It struck me that during my first meeting with Emily Meggett, a meeting in which she was supposed to examine me, who was collaborating on a cookbook for the first time, to essentially write the extraordinary story of her life and tell the His life’s work, his main concern was making sure I had enough to eat. She had prepared a full spread, complete with fried shrimp paired with her praised pink sauce, fried chicken, and various stews. It would set the stage for the rest of our time together: two years that would include an abundance of seafood dishes and days spent chatting on her porch, overlooking her front yard on Edisto Island.
In April, Mrs. Emily (as she was affectionately called by most who knew her) passed away after dealing with a brief illness. While I and so many who loved her were heartbroken, I also found myself in awe. In the 90 years of her life, Mrs. Emily had fed and nurtured her Lowcountry South Carolina community through a seemingly endless repertoire of recipes. As a mother, wife, and professional home cook, she embodied the legacy of the Gullah Geechee people, a group of African-Americans who persevered along the coasts of the Carolinas, Georgia, and upper Florida, integrating African traditions into the food customs of South America. And in her lifetime and her posthumous legacy, she should join the ranks of a vanguard of Black cooks, including Edna Lewis and Leah Chase, who redefined American cuisine through the lens of the Black woman and the kitchen.
Ms. Emily grew up in a generation that reviled Gullah Geechee culture as less valuable than white American culture. She rejected these racist beliefs and instead carried her knowledge of Gullah Geechee eating ways forward, educating a new generation of Gullah Geechee cooks.
I am not of the Gullah Geechee heritage, and it was extremely important to both of us that I be able to properly understand and articulate his life story within the context of that heritage. Our chemistry was pretty immediate when we first met in February 2020, making the assignment not only possible, but an exciting journey for both of us. As a seasoned journalist and researcher in African American studies, she was deeply familiar with the history of the Gullah Geechee people and the ruthless ways in which their remarkable heritage, forged despite slavery systems built to dismantle African traditions. that gave South Carolina its immense wealth, has been undervalued and underrepresented in narratives about South Carolina culture. Charleston restaurants, just an hour’s drive from Ms. Emily’s home, feature regional favorites like red rice, shrimp and grits, okra, and seafood gumbo, but these restaurants rarely acknowledge how those dishes intertwined both with the gastronomic customs of the region in the first place. . It is only through the efforts of figures like Mrs. Emily that the history of Lowcountry cooking was completed.
Ms. Emily gave thousands of readers a vivid and exact example of this story, which she and I detailed in her James Beard-nominated cookbook, Gullah Geechee Home Cooking: Recipes from the Matriarch of Edisto Island. We spent nearly two months together on Edisto Island, cooking and driving anywhere that would provide insight into his world. And the resulting text, brought to life with input from Gullah Geechee oral historian Trelani Michelle, is the first Gullah Geechee cookbook to be published with a major American publisher, formalizing the embodiment of beauty and resistance of Gullah Geechee life and cooking by Mrs. Emily.
Like many black women of her generation and the generation that preceded her, Ms. Emily learned to cook through oral traditions. She was taught to measure by touch and sight and, until she wrote her own, she had never found much use for cookbooks. Local cooks learned from her words and from observing her natural aptitude for the culinary arts. And while Ms. Emily may not have followed typical measuring methods, her recipes, such as a rich crab soup, which takes time and patience to achieve just the right texture, and chicken perloo, a one-pan rice dish pot that reflects Mrs. Emily’s in-depth knowledge of Gullah Geechee cooking practices reveals that she is a cook rooted in both culture and strong technique.
But while I was impressed with Ms. Emily’s ability to prepare stuffed tarpon for dozens of guests, a complex recipe that requires two people, I was even more intrigued by her insistence that everyone who helped prepare the meal also eat well and In the midst of hours-long interviews, recipe testing that often lasted late into the night, and visits to cultural institutions on his beloved island, I was met with a rare, though much-needed, sense of kindness and compassion.
Ms. Emily produced perhaps the most innovative work by a Gullah Geechee chef in the history of this nation. Yet even when appearances on CBS News and NPR and an ad in the New York Times best-seller list made her name more recognized in the US, her priority remained her loved ones. His children, of whom he had 10, were his soul. Marvette and Lavern, affectionately referred to as “the Corporal and the General” by Mrs. Emily, were with us regularly during my months of research. While they helped organize and assist with administrative tasks, they were also simply Mrs. Emily’s children. She recalled her likes and dislikes, preparing a separate batch of okra soup for her youngest daughter, Marvette, without pork, since she wasn’t a fan. She regularly sent visitors home with to-go containers so they could enjoy a nutritious meal at home; food was often the language she used to care for others. Once, during the testing of the recipe, a plumber stopped by to fix a problem in the house. When she was done, Mrs. Emily abruptly stopped the tests so she could ask the plumber about her family and give him a plate to take away.
This relationship with food could easily fall into old reductionist stereotypes about women in the kitchen, but Mrs. Emily was not a doting minion or mommy-like figure. She became such a skilled home cook that she eventually ran the kitchen at Dodge House, home to a wealthy white family, where she cooked professionally for nearly 50 years. She was a leader in her church, cooking for hundreds of people at a time, constantly reminding the local community of the invaluable contributions the Gullah Geechee people have provided to the region.
Although Ms. Emily will no longer be charming rooms filled with people eager to hear her life and culinary anecdotes, her legacy will continue. His cookbook has reached audiences across the country, and even in other parts of the world, enabling a new generation to learn about the history and legacy of the Gullah Geechee people, and teaching them how to not only enjoy food, but also respect their true origins. Ms. Emily has also mentored and educated a future generation of Gullah Geechee chefs and home cooks, such as BJ Dennis and Amethyst Ganaway, who have cited her as the center of their culinary philosophy and development as guardians of heritage and habits. Gullah Geechee food.
When Mrs. Emily passed away, I admit I wasn’t ready. She knew she was at peace, away from the pains of a harsh illness, but she selfishly wanted more time. However, after spending a few days reflecting on her life, I recognized that Mrs. Emily had left me a priceless and intangible gift: wisdom. She taught me that our work and our trade were an integral part of life, but they should never be the only center of it. She taught me that love, in its purest and most generous form, can be given and received in many ways: through friendship, parenthood, and of course, through food. She reminded me that even though centuries of disrespect and ignorance made black food “inferior to” for many years in the food establishment, black women have been feeding people, innovating in the kitchen, and redefining American food for generations, and no amount of racism or white supremacy could offset or destroy these contributions to America’s culinary fabric. She, and cooks like her, deserve to be exalted in the future.
And finally, Mrs. Emily taught me that, most of the time, she was right. During the time we spent cooking together, I watched Mrs. Emily prepare expertly prepared and generously seasoned meals, many of which she, a cook who for most of her life did not use measuring tools, “prepared” during the cooking process. “Add more salt