The Way Home: A Celebration of Sea Islands Food and Family with over 100 Recipes
The sounds. The rhythms. The smells. When I was coming up, the kitchen gave me life. But, cousins, I wasn’t really allowed to cook as a kid. My mom and grandma, and in fact everyone I knew on the Sea Islands of South Carolina, expected children to do children’s things. The kitchen was no place for kids.
Rooted in Gullah Geechee tradition, we were old-school to the core. Deeply connected to the land and water around Wadmalaw Island, my girlhood—and my womanhood—was steeped in all the cultural rituals of West Africa that our enslaved descendants were able to preserve. And surprisingly, there was much intact. Also, spirituality ran deep—mostly Christian beliefs but with elements of some African practices—and incorporated values like community over individuality, respect for elders, kinship bonds, and honoring the extension of life as well as the afterlife.
And cousins, if you know me, you know Gullah Geechee food traditions. They are the foundation of southern cooking, as far as I’m concerned. Even as a little girl, whether I was coming home from school and having a snack or watching my mom and grandmother make Thanksgiving dinner, I was fascinated by all the goings-on in the kitchen. And I loved, loved, loved food. Not like picky-eater kids today. In hindsight, I think I had an appreciation for what went into making a meal. It didn’t happen quickly. I never had microwaved or ready-to-eat anything as a child. Everything was homemade. It may sound corny, but I swear I could taste the love. The collards, the red rice, the beans were not only good for me, but it was food that felt good to me.
I didn’t realize it then, but our Geechee culture placed my childhood in a rarefied world. Not until college did I realize that so many young people lived fast lifestyles out of a reality show. Where I came from, sure, I knew kids who acted out. But for the most part, we wanted to make our families proud. It’s a tight-knit world, to this day, that is relatively insular. That’s because, probably more than any other community of Black people in this country, we were able to hold on to some of our African flair: elements of the language, food, and more. For example, religion and spirituality weren’t just for church-y folks. Obviously, enslaved people were exposed to Christianity. But many of those practices were woven into African systems of belief. Values like God and community, kinship, respect for elders, honoring the ancestors, and a near-sacred connection to nature are part of my DNA.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve been called an “old soul.” And I think my Geechee upbringing is largely the reason why. Those time-honored customs of decorum and formal manners? That’s Gullah Geechee, and that’s who I am.
But, oh—how my folks have shaped American cuisine. Our enslaved ancestors were given food scraps and damaged crops, and they used what they had access to—which was not much at all. Geechee people had a diet that was primarily local. And don’t forget, our communities settled on the shores of the Atlantic. That means lots of seafood and also vegetables, fruits, and of course rice—a significant number of Gullah people came here from the rice-growing regions of West Africa. There were foods imported from Africa during the slave trade, like okra, yams, peas, hot peppers, benne (sesame) seeds, sorghum, and watermelon. Then, of course, let’s remember the Indigenous folks who were here long before our arrival: Native Americans introduced good stuff such as corn, squash, tomatoes, and berries.
Some of y’all already know. In Black colloquialism, there’s something called “making a dollar outta 15 cent” or “making a way out of no way.” Say “amen,” somebody! Nowhere in our culture is that spirit of ingenuity more alive than in our rich history of food. As enslaved people, we were given rations—scraps really. And we had to make use of whatever was available.
Maybe that’s why you hear Black folks refer to cooking as “fixin’ food.” We were forced to fix what little we had—to fashion some kind of sustenance for our families. But because of who we are, we took it further—making meals not only to feed and strengthen the body but to create sensory experiences to delight the soul. It’s what I love most, cousins, about the blessing of Divine Miss Brown coming into your homes.
I feel very strongly that good food—and I’m talking really good food—doesn’t have to have a super-fancy lineage. It doesn’t need to be expensive. I never get tired of showing people who tune in to watch that it doesn’t take much to make a lot. That’s why I’m so excited to bring you these recipes, from the heart of my home to yours.
When I saw my mother at the stove, basting and tasting—especially on Sundays—I could sense, even as a little girl, that she was in her element. A medley of sweet and savory smells mixed with the soulful sounds of Anita Baker floating through the house—I felt her peace. Natural-born food lover that I am, I knew Ma’s smothered Turkey wings, fried chicken, shrimp and grits, and other dishes—the divine and delicious results of her hours-long meditations—were well worth the wait. I loved to watch and learn. The vibe was super chill. And I instinctively knew to heed the words of one of her favorite jams:
Beans, Greens, Potatoes, Tomatoes
My ma’s every move was effortless, like a dance. Not choreographed so much as freestyle. We grew much of what we ate. And like the TV cooking challenges I now host on the Food Network, the ingredients—and ultimately the dishes—depended on the garden pickings of that day. Were the peas ripe for snapping? How was the cabbage looking? If our squash and peppers met her satisfaction, they might end up in her famous pan-fried squash and sausage. As a single mom who often worked two jobs, sometimes three, to make sure I had little extras—the latest sneakers and hairstyles—Ma might allow ya girl to do a lil’ sumpin’ sumpin’, like prep mac and cheese. But that’s about it.
