This Matriarch of Gullah Geechee Food Has Been Cooking Farm-To-Table For Decades
Her food honors the connection between people and the land.
Nestled between two major tourist destinations, Edisto—a small island off the South Carolina coast about an hour south of Charleston and two hours north of Hilton Head Island—is a reminder of days long past. Winding roads, some paved and others not, are shrouded by overhanging Spanish moss; a salty breeze, just barely there, gently counters the humidity. It’s a place where the earth and the Atlantic Ocean’s tributaries meet, surrounded by lush thickets that have acted as a natural barrier for centuries, allowing the local people and their culture to thrive.
Gullah Geechee folkways and heritage permeate Edisto. And the matriarch of the storied island is widely considered to be Emily Meggett, 89, a bearer of the culture all along the Gullah Geechee Corridor, which traces the coastlines of North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida.
In her new cookbook Gullah Geechee Home Cooking, Meggett shares her remarkable life story and how she has honored her Gullah Geechee, African, and Southern roots through food. She also traces her family’s history, from her ancestors’ enslavement in the Lowcountry to her own upbringing in Edisto. (Meggett’s great-great-grandfather was one of the “kings of Edisto Island,” a community patriarch who, after enslavement, was able to settle on the island.)
As a child, Meggett spent her days out in nature, searching for massive conches on the beaches and enjoying the bounty of fresh fruits and vegetables. She especially relished in the days before a possible big storm, when the community would cook all kinds of delicious food in case bad weather impacted their supply. Meggett also met the love of her life on the island. She and her husband built a home there and raised 10 children, while maintaining strong ties to the local community and culture. Meggett was, and still is, very active in her local church and spent 46 years working at the Dodge House (a Sea Island cotton plantation home built in 1810, now a museum, where freed slaves once found refuge). In both places, she honed her culinary chops and became well known for her generous, loving spirit—and for taking care of others through food.
To learn the intricacies of Gullah Geechee cuisine is to unlearn all of the stereotypical narratives about Southern food. Southern and Soul food are usually used interchangeably, despite the terms having different meanings, and mainstream media often implies that both cuisines are fatty and over-salted, born out of necessity rather than trained expertise. Gullah food shows that Southern and Soul food are none of these things, and people have been cooking and eating these dishes since before colonization and the transatlantic slave trade. The use of fresh, local ingredients, as well as techniques like one-pot cooking and barbequing, reveal that whipping up both cuisines requires much more skill and innovation than the chefs and cooks receive credit for.
The first recipe featured in Meggett’s book teaches readers how to prepare deviled crab, a dish that requires immense skill—from cleaning and cooking the fresh-caught crab, to removing the tender meat, seasoning it, and spooning it back into the shells. In the Lowcountry, blue crabs are best in spring and summer, when the crustaceans’ bodies are full of sweet, plump flesh and—if you’re lucky enough to have a female crab—creamy roe. Locals know how to catch them by hand with a trap or with a single piece of string tied around a piece of raw chicken (and how to order them at the local seafood market or from a local fisherman). Unless you’re from or have visited the region, Meggett’s recipe is a revelation, and it’s no surprise that her deviled crab is famous throughout the region. The result is moist and subtly sweet, rich and bright without being heavy. Though the term “farm to table” is rarely used in the context of African American cookery, dishes like Meggett’s deviled crab embody the very concept.
Meggett’s book and her life are a testament to how being from the Lowcountry means being connected to everything and everyone around you. In this community, there exists an unparalleled symbiosis between the people and nature, with families tending to the same land—and to each other—generation after generation. Throughout her book, Meggett interweaves the stories of the people—Black women in particular—who helped shape her into a nurturer and inspire her recipes. She spotlights the mothers, aunties,
friends, church folk, and elders who first taught her to make a pot of creamy grits as a child, and mentors like Julia Brown, a Gullah woman who showed Meggett the ins and outs of professional cooking later in her career. Brown taught her, “You do it right or you do it over,” the age-old adage professional cooks and chefs are often told in fine dining, and one that echoes what many Black mothers and aunties teach their children at home.
The role Meggett plays in her community is one countless Black women share but are rarely celebrated for. Her story and recipes should easily be heralded alongside those of some of history’s greatest culinarians, like Edna Lewis, Leah Chase, and Julia Child. Meggett’s food isn’t fussy—it invites home cooks from all backgrounds into the kitchen to learn how to cook fresh and flavorful dishes without the stress of perfection we often see presented on social media and television. Her love for food and her community is an essential ingredient that makes her cooking, and Gullah food as a whole, so special. Gullah meals are made to be shared with others, and Meggett makes that clear in the portion sizes and headnotes throughout her cookbook. For instance, in her fried shrimp recipe, Meggett calls for people to make “enough for family, guests, and anybody who ‘just happens’ to stop by.”
Gullah Geechee food, culture, and people are often described as being on the brink of some sort of extinction, which can lead outsiders to misuse and appropriate their cultural heritage like music, art, and food, rather than appreciating it. But Gullah people have survived for so long, and they will continue to do so through future generations of culture bearers and griots. Today, Meggett continues to feed her community in Edisto, regularly delivering food to banks, doctors’ offices, and hospitals throughout the greater Charleston area. Her legacy goes beyond the meals—it’s her kindness and joy that authentically spreads to those around her. To sit at Meggett's table (or to recreate one of her belly-warming dishes at home) is to feel and taste the love and soul put into the food.