Gullah home cooking
Stick-to-your-ribs recipes rooted in local history
Story by Carrie Hirsch + Photo by Butch Hirsch
Gullah food is some of the most delicious, stick-to-your-ribs and satisfying to enjoy. Many of the recipes have remained unchanged over many decades, if not centuries. Back when Hilton Head, Daufuskie and other remote islands were farming-and-bartering communities, everything was organically grown right in the neighborhood.
Neighbors shared their bounties — one family grew collard greens and turnips, another raised hogs, and another grew sweet potatoes. When a dish was returned to a person who had dropped off a casserole, the dish was never returned empty.
As a “cumya,” a non-Native Islander, I knew very little about Gullah cooking except for mainstays of collard greens and fried chicken offered on menus, but I had not learned the way to actually prepare them. My first exposure to traditional Gullah cooking was with Louise Cohen, who welcomed me into her kitchen after I called her and asked her for a tutorial for an article I was writing. I arrived with a list of ingredients, as directed, including collards and smoked turkey wings. After a few hours, strangers bonded over a simmering pot on the stove.
Daufuskie Island native and cookbook author Sallie Ann Robinson, who makes a divine deviled crab by picking the crab by hand, took it upon herself to teach this cumya how to fish. It sounds romantic and relaxing, but it was anything but. It meant baiting the hook, casting the line, taking the fish off the line, cleaning the catch and trying not to fall off a rickety dock. I finally caught a whiting large enough to keep. I proudly took my catch home and cooked it the only way I knew how: pan sautéed in butter, with white wine and capers. When I shared this cumya’s method of preparation with Sallie Ann the following day, she paused for a moment and said, laughing, “What? You need to flour, salt and pepper it and then deep fry it!” I don’t think I’ll ever live that down with her, but my fishing skills have greatly improved.
Several experiences stay with me. On a very steamy summer day, Native Islander Ruth Germany showed me how to make sweet potato pone, which can be served as a side dish or a dessert. As much as I enjoyed learning the preparation, it was the conversation and the feeling of being welcomed, sitting there at her kitchen table, that I treasure to this day.
Another time, I happened to come upon a Gullah elder harvesting loquats during the very short season they grow in the spring. Similar to an apricot in appearance, with a sparkling copper–colored pit, this sweet fruit was popular decades ago, as it grew everywhere here. He was striking the upper branches with a stick so the loquats fell to the ground. He gathered them up in a cloth sack and rode away on his bicycle. And a few years ago an enormous smoked mullet was served at a Gullah cultural event on Georgia’s Sapelo Island, accessible only by boat. It was worth the effort of carefully removing the multitude of tiny bones to savor the flaky fish. The smoky aroma permeated the salty air, and young men at the makeshift grill struggled to keep up with the demand.
What might not seem so traditional, but frequently appears on Gullah menus, is macaroni and cheese, decadently heavy on the cheese. Much more traditional, however, was the harvesting of sweet, plump, dark purple berries resulting in Mason jars of mulberry wine, which was a popular treat for special occasions. Like the loquat trees, there are far fewer mulberry trees today (much to the chagrin of all birds), but where there are mulberries, there always will be mulberry wine.
Have a crummy day
Cornbread is practically South spelled backwards. This quick bread made with cornmeal is a favorite accompaniment to classic Gullah dishes – historically there are variations of cornbread known as Johnny cake, cracklin’ bread, corn pone and hot water cornbread, which are cooked in slightly different ways and may contain one special ingredient – think bacon drippings and then chide yourself for throwing them away after your last batch. These are hearty muffins, so they travel well for picnics.
Ham & Coconut Cornbread Muffins
Ingredients (Makes 12 muffins)
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup yellow cornmeal
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1 cup corn kernels, drained
4 slices deli ham, finely chopped
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1 cup half and half
2 eggs, beaten
4 tablespoons sweetened coconut flakes
 Heat oven to 400 degrees. Stir together flour, cornmeal, baking powder, and sugar in a medium bowl.  In a small separate bowl, whisk together corn, ham, oil, half and half, eggs and coconut flakes.  Fold corn mixture into dry ingredients.  Lightly spray muffin tin cups with cooking spray. Fill muffin cups 3/4 full, then bake for 20-25 minutes or until lightly browned.
Conch you hear me?
Conch was, and still remains, a staple in Lowcountry Gullah kitchens in the form of chowders, fritters, salads, stews, and this delicious, chock-full-of-vegetables soup. Check with your local fish market about sourcing the freshest conch. Smoked turkey wings are readily available in most supermarkets – they impart an incredible amount of flavor. No salt is added to this recipe, but salt to taste as needed.
Conch Soup with Smoked Turkey Wings
Ingredients (Serves 4-6)
1 pound conch meat
6 tablespoons butter
6 green onions, finely diced
3 carrots, peeled and finely chopped
2 stalks celery, finely diced
3 tablespoons all-purpose flour
2 cups water
(1) 15-ounce can corn kernels, drained
2 red bell peppers, seeded and finely chopped
5 medium potatoes, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch cubes
3 smoked turkey wings or neck bones (approximately 1 1/2 pounds)
5 cups low sodium seafood stock (OK to substitute chicken stock)
3 tablespoons tomato paste
1 1/2 tablespoons powdered ginger
½ teaspoon black pepper
2 tablespoons hot sauce (optional)
Chopped parsley (for garnish)
 In a medium pot, cover conch with water and bring to a boil for 15 minutes. Drain and process in food processor so the pieces are very small. Add 3 tablespoons butter to a medium skillet and sauté green onions, carrots, celery, potatoes and bell peppers for 10 minutes over medium-high heat, stirring often.  In a large pot, melt the remaining 3 tablespoons butter over medium heat. Whisk in flour for 2 minutes to create a roux. Stir in water, seafood stock, corn, turkey wings, tomato paste, ginger and black pepper.  Stir in the cooked conch and vegetables. Bring to a boil, cover and reduce heat to low and simmer for 1 hour.  Using tongs, remove meat from wing bones, chop up when cool enough to handle, then return meat to the pot and discard bones. Add hot sauce and simmer, uncovered, for 15 minutes more. Garnish with chopped parsley.
Rice and shine
Rice is the star of many Gullah/Geechee dishes. Enslaved people from the “Rice Coast of West Africa,” desired for their extensive knowledge about cultivating the crop, were instrumental in the success of the rice plantations of the coastal regions of the Carolinas, Georgia and Florida. You will find a myriad of different spellings for rice dishes including perlo, perloo, perlou, perleau, purleau and pileau. However, our favorite for you Wordle players is pilau for its three vowels. Leftovers (in the off chance there are any) are delicious topped with a poached egg and a few shots of hot sauce.
Red Rice & Sausage
Ingredients (Serves 6-8 as a side dish)
3 slices thick-cut bacon, coarsely chopped
1 onion, chopped
1 green bell pepper, seeded & chopped
(1)14-ounce package smoked turkey, beef or pork sausage, sliced into 1/4-inch rounds
1/3 cup tomato paste
1 teaspoon garlic powder
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon black pepper
2 cups uncooked long-grain rice
3½ cups water
 Fry bacon in a 12” cast-iron skillet over medium heat. Reserve the bacon drippings in the skillet. Set cooked bacon aside on a paper towel to add in later.  Sauté onions, green bell pepper and sausage for 5 minutes, stirring often. Stir in tomato paste, garlic powder, salt and black pepper until well incorporated into the vegetables.  Add in uncooked rice and continue to stir for 3 minutes over medium heat, making sure it does not burn on the bottom. Add water and chopped bacon and stir to combine.  Cover skillet tightly with aluminum foil, then reduce heat and simmer for 20-25 minutes or until rice is cooked. Fluff rice with a fork and keep warm until ready to serve.
Keep your eyes on the pie
Sweet potatoes are yet another staple of Gullah/Geechee dishes. Back in the day, they were stored underground throughout the winter, covered by sacks to preserve them. They often were baked into a sweet potato ‘pone,’ a crustless dessert with spices and molasses. These days, avoid storing sweet potatoes in the refrigerator; as it can change the sweet potato’s cell structure and cause an unpleasant taste and internal white spots. Tuck them in a cool, dark place instead.
Deep Dish Sweet Potato Pie
Ingredients (pie dough)
2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 stick butter, chilled & cut into small pieces
1/2 teaspoon salt
3-4 tablespoons ice-cold water, or more as needed
Ingredients (pie filling)
5 cups cooked, peeled & mashed sweet potato
2 eggs, beaten
½ stick butter, melted
6 ounces evaporated milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/3 cup dark brown sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
Directions (prepare the crust)
 Using a dough hook, add all ingredients except water into the bowl of a standing mixer and process until dough begins to hold together, then add ice water until it sticks together and forms a ball. If too dry, add more ice water, a teaspoon at a time.  Heat oven to 375 degrees. Flour your hands, shape dough into a ball then roll out into a 12” circle on a floured surface.  Invert the dough into a 9” deep dish pie plate, crimping the edges. Prick the bottom with a fork, then bake for 20 minutes. It will be underdone at this stage. Remove from oven.
Directions (prepare the filling)
 Using a standing or hand mixer, mix mashed sweet potatoes, eggs, butter, evaporated milk, vanilla extract, brown sugar, cinnamon and nutmeg until smooth.  Reduce oven temperature to 350 degrees. Add filling to partially baked pie crust, then return to oven and bake for 50-60 minutes or until a toothpick comes out clean when inserted in the center.  Remove and allow to cool for 20-30 minutes before refrigerating. This allows the pie to firm up a bit before slicing. Optional: Top with whipped cream or vanilla ice cream or both.