For Gullah Geechee chef Emily Meggett, cooking was about heart
Updated April 24, 2023 at 12:01 PM ET
Note: Emily Meggett died Friday, Apr. 21, 2023 at age 90 after a brief illness. In tribute to her, we're again sharing our 2022 profile of this queen of Gullah Geechee cooking.
Lots of home cooks would be excited to get a book deal. In the case of one home chef, she got that opportunity at the age of 89 years old. Emily Meggett is from the low country of South Carolina, and NPR traveled to her home on Edisto Island to appreciate some of her cooking.
Edisto Island is a beautiful, quiet community of about 2,000 people, nearly an hour's drive south of Charleston. The roads are framed by massive oak trees draped with Spanish moss; there's a tang of sea salt in the air. Ms. Emily Meggett is known far and wide as the matriarch of Edisto.
I'm with her in her cozy home kitchen, where she's going to teach me how to make a local classic: shrimp and grits with gravy. As she chops up some salt pork to get us started, she recalls the first thing she remembers making as a girl. "Grits!" she exclaims. "And the salt pork right here."
Ms. Emily is a member of the Gullah Geechee people. Her community can trace their ancestry to West and central Africans brought to these shores and enslaved. In insulated locations throughout the coastal areas of the Carolinas, Georgia and Florida, they managed to preserve much of their rich culture, language, and music.
Her cookbook is called Gullah Geechee Home Cooking (get recipes for Benne Cookies, Red Rice and Chicken Perloo). Right now, Ms. Emily is focused on making her gravy: salt pork, onion, flour and some seasoning salt. That's it.
"You watch me every step of the way," she instructs, stirring the pot constantly with her favorite spoon. This virtuoso in the kitchen doesn't bother with a whisk. Still, her gravy is as smooth as silk.
"I'm from the old school," she says. "People add things, to see how that's gonna taste. But sometimes I think they jazz it up too much! This is tradition, how I learned how to cook it. Wash the grits. Wash your meat. Fry your meat. Put your onion in there. Put your flour in there, make your gravy and your seasoning. Nothing else. That's your tradition."
Some of Ms. Emily's other recipes are intensely local too, like her delicious benne wafers, sweet little cookies made with local sesame seeds. Benne seeds were brought over from West Africa by enslaved people and became an important staple in their hidden gardens.
Ms. Emily's family kept their own gardens at home, too. They grew their vegetables, beans and fruit; they raised hogs, chickens, and other livestock. They fished and hunted. "We even had our own rice pond when I was growing up," she says.
Ms. Emily's ancestors, like other enslaved people brought to the Carolinas, were expert rice cultivators. And rice remains foundational in Ms. Emily's cooking. She says if anyone's going to try only two recipes in her book, it's two Gullah Geechee staples: "Red rice and the Hoppin' John."
Gullah Geechee red rice is kin to jollof rice, a tomato-based recipe popular across western Africa. Her Hoppin' John is a little different than the version many folks know from Southern cuisine. Instead of being made with blander black-eyed peas, here they're made with nutty-tasting field peas.
Her beloved late husband Jessie grew up nearby too, in a two-room cabin that previous generations had lived in as enslaved people. In 2017, that cabin was relocated to Washington, D.C., where it's now on permanent display at the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Ms. Emily, who friends around the island call "M.P.," recounts plenty of family stories as well as her own, complex history in Gullah Geechee Home Cooking.
"When I came along, I guess I was the last of the slaves," she says. As a teenager, she began babysitting the white children of the wealthy owners of local mansions as well as the children of Black workers at those houses. "When I went over to babysit, I got a dollar and 25 cents, from 8 o'clock in the morning until three in the afternoon. And that was in the 50s."
Not long after, her mother told her she had to choose: she could either work in the fields or find something else. She became a cook for some of those wealthy white families. One of those was the Dodge family from Maine — and Ms. Emily cooked for them for 45 years.
"When I went over to the Dodge house, a week's pay was $11 and 15 cents all week! And every year, it went up a dollar and three penny," she recalls.
"I started from the bottom of the barrel," she says emphatically. "Up to this time, I think I did good for myself and also my children because if I wasn't be taught what to do and how to do it then I couldn't have taught my children."
Those recipes are imprinted in her memory. "That's how I cook," she says. "I cook by my brain, and my hand and my heart."
Heart is a big word with Ms. Emily. She has always looked after Edisto. When the side door into her kitchen is open, folks know they can stop in for a plate of hot food. (Conversely, wherever she goes on the island, she is gifted with ingredients.) Cooking, for Ms. Emily, is about sharing history — and, as she says in her book, food is one of the most important ways we take care of each other. That was the whole impetus for her cookbook, she says.
