Southern cuisine has deep roots in Africa. One of the most vibrant cultures contributing to the South’s identity was actually one that evolved from unintended diversity.
The Gullah Geechee is a distinct group descended from slaves brought from West Africa to the coastal areas of the South in the early 18th century. They were instrumental in building the wealth of the southern states for decades. However, when the Civil War loomed, and fearing anti-slavery retribution, many plantation owners moved inland for safety reasons, leaving slaves to fend for themselves on the coast islands. Out of this circumstance grew the Gullah Geechee culture, one with unique community, spirituality, farming, music, crafts and cuisine.
The origins of the names are somewhat shrouded. The name Gullah is possibly a truncating of Angola and Geechee may have come from the Ogeechee River near Savannah, Georgia, although both find linguistic similarities in African tribal languages. Gullah is associated with residents of South Carolina, while Geechee those of Georgia. They live in an area referred to as the Gullah Coast reaching from Sandy Island, South Carolina, to Amelia Island, Florida.
The Gullah Geechees’ West African ancestors were selected for enslavement because of their regions’ suitability for raising crops, especially rice, indigo and cotton, that were important to the southern economy. With similar climates in the American South to those in their native lands, the slaves were exceptionally skilled at working the land, and their efforts contributed substantially to the foundational wealth of the South’s plantation industry.
The Gullah language has a singular history as what linguists call an English-based creole language. It illustrates the way slavery so profoundly altered and created its own subculture:
Creoles arise in the context of trade, colonialism, and slavery when people of diverse backgrounds are thrown together and must forge a common means of communication….In the case of Gullah, the vocabulary is largely from the English “target language,” the speech of the socially and economically dominant group; but the African “substrate languages” have altered the pronunciation of almost all the English words, influenced the grammar and sentence structure, and provided a sizable minority of the vocabulary.
The British dominated the slave trade in the 18th century…. This hybrid language served as a means of communication between British slave traders and local African traders, but it also served as a lingua franca, or common language, among Africans of different tribes. Some of the slaves taken to America must have known creole English before they left Africa, and on the plantations their speech seems to have served as a model for the other slaves.
In this melting pot of African and southern influence, the Gullah Geechee created their own society, not reflecting one culture, but drawing from a need for self-identity in their own defined space. According to Gullah expert and cookbook author Sallie Ann Robinson, the Gullah Geechee were “artists and makers, weaving stunning sweetgrass baskets for agricultural uses and cast nets for fishing. And their spiritual beliefs, combined with the praise melodies they inspired, helped sustain and guide them through conflict and heartache.”
The Gullah Geechee farmers being so highly skilled, many crops of African origin were introduced and incorporated into the dishes now known as Southern cuisine. “Southern food and Gullah food are well connected,” Robinson explains. “When people didn’t know what to call Gullah, they called it Southern. It was shrimp and grits, fried chicken, collard greens, lima beans, cornbread, biscuits, gumbo, and cabbage. It was a little of everything.”
So enjoy the recipe-with-a-past below knowing it came from far overseas across centuries of time to bring homemade goodness to your table. It certainly has a history to remember.
Visit Geechee and Gullah Culture and Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor to explore more about the history, cuisine, music, crafts, religion and other attributes of the Gullah Geechee people, and learn how they are working to preserve, share and pass on their cherished heritage.
GULLAH BACON CORN MUFFINS
Recipe courtesy of Sallie Ann Robinson, Gullah Geechee – Southern Cast Iron
Cook Time 15-20 minutes
Serves: About 16
Filled with crisp, smoky bacon, these savory corn muffins are the perfect companion to any Southern supper.
- 16 slices bacon, cooked until crisp
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
- 2 tablespoons baking powder
- 1½ teaspoons sugar
- 3 cups corn meal
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 3 large eggs
- 2½ cups warm milk
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted butter, to serve
- Preheat oven to 350°. Spray 3 (6-well) cast-iron muffin pans with baking spray with flour.
- Chop the bacon into small pieces; reserve 3 tablespoons. Sift together the flour, baking powder, sugar, cornmeal, and salt in a large bowl.
- In a medium bowl, beat the eggs, then blend in the warm milk and melted butter. Combine with the flour mixture; fold in bacon pieces, mixing all together. Spoon mixture into prepared pans until wells are about three-fourths full; sprinkle with reserved 3 tablespoons bacon.
- Bake until tops are golden brown, 15 to 20 minutes. Serve hot or warm with butter for best taste.