp bog – bacon, shrimp, rice, tomatoes, and chicken broth
Suppuh - the evening meal
Supshun – any food that is especially nutritional and tasty
Squirrel burgoo – a stew of squirrel meat, beans, okra, and cornmeal
Sweet bread – bread made from wheat flour
Sweetnin' - sugar, molasses, honey, and cane syrup
Sweet tada pone – sweet potatoes, cane syrup, eggs, butter, and nutmeg
Swimp ‘n’ grits – stewed shrimp, pork fat, and gravy, served over grits
Swit - delicious
Tadas - potatoes
Talluh - beef fat
Tase - taste
Tuckrey – turkey
Tuhnflour – cornmeal mush or porridge
Tunnup - turnip
Watermillion - watermelon
Wegitubble – vegetable
Wine - vine
Wineguh - vinegar
Yalluh yam - a sweet potato with yellow flesh
Yams – sweet potatoes
Learn more about the Gullah language and hear a sample:
The original Gullahs weren't too concerned with healthy cooking techniques. They were more concerned with survival and taste. Cooking and eating were among the few pleasures they had. They didn't really have to worry about calories, anyway, because they did so much manual labor.
Unfortunately, most of us do have to be concerned about such things because compared to the Gullah slaves, we follow a sedentary lifestyle. There are several ways, however, to make traditional Gullah foods healthier.
Instead of seasoning vegetables with cured pork, use smoked turkey. Chicken and beef bouillon also add a lot of flavor to vegetables. To get a "smoky" taste without adding meat, use a few drops of Liquid Smoke flavoring.
Use a light oil for frying and sauteing instead of lard or bacon grease. A reduced-fat margarine can be substituted for butter, and fat-free buttermilk can take the place of whole buttermilk.
Splenda can be used instead of sugar, and sugar-free syrup can be substituted for cane syrup and molasses.
Use low-fat seasonings to add flavor to rice: bouillon, stewed tomatoes, onions, garlic, peppers, and herbs. You won't miss the fat!
Fried chicken is a Gullah favorite, and it's traditionally fried in lard. For a healthier recipe that includes a crunchy high-fiber coating, check out the video recipe below.
Admittedly, some of the lower-calorie and reduced-fat results won't be as tasty as the original recipes, but you'll still get the basic flavors that are traditional Gullah. Every once in a while, however, indulge in some real Gullah grub!
High-fiber "oven fried" chicken:
The Modern Gullah and Their Cuisine
Although the Gullah once inhabited the Atlantic coast from Florida to North Carolina, most of the population is now limited to a few South Carolina and Georgia islands, including Sapelo, Daufuskie, and St. Helena. They’re struggling to keep their colorful heritage alive in the modern world. Developers have long had their eyes on the ancestral lands of the Gullahs on the beautiful isles, but most of the inhabitants refuse to sell, at any price.
Gullah Gullah cuisine has a dedicated following, and the number of fans is increasing. In fact, several restaurants along the Southern coast feature the distinctly flavored dishes, and a few of the eateries serve nothing but Gullah cuisine. Gullah cookbooks are also available.
Gullah heritage centers and festivals are also helping to educate people about this fascinating group of people. If you ever have the opportunity to attend one of the colorful events, come hungry. You’ll want to sample as many Gullah foods as you can!
If you'd like to learn more about this historical culture, view the beautiful videos below: