Emily Meggett, age 89, is considered to be one of the most important figures carrying on the history of the Gullah Geechee Corridor. The term refers to a string of coastlines along North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida, where enslaved Africans from tribal groups of west and central Africa and their descendants managed to hold on to their language and traditions throughout centuries.
In Meggett’s stunning new cookbook, Gullah Geechee Home Cooking, she recounts her rich life (she has 55 grandchildren) on Edisto Island, a community of 2000 people, 42 miles from Charleston, where everyone knew everyone (“insulated, not isolated”). She shares how she has stayed connected to Gullah Geechee history by cooking the dishes that provided the bedrock of Lowcountry cuisine: okra gumbo, Hoppin’ John, oyster stew, cheesy grits. “Growing food, raising livestock, and knowing how to preserve were traditions passed down from our ancestors way back in Africa,” she writes. “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.”
One of those ways? Share your bounty. Her grandmother (“Mama”) always kept food on the stove and would say, “Don’t ever cook enough just for you ’cause you never know who gonna come through that door,” remembers Meggett. Indeed, there’s hardly a page in her book that doesn’t include a story about the many people she’s cooked for — Fried Fish Fridays with the community, Crab Casserole for the holidays, Frogmore Stew for large family gatherings. “To me, sharing home cooking is what truly represents Gullah Geechee food. I want future generations 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.”
Baked Cheese Grits
From Gullah Geechee Home Cooking
Serves 4 to 6
Says Emily Meggett: “In the United States, we can thank the Muskogee tribe for laying the foundation for what we now know as grits. There are so many ways to serve grits, and one of my favorites is by adding cheese, which turns this porridge into a mouth-watering soufflé. I don’t believe in wasting food, so I would use leftover Jim Dandy grits to make this dish for my loved ones. Enjoy it for breakfast with bacon or sausage or add it as a side to fried fish for a South Carolinian take on breakfast-for-dinner.”
1 ½ cups grits, preferably Jim Dandy or coarse-grind grits
½ cup Carnation evaporated milk or half-and-half
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, divided
1 cup grated sharp cheddar cheese, plus ½ cup for the top of the casserole
½ teaspoon salt
2 large eggs, beaten
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Grease a 9-by 13-inch baking dish with 1 tablespoon of butter. Cook the grits according to the package instructions. Add the evaporated milk, butter, 1 cup of the cheese, the salt, and eggs, mixing well with a spoon. Pour the mixture into the baking dish. Sprinkle the top of the grits with the remaining cheese. Bake for 30 to 45 minutes. The grits should be like a thick porridge and should not be runny. Check the grits with a knife or fork to determine when the dish is done.
(Photos by Clay Williams.)