Gullah Geechee Home Cooking: Recipes from the Matriarch of Edisto Island
When you cross the Dawhoo Bridge that connects Edisto Island to the rest of South Carolina, you’re in Heaven. Heaven on Earth, that is.
I’m Emily Hutchinson Meggett. Most people know me as “M.P.” I was born on Edisto Island, South Carolina, on November 19, 1932.
Forty-two miles south of Charleston and home to just over 2,000 people, Edisto Island was a place where everyone knew everyone when I was growing up. There wasn’t much out on the island then. The one way on, one way off Dawhoo Bridge was just a plank bridge. Highway 174 used to be just a dirt road. Some of the landmarks I remember on Highway 174 are the Eubank Store, Seaside Elementary, Edisto Post Office, Zion Church, Trinity Episcopal Church, New First Baptist Church, and Larimer High School.
Though small, this island is one of the most blessed places on Earth. Edisto has these great, big live oak trees that are full of Spanish moss, so many different types of animals—birds and fish especially—and a beach that has some of the biggest shells you’ve ever seen in your life. On this island, we’re insulated versus isolated (to quote Queen Quet, the Chieftess of the Gullah Geechee nation) from the hustle and bustle of city life. So Edisto maintains a sense of peace and stillness that my people have lived with for many generations.
Many of my ancestors and elders would work in fields during the day, growing cotton, corn, potatoes, and other vegetables, then go home and tend to their own gardens. My grandparents owned ten acres of land. We didn’t have no fertilizer for the garden. Mama would use manure from the chicken house, the horse stable, and the cow pen. We had corn (white and yellow), butter beans, lima beans, peas, black-eyed and field peas, okra, watermelon, cantaloupe, squash, onions, tomatoes, sweet potatoes, white potatoes, sugarcane, sugar millet, and our own rice pond. We had chicken, turkey, duck; we had fowl, hogs; we had horses.
We didn’t have to go to the store for any fresh vegetables, either. We just went for items like sugar and flour. That’s because, like generations before us, we grew our own vegetables and there were plenty of fruit trees. We were so blessed. We even had our own livestock for meat, and my uncles would bring back plenty from fishing and hunting. Raccoon, squirrel, and quail—we ate all of that. I remember them hanging the coon from a tree and skinning it. When they got through skinning it, they’d salt it then leave it for a day or two to dry—sometimes outside in the tree, other times on ice. Let it dry out and then take it down and cut it up, soak it for an hour or two, and cook it. If it’s cooked the right way, you can’t tell if it’s chicken or turkey. Now that’s some good cooking, I’ll tell ya.
When my grandmother and uncle and those would kill cows and pigs, they had a little smokehouse outside. Whatever they was gon’ smoke, they smoked it. Whatever they wasn’t gon’ smoke, they preserved it in the ground. The guy would come around and bring the ice. They’d dig a hole in the ground, put the ice in the ground in a brown bag along with whatever meat they got. They’d wrap it up, lay it on that ice, put a piece of rooftop tin on that ice to keep the dirt out, and cover it up. And the ice would last for days. They didn’t have no refrigerator. We didn’t get a refrigerator until the early fifties.
Because we had our own rice pond, we harvested our own rice. Rice is a big deal to the Gullah Geechee people. Most of us have roots in Sierra Leone, a country known for its legacy of skilled rice farmers who could grow and cook rice. Just as it is with us, rice is served with most dishes there, too. We also harvested our own sugarcane, and when the corn was ready to be picked, whether it was yellow or white corn, we’d have it ground into grits. My uncle ’Nem would break the corn and put it in the back of the horse and buggy. On Wednesday, we’d shuck the corn. On Thursday and Friday, we’d have to shell the corn off the cob and put it in these big ol’ bags. Then, on Saturday, a man would come from Jericho, which was about twenty miles out, and pick up the corn and take it to Jericho Mill. When they got through processing the corn, they would bring it back, and you would have a twenty-five- or fifty-pound bag of grits and another of husks. The same with the white one and the yellow one. Then you’d have the cornmeal, the yellow and the white. That’s what you ate off of for the winter, so you didn’t have to go to the store. The husks went to the hogs.
