October is here, let’s all take the opportunity to recognize Gullah Geechee Heritage Month! The people of these coastal communities have had a profound impact on the way we eat and talk in the south, and in the far reaches of the country as well. If you love one-pot rice dishes, stewed okra, or have ever overindulged on shrimp and grits you may want to pay special attention this month!
Who are the Gullah Geechee?
The Gullah Geechee are the descendants of enslaved people in the south’s coastal regions, especially the rice growing area on isolated islands between Charleston and Savannah. Many of the slaves were purchased, traded, or abducted from the rice growing regions of West Africa’s Ivory Coast (especially Sierra Leone, Liberia, Senegal, Gambia) and brought to the Americas for their rice growing expertise. This wasn’t only planting and harvesting the rice, but predicting seasonal weather patterns and engineering irrigation as well.
The Gullah Geechee Legacy
The Gulluh Geechee have the strongest remaining African traditions among Black Americans today. This was due to the nature of rice growing, and geographic isolation of the islands where they lived. With minimal interaction with the outside world, Gullah Geechee people retained many of the cultural traditions of their ancestors. Some of those traditions are a key link in understanding the impact of slavery on Black Americans today.
Their story doesn’t stop at surviving slavery! American culture has a number of influences we can trace right back to the Gullah Geechee culture. Here are a few of the big ones:
- Gullah Language – Most of us know the song ‘kum-by-ya’ a Gullah song meaning ‘come by here, my Lord’, but did you know the term ‘tote’ (as in tote bag) is Gullah as well? Listen as Harvard’s Gullah professor explains in the video above.
- Prominent Gullah Food Culture – There is a concentration of Gullah restaurants in the Charleston area (with a sprinkling of them in Hilton Head, Savannah, and one new opening in Atlanta!). Although you may not have a Gullah restaurant in your area, sharing the heritage of dishes popular nationwide can spread the word about their origin. This may be as simple as adding an extra explanation of your instagram food photo to explain how the crab boil, or shrimp and grits you are about to munch derives greatness from it’s Gullah heritage. Simply eat, share, and give credit!
- Sweetgrass Basket Weaving – There is a dwindling basket weaving heritage brought and adapted from traditions in places like Sierra Leone. If you are ever in the low country, be on the look out for places where you can support the creators, for example, by stopping in to the Gullah Geechee Visitors Center in Beaufort, South Carolina.
But I don’t want to explain too much about a culture I only know myself vicariously. There are enough food blogs on the net doing that already! Instead take a look at this episode of Nourish that I believe is a great intro to both Gullah Geechee cuisine and culture. Pay special attention to the mentions of rice, grits, okra, and seafood!
The low country seems keen to keep these stories alive and we’re all grateful for the opportunities to eat more eclectic because of them. Time to go support Gullah chefs and spread the word. I’m in Atlanta, so my next stop will surely be a visit to Virgil’s Gullah Kitchen.
For more info on this rich heritage in the low country visit Gullah Geechee Corridor website.