"A lot of times, we has a treasure in our head," she observes. "And we will die and go to heaven, and take that treasury with us. And why can't we just share it with somebody else here? I'll get more out of that, to share it."
Gretchen Smith is the director of the Edisto Island Historic Preservation Society. She is thrilled that her good friend Emily Meggett is attracting so much attention with her cookbook.
"It's got so much more than recipes in the book," Smith says. "It's stories, it's anecdotes, it's the culture of the Gullah community, it's not just a cookbook by any means. And I think that's really what has ignited the interest in it."
In the meantime, the gravy's ready. Ms. Emily Meggett is emphatic about her gravy. "All right now, you see what I put in there," she says. "I didn't put no celery, no bell pepper, no tomato, no water."
At nearly the last moment, she sautees the shrimp in a separate skillet. They're done in just a couple of minutes, and she quickly folds them into the sauce. "If you make the gravy, and put the shrimp in there to cook, it makes it tough," she observes. After we take a bite, she says triumphantly, "See, you got the crunch of the shrimp." She's right. The shrimp are firm and meaty, with almost a bit of a snap to them still.
Finally, this tantalizing dish is ready — and you will never leave Ms. Emily's house without getting fed. "The whole entire world!" she laughs. "The whole entire world. It don't be a day pass by that somebody don't stop by here that don't get something to eat."
As soon as the shrimp and grits are ready, we gather over the kitchen table for a moment of prayer, holding hands in communion. Ms. Emily says grace — and then we feast, together.
Benne Cookies from Emily Meggett
Makes about 40 cookies
WHEN I WAS GROWING UP, I HAD NO IDEA HOW MUCH HISTORY WAS IN BENNE COOKIES. Also known as "benne wafers," benne cookies were just another sweet treat that we island folks loved to eat. In fact, I learned how to make these cookies at the Dodge House. A lady named Mamie Frances was the real pro, and she taught me how to make them just right.
As an adult, I found out that the benne seeds used for the cookie actually arrived to the United States with our African ancestors. Native to the African continent, benne seeds are often confused with sesame seeds. However, benne seeds have a much more distinct taste. They're nuttier, a bit smoky, and when toasted, they produce an intense, almost woody smell throughout the kitchen. Benne seeds have a rich history in the Sea Islands. Enslaved people cultivated these seeds in their own gardens, and eventually, white slave owners took advantage of their crop and started use benne seeds to produce cooking oil. Their road in the United States has been long and complex, but thanks to the preservationist nature of the Gullah Geechee people, they still grow across the Carolinas and Sea Islands today.
My benne cookies come from Mama, and she learned how to make them from generations before her. Thin and crisp, these cookies should be like wafers; you don't want them to rise.
1 tablespoon margarine or butter, or more as needed (butter can be used to toast the benne seeds, but it burns more easily than margarine)
1 cup (140 g) benne seeds or sesame seeds
1 cup (125 g) sifted all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
½ cup (1 stick/115 g) unsalted butter, at room temperature
½ cup (100 g) granulated sugar
¼ cup (55 g) packed light brown sugar
1 large egg, beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Preheat the oven to 350°F (170°C). Grease two cookie sheets.
Melt 1 tablespoon margarine in a cast-iron skillet over medium heat and add the benne seeds, stirring to coat them—add more margarine if needed. Toast the seeds, stirring frequently, until fragrant and darkened a shade. Take care not to burn the seeds. Scrape onto a plate and let cool completely.
Sift the flour, baking soda, and salt together into a medium bowl.
In a large bowl, cream together the ½ cup (1 stick/115 g) butter and the sugars until well combined and fluffy. Add the egg and beat well. Add the cooled toasted benne seeds and the vanilla. Stir in the flour mixture.
Drop rounded teaspoonfuls of the cookie dough at least 2 ½ inches (6 cm) apart on one prepared cookie sheet. Bake for 8 to 10 minutes maximum, until golden brown around the edges. Remove the wafers from the cookie sheet immediately and place them on waxed paper to cool. Repeat with the remaining dough on the second cookie sheet, reusing the first sheet when it's cooled.
Red Rice from Emily Meggett
Serves 8 to 10
RED RICE GOES BACK TO THE OLD, OLD DAYS—THE DAYS BEFORE ME, MY MOMMA, AND HERS. Red rice is a beautiful, earthy one-pot rice dish that borrows from the traditions of my African ancestors. Sometimes called Charleston red rice, red rice really owes a great debt to the enslaved Africans who brought their knowledge of rice and vegetable farming to the United States. Here on Edisto, Wednesdays and Fridays were seafood days. We had shrimp or fish with red rice, so it was something to look forward to. Back in my day, you didn't use tomato paste and sauce, you used the tomatoes you'd planted in your garden. The tomato paste works just as good, though, and Gullah Geechee red rice is one of the best dishes you can enjoy. Now, red rice can be a tricky thing. If you don't have enough rice, it will come out like mush. If you have too much rice, you can add water, but the texture will be uneven. Early in the cooking, you want to use your spoon to feel the weight of the rice, and make sure it's cooking evenly.
Don't let this dish intimidate you—with well-seasoned vegetables, slices of sausage, and perfectly cooked rice, you've just about got yourself a meal. Oh, and when you put some fatback in there? Now you're talking.
½ pound (225 g) salt pork, cut into 1-inch (2.5 cm) chunks
1 large onion, chopped
1 large bell pepper, chopped
½ cup (50 g) chopped celery
3 smoked sausages (about 14 ounces/395 g)
1 (6-ounce/170 g) can of tomato paste
1 teaspoon crushed red pepper
1½ teaspoons Nature's Seasons, plus more to taste
2 cups (370 g) long-grain white rice, unrinsed
Fry the salt pork in a large pot over medium heat until browned, 8 to 10 minutes. Add the onion, bell pepper, and celery and cook until tender, 5 to 7 minutes. Cut the sausage into bite-size pieces and add to the pot; cook until lightly browned, about 5 minutes. Stir in the tomato paste and 5 cups (1.2 L) water and bring to a boil over high heat. Add the crushed red pepper and Nature's Seasons and stir. Taste and add more seasoning if needed.
Add the rice. Cook, stirring frequently to keep the rice from sticking until most of the liquid has been absorbed and the rice is tender, about 10 minutes.
If using a rice steamer, transfer the absorbed mixture to the steamer. Cover the steamer, and cook on low heat for 15 to 20 minutes, or until all of the liquid is absorbed and the rice can be fluffed with a fork. If using a pot, cover the pot and cook over the lowest possible heat, stirring with a fork as needed, for 25 to 30 minutes, or until the rice has absorbed all the liquid.
Chicken Perloo from Emily Meggett
Serves 8 to 10
MANY OF THE ONE-POT RICE DISHES IN THE LOWCOUNTRY AND THE SOUTH CAN TRACE THEIR ORIGINS BACK TO WEST AFRICA. There's jollof rice in West Africa, jambalaya in Louisiana, and here in the Lowcountry? We've got red rice and chicken perloo. Chicken perloo has a lot of the same western European and African cooking styles you find in dishes like Spanish paella and Ghanaian jollof rice. However, tender chicken, ambrosial stock, and perfectly fluffed rice make this a true Lowcountry dish.
6 tablespoons (90 ml) bacon grease or vegetable oil
½ pound (225 g) salt pork, cut into 1-inch (2.5 cm) chunks
1 cup (125 g) roughly chopped onion
5 cups (1.2 L) chicken broth
1 teaspoon Nature's Seasons
1 teaspoon poultry seasoning
1 pound (455 g) cooked chicken thighs, skin removed and roughly chopped
2 ½ cups (460 g) long-grain white rice, unrinsed
In a large, heavy-bottomed pot, heat 2 tablespoons of the bacon grease or oil over high heat. Once the grease or oil is shimmering, add the salt pork and cook on high heat for 1 minute. Pour the remaining bacon grease or oil into the pot. Reduce the heat to medium-low and cook the salt pork for about 5 minutes, until browned.
Once browned, remove the salt pork from the pot and set it aside. Leave enough oil to coat the bottom of the pot. Add the onion and fry for 1 minute. Return the cooked salt pork to the pot and cook the onion and salt pork together over low heat for about 5 minutes, until onion just darkens.
Add the broth, Nature's Seasons, and poultry seasoning and bring to a boil.
Once boiling, add the chicken. Cook for about 2 minutes, then add the rice. Adjust the heat to medium-low and cook until most of the liquid has been absorbed, 10 to 15 minutes.
If using a steamer, transfer the rice mixture to the top of the steamer, cover, and steam over medium heat for about 20 minutes, until done. If you're using the regular pot, continue to cook the rice mixture on medium-low heat for 20 to 25 minutes, until the rice has absorbed all of the broth. Once done, stir the rice with a fork, and serve immediately.
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