See, as most cities moved toward becoming more industrial, Edisto was still agricultural. We held on to the old ways of doing things for a very long time, some of it still to this day. Working the land is one of them. It was our way of surviving. It’s how we fed ourselves, empowered ourselves, and kept our ancestral ties intact.
My family tree is deeply rooted in Edisto. In fact, my great-grandfather, Jim Hutchinson, was known as one of the “Kings of Edisto Island.” He was born in 1836 on Peters Point Plantation. According to our family history, his mother, Maria, was enslaved to his father, Isaac Jenkins Mikell, the plantation owner. He served the country during the Civil War, then got involved in local politics. A letter my great-grandfather wrote to the governor at the time, Robert Scott, resulted in a good bit of plantation land being divided among freed black people. One of his sons, Henry (my grandfather’s brother), built a family home around 1885 that still stands today: the Hutchinson House.
Like many Black people in the thirties and forties, my mother, Laura Hutchinson, joined the Great Migration and moved north to earn more money. So my grandmother Elizabeth Major Hutchinson and my uncles, Isaiah and Luther Hutchinson, raised me. One of my uncles lived in the house with us. My other uncle lived in Charleston. When everybody saw his light-blue pickup truck bumping down the road, you’d think Santa Claus was coming. He’d be passing out apples, oranges, candy, and shoes. Sometimes he’d even bring furniture that folk from the city had thrown out.
When I say “mama,” I’m referring to my grandmother. Mama, my uncle, his wife, me, my sister Bernice, and my cousins Marion, Edmond, Sonny, James, Emma, Jesse, and Gillie all lived under the same roof at the same time. We ate together, too. Whoever didn’t fit at the kitchen table ate at the dining room table. We ate our meals as a family, though, and when I became a mother, I did my best to keep that tradition going.
Back then, we didn’t have no radio or TV. We made our own fun by yanking the vine out of the tree to jump rope, pulling roots out the ground for a doll baby, putting a rope in the tree for a swing, and making our own hopscotch. Growing up, I went to several schools on Edisto Island: Seaside Elementary School, Central School, and Larimer High School. Mama would wake us up at five o’clock in the morning, including on school days, to do our chores. We had to go in the field, hoe two rows of okra, two rows of beans and corn, then come home, wash up, and eat breakfast. We never left the house without our breakfast of butt’s meat (also known as salt pork) and wild cat sauce on grits, and biscuits.
We’d have to be at school by eight o’clock and walk five miles to get there, but we’d make such a good time out of it that it didn’t feel like it was that long. Sometimes we had so much fun, we’d mess around and be late. The teacher told us one day, “If y’all are late tomorrow, everybody is gonna get punished with twenty-four chops—twelve in the left hand and twelve in the right.” Corporal punishment was legal in schools at that time.
Well, we were late that next day. To avoid the hand chops, we went to a place called Long Reach instead of going to school. When we walked through Long Reach, we could see some of our grandmothers, mine included, working in the fields. Since they weren’t home, we went to their house and cooked fry bread with sugar. Fry bread and pancake are the same, just given a different name. Same ingredients. I grew up with fry bread. Waffle is the same mixture, but it’s just a different texture. With pancake or fry bread, you mix the sugar, egg, and Crisco together.
There were after-school chores too. You take your school clothes off, get in your old clothes, then go in the field and pump the water for the cow, feed the hog, feed the chickens, tie the cow on fresh grass, fasten the chickens up, gather the eggs, bring in the wood, pump the water to bring in the house. Everybody had a job, and everybody knew how to do everything. In the wintertime, boys would cut the wood and the girls would bring it in. We would also go out in the field and gather straw to make the broom to sweep the floor with, and wood for the fireplace. There was no mop to mop the floor. You would scrub the floor on your knees with water in a bucket, and a rag and the octagon powder. After scrubbing the floor, it would come out so clean you could eat off it. There were no rakes to rake the yard; we’d take the branches off the trees and use them to rake the yard. It would come just as clean as if you had a rake, it was amazing.
