Us folks from the South, Charleston and the Lowcountry in particular, are fiercely proud of our heritage. The Gullah Geechee people are just as passionate and proud of who they are; their roots, their history, their food, and their language. And while the cultures of the South, Appalachia, the Lowcountry, and the Gullah Geechee have intersections that connect them and that spread into mainstream American life, there is a significant difference between one and the other. This difference is what created the Gullah Geechee culture and people in a sense, and what has helped to preserve it since the 18th century.
Recently, an article was published about a group of students that were going to a national competition using a traditional Gullah recipe. With this article, came a lot of backlash that seemed to go unheard, or at least not acknowledged. But it’s time for an honest and open conversation to be held. Appropriation has been a buzzword recently, especially in the culinary community. Who is “allowed” to cook a certain dish has been argued repetitively and the consensus seems to be,” cook whatever you want as long as you don’t say it’s yours when it’s not” and, “ show respect and acknowledgement to whoever it actually belongs to.” But the conversation this article brought up isn’t one of appropriation, but appreciation. What is probably the most important thing to note about Gullah Geechee food is that by preserving culinary techniques and recipes, the people were able to stay connected to their African roots. It is uniquely theirs, and theirs only with nothing like it anywhere else in this country or world. So, while these students aren’t to blame (if anything, they have brought communities together to rally for a win), they have been failed, and so have the Gullah Geechee people.
In the article comments, members and friends of the Gullah Geechee communities had questions and comments that received retorts ranging from, “Well if they [the students and Gullah Geechee] don’t share the recipe, it will die”, “You should be thankful they’re using the recipe, it’s just as much theirs as it is yours”, to, “Why make this about race? These kids are just cooking some food and bringing awareness to the area!” Everyone is welcome to make these dishes, but not everyone has a connection to what the dishes mean, and that is a poignant fact to keep in mind. Recipes are passed down similarly to stories and songs and have more meaning than when they are found in a book or website. Rice is more than just a starchy addition to a meal in Gullah communities. There is an almost ritual like way it must be prepared that has been passed from hand to hand from slavery to the descendants today. Crabbing, shrimping, fishing, and then preparing meals and eating them are often communal and traditional acts that keep families and friends close in an age where it’s easier to be connected through social media.
Were these kids taught what this dish and others like it mean to the Gullah Geechee? Will they understand how they will have an advantage from using a recipe from a culture that has never been recognized in this competition? When restaurateurs and businesses use traditional recipes and the literal Gullah Geechee name to profit but fail to hire or include the Gullah Geechee people in the process, there is a problem. When no Gullah Geechee child was a part of the competition, it should be called out, recognized, and rectified. It is unknown if a Gullah Geechee person was a mentor or at least a reference for these students and their recipe, but had that information been divulged, it could have at least eased the hurt of seeing it printed in an article with unrecognizable faces and names. There should have been more consideration and acknowledgment for the members of the community, not only with the mentors for the students, but with the article itself. The Gullah Geechee were doing Farm to Table before it was cool. Dishes that are famously Southern and American like red rice, gumbo, purloo, shrimp and grits, and Hoppin’ John have only recently gotten acknowledgment as being African recipes adapted by the enslaved as they encountered the other cultures in their areas.
Soul food is synonymous with Southern Food, but to the Gullah Geechee, it is an almost literal term. These recipes are one of the few ways people in 2019 and beyond can be connected to the people they share blood with from across an ocean, various countries, and generations. To be Gullah Geechee is to have the last bit of who your ancestors are and were, to have a piece of family and identity, running through your blood and your everyday practices. It means even more, when you can’t go past two or three generations of history to find relatives or any more information about who you are or where you come from. The Gullah Geechee survived for many years because of isolation and was inevitably going to be spread and shared because it is American culture and history. It deserves more than being a second thought in an article while its people are literally stripped of their land, homes, and culture, just as they were when they arrived here. Just as the Gullah Geechee deserve peace, prosperity, and the pursuit of happiness after their enduring time here in this country, they deserve respect. Their recipes are as sturdy and resilient as the people, and equally deserve recognition.