Just an hour beyond the Charleston Peninsula, South Carolina, is Edisto Island, home to one of the most important living people in Gullah Geechee food. Emily Meggett has spent her entire life on Sea Island, and even today, at 89 years old, she often cooks outside her kitchen for hundreds of people. After frying shrimp and stirring rice for the locals of Edisto and thousands of visitors over the years, Meggett has just released her first cookbook, Gullah Geechee Home Cooking: Recipes from the Matriarch of Edisto Island†
In this beautifully written and photographed book, Meggett Gullah serves Geechee dishes with over a hundred recipes, plus stories of her family’s history on the island dating back to the 1800s. Here, Meggett shares what inspired the cookbook, some of the challenges she faced during the writing process, and why stories from her childhood home of Edisto were so important to include alongside the recipes — three of which she also shares below. .
What prompted you to create a cookbook?
It all started when my good friend Becky Smith, maybe twenty years ago, inspired me to create this cookbook. Once we started, there was no stopping us, we just kept going and going. But I never cook according to a recipe. It’s all in my head, my heart and my hands. And when you cook with those three, you may occasionally stray and go wrong, but most of the time you succeed. The process of making the cookbook was difficult because I never measured anything. So when I got to the place where I needed to measure, I had to think about it in my head – should I use half a teaspoon or a tablespoon? It took a long time, but we made a total of 123 recipes, of which we ended up only adding three.
For someone new to Gullah Geechee food, what three recipes would you recommend trying first from your book?
Number one is red rice. Okra soup is next, then shrimp with grits and gravy. But now with the salted pork. Don’t forget the salted pork.
Benne cookies are another one. There are two ways to make them: as benne waffles or benne cookies. The benne waffles are very thin and the benne biscuits have a little rise. One of the main differences is in the flour. Use self-raising flour for the cookies, flour for the waffles. [Meggett shares her benne cookies recipe here, as well as her she crab soup recipe and fried shrimp recipe. For the rest of her suggestions, find the book here.]
Throughout the book you talk about your family history. Why was that so important for you to record?
My grandmother was just like my mother and my grandmother, and she taught me all the things I know about cooking. I also had two uncles who were like papas to us. We were with a whole group of children, but they all taught us the moral of life. And when my children came, I felt it was important to teach them the same teachings that my grandmother and my uncles taught us. It is important that families pray together so that they stay together.
Why do you think Edisto is such a special place?
Edisto is special because everyone knows everyone. And there is a strong community here that cares for and loves each other. As I always say, if you’re on the other side of the McKinley Washington Jr. Bridge are [connecting the mainland to Edisto], you are in the world. When you cross the bridge you are in the middle of heaven. And they say heaven is a beautiful place. So this is Edisto, and Edisto is a beautiful place. Everyone that comes here goes back and says, “Well, I have to go back to Edisto.” Some places you go you don’t want to come back, but that love and that care and sharing is Edisto. There is no place in the world like Edisto, no place.