Life was very different in those days. There was no washing machine or dryer. We didn’t have Clorox. You’d put your clothes in this big boiler and you boil it, and they would come out as white as a piece of paper. There was no bathroom, you had to go to an outside toilet. No electric stove; we had a woodstove, a kerosene lamp, and a lantern. No screen in the window, so, hot or cold, the mosquitoes always had a good time. We’d make smoke in a pot with rags, moss, or trash, and that would run the mosquitoes away. Back then lots of people didn’t have a clock; the time was in their heads. They would say when the sun gets in the middle of the door, it was twelve o’clock, lunchtime, and it’s true.
We were poor, by most standards. Making something out of nothing was our specialty. And recycling and repurposing was all we knew. Mama didn’t throw away anything, and to this day, I don’t believe in wasting anything, so I don’t throw nothin’ away too. Everything Mama had, she made something good for it. Whether it was food or clothes, she’d take the littlest thing and turn it into gold. We might’ve had to work harder for it, but our food was always fresh. Like how we churned our own butter. It would smell so good, rich as I don’t know what! It didn’t even need to be kept cold; we’d just store it on the shelf.
Growing food, raising livestock, and knowing how to preserve were traditions passed down from our ancestors way back in Africa. They brought those skills here with them and we continued them. What makes us Gullah Geechee is just a matter of time and place. Our ancestors were brought from West Africa to the coast of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. What makes the Gullah Geechee people particularly special is how long we’ve been able to hold on to our old ways, including the way we speak and the way we eat.
Mama always kept food on the stove. She would always say, “Don’t ever cook enough just for you, ’cause you never know who gonna come through that door.” I got my love for cooking from my grandmother. My generosity, too. When I was growing up, our house was like the community center. All the neighborhood children would come by to eat. Though we didn’t have much, there was always enough to share. Mama made sure she taught us the importance of taking care of people too, and I’ve been doing it since I was a small child. She would cook and have me take it to the elderly people in that community. That stuck with me.
Other things have stuck with me, too. Throughout this book, you’ll see stories that I’ve shared with close friends and family, stories about my life, and the lives of those around me. Some are observations; some are recollections of important life events.
I spent most of my childhood in the same house, and that house was destroyed in a storm in 1940. I was seven years old, but I remember it vividly. I later learned that it was a category 2 hurricane that killed thirty-four people and destroyed plenty of property along the Georgia–South Carolina coast. They didn’t evacuate us back in those times, so we were home when the storm hit. Mama would cook lima beans, crowder peas, collard greens, something that would feed a whole lot of people whenever a storm was coming. Storms on the island are much different from those on the mainland. I remember sitting on the porch, splashing my feet in the rising water while my cousin whined to our grandmother that we were hungry. She would say, “I’m preparing food for when the storm come. When it come and you can’t cook, what you gonna do? We gonna save that food for that hard time.” We’d be thinking, It’s hard time now!
We didn’t have much money, but we were still rich. We were full of love and wisdom. I carried those values into my adult life. I got married to Jessie Meggett, who was also born on the island, in 1932. We had a small yard wedding, but our marriage lasted fifty-five and a half years. I kept my promise, ’til death did us part. My dress cost $19.99 and Jessie’s suit was $39. After the ceremony, my uncle took us on our honeymoon in the back of the pickup truck. Jessie and I was in the truck and he drove us to the turntable on Edisto Beach, then we just turned around and came back home. For the reception, Mama made us homemade cherry wine and pound cake. When we had our real honeymoon it was in 1980; we went to Germany, Paris, London, then come home. That was the best honeymoon anyone could ever have, thirty-one years later.
“Marriage is a daily thing. Just ’cause you worked at it yesterday, doesn’t mean you get by today. You work at it today, tomorrow, and every day.”