I didn’t mind. It was during these times that I had Ma all to myself. I am my mother’s only child, so it’s not as though I ever really wanted for attention, but like most families our weekdays were hurried. With no siblings in the house, I didn’t always have a playmate around. Ma and I always spent plenty of time together, but she indulged me a bit with her undivided attention on Sundays in the kitchen. That’s when I would sidle up to the Formica counter with my favorite Cabbage Patch doll, Buddy, and his kid sister. She was soft and chubby, with chestnut-colored skin perfectly set off by her blue jumper. We engaged in “deep” conversations about my classmates and the goings-on in the neighborhood, and sometimes Ma would join in, between cooking. Usually, with my tales well within earshot, Ma might sprinkle in some gentle chide like, “I told you, Kardea, not everybody around you is your friend. Don’t forget that.” But more often than not, as she thought out loud, Ma would make comments about the food she was preparing. Like, “I put my foot in this” or “This is slammin’!” When I heard her utter these words, I just knew I was in for a treat.
The kitchen scene at Grandma’s house nearby carried that same spirit: relaxed, cozy, a subtle reverence all wrapped in a warm hug. As a kid, I’d split my time between the two matriarchs, who made sure, with a look or sometimes a backhand, I kept the sense God gave me; and we made a comfortable threesome. Spoiled is a loaded word, so let’s just say I was well loved. But even as the doted-on first—and for a long while, only—granddaughter, I knew my place. When Grandma said, “Oh, baby, you don’t have to help,” she wasn’t being polite. It was a warm, down-home way of saying: “I don’t want nobody in my kitchen.” I mean, of course, I could enter the kitchen while Grandma cooked; I just couldn’t be all in there, up underneath—“Mixing up,” in her words.
Family was and is central to my soul. I had a small village; there was a simplicity to my life, and my social circle was pretty tight. “Cousins” were my primary entertainment. Not blood relations, but the kids from the families that Ma knew, Grandma knew before her, and probably her mama knew as well.
When you think about it, that’s how traditions and culture are made. Right? Of course, as a little girl, I wasn’t thinking about these things. Still, I think I did know, on some level, that I was being poured into. And for me, the kitchen, maybe because of the tangible goodness that danced and sang on my tastebuds, was the most memorable impact of those traditions. In the kitchen is where I got to see and hear about all the special ways our families and our way of life went into the way we made pound cake, the way we prepared Hoppin’ John. It was a feel-good place, where love was poured in and stirred and baked and simmered till even more love came out.
So when I was in Grandma’s kitchen, you best believe I was careful to “stay out the way.” The last thing I wanted to do was break her rules—even the unwritten ones. Grandma had a way with offhanded comments as she cooked—almost as though she was in a conversation with the food she was preparing. And I was soaking it all in.
I had my first chance to put those observation skills to the test when I was about thirteen or fourteen years old. It was a time when I was hanging at my half-sister Evita’s house. Somebody—I don’t remember who—got the idea that we should cook that night’s dinner. I didn’t let on that I wasn’t allowed to cook by myself at home. I just jumped up all big and bad and boldly said, “I’ll make the mac and cheese!”
No one doubted me outright, at least not to my face. But I seem to recall some looks on their faces that read something like, “Um, okay, baby girl—you sure?” The mac and cheese, as part of a traditional Black meal event, is right up there with the ribs or the main dish. I mean, yes, it is technically a side. But its level of importance is really hard to even put into words. I knew I couldn’t mess up. I took my time and painstakingly mimicked everything I’d watched Ma and Grandma do.
When I finally took my Pyrex dish out of the oven, the cheeses were bubbling and brimming over the sides. The edges were nicely browned. Once I sat it on the counter, I was grinning from ear to ear because I knew I’d put my whole foot in that mac and cheese. It was slamming—and I could tell just by the look of it. When I smelled it, I couldn’t help but stick my chest out—with my back a little straighter. I was smelling myself!
I loved every minute. Throughout the process—meticulously shredding and cutting the cheese, whisking the roux, eyeballing the flour just right, folding in two eggs at just the right point (for that authentically southern touch), tenting the foil toward the end of the baking time—ya girl was on point. All the while, my grandmother was in my head. She was always proud of me, always praising my every accomplishment. But this was different. It wasn’t a spelling bee or a math test—all important. This was us. Our heritage. Our pride. Our family. I so wanted her to see this act of food preparation for all of what it was.
Getting it right not only meant that I could fix a mean dish, that I could cook a lil’ sumpin’ sumpin’—no, it was deeper than that. I didn’t have the words to name it, but nailing the mac and cheese meant that what she’d been steadfastly pouring into me had been received—that I understood the assignment of carrying the torch, becoming the kind of young woman who embodied the spirit of the ancestors.
I knew I didn’t have to, yet I so wanted to please her. To be a testament to her legacy.
Grandma had always been my superhero. She was born one of fourteen children on Wadmalaw Island, a stone’s throw from Charleston, South Carolina. My grandmother dreamed big. She didn’t talk a whole lotta smack, to hear my family tell it. But she had a quiet strength—so much so that while all of her siblings settled nearby, Grandma had the temerity not only to leave the island but to hightail it to New York City of all places. With a degree in nursing and professional aspirations, she left the Lowcountry for the Big Apple.
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|Epub||October 30, 2022|