We had ten children together, Christopher, Mildred, Elizann, Joann, Louise, Emily, Carolyn, Lavern, Elizabeth, and Marvette, and one stepson, Ronald. We lived modest and within our means, never in a rush, so our family never went without. In 1960, for instance, we purchased one acre of land for $75. In 1962, we started building a four-room house. To build that house, it costs us $1,025. In those four rooms, there were twelve of us: ten children and husband and wife. Four girls in one bed and four girls in the next bed. Chris slept on the folding cot in the kitchen, and the baby slept with us in the bed. In 1969, we added more rooms to make a thirteen-room house, and we never had a mortgage.
I have taken care of more than a hundred children, besides my own—some of whom were raised in my home, with my children. Throughout the years, I have fed too many people to count. Wherever I go, it is important to me that I do not go empty-handed. I always bring a gift of food.
Cooking brings me great joy. As a teenager, I worked as a babysitter, helping to care for the children of “the help,” and white people’s children, too. One day, Mama told me I needed to decide: I could work in the field, or somewhere else. Now, I like my garden and I like being outside, but I don’t like no field. I chose to work in the kitchen, and that decision changed my life. I have cooked in houses all over Edisto, beginning in 1954. I learned these recipes from my grandmother and Ms. Julia W. Brown, a Gullah woman from Edisto (Cedar Hall), and one of the best cooks on the island. I met Ms. Brown when I first started cooking for the Dodges, a white family from Rockport, Maine, in the oil business. We called their home, our workplace, the Dodge House. I cooked for the Dodge House for forty-five winters. Ms. Julia Brown, the head of the kitchen, told me, “You do it right or you do it over.” That’s how I learned to cook.
“Don’t ever cook enough just for you, ’cause you never know who gonna come through that door.”
For me, cooking wasn’t just a job, it was my life, and it still is today. Cooking is how I take care of people, how I support my community, and how I love others the way God intended. When I cook, I don’t just cook for me or my family—oh, no. I cook for my neighbor, for the family friends on the beach, for the plumber who stops by to fix my appliances. I believe that food is one of the most important ways we take care of each other, and I’ll tell ya, nobody leaves my house without a to-go plate.
As a Black American woman, I know that I’m not the only one who has taken care of people through food, and I’m not the only one who’s worked as a professional cook. Ms. Julia Brown was a head chef at the Dodge House, yet she didn’t have that title, nor did they pay her what a white cook with similar experience would’ve been paid. Many Black women—including those whose names have been lost to history—paved the way for cooks like me to find a career that could support my family and give me the chance to do something I’m good at. Abby Fisher, Zephyr Wright, and Edna Lewis are some of the women whose contributions have changed the face of American cooking, and I’m grateful that we not only know their names, but know of the tastes, love, and joy they shared with others through food.
My life’s work has taken me to many places I never realized I’d go. I’ve talked to journalists at national newspapers, I’ve cooked for large church functions, and I’ve mentored some of the most important young Gullah Geechee chefs of today’s generation who will carry on our culture’s legacy into new generations. Shoot, they even have video of me cooking my famous stuffed fish (this page); people all over the world have watched this video and have learned just a bit about this beautiful place, and the beautiful culture behind it. Cooking teaches, cooking heals, and cooking loves.
I am so grateful for the life I’ve built around food and cooking in my beloved home. Now, it’s important for me to share these recipes. To me, sharing home cooking is what truly represents Gullah Geechee food. I want future generations to understand the cooking and the culture of this place, and to understand that cooking is much more than about how something tastes—it’s about the heart and soul behind the stove. My present and my past is in every single plate of food I cook, and I hope it’s in yours, too. Knowing our history gives us a chance to look back and see where we came from. And now I share this knowledge with you. Remember what I told you now: When you cross that bridge, you’re in Heaven.
Welcome to my home, my heaven, and my life through food. I hope and pray this book will bring you joy, inspiration, and some good eatin’. Bring your appetite, it’s time to eat.
“People on Edisto know if that side door is open, there is food in this kitchen. At this house there are no guests—just friends and family.”
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|Epub||May 21, 2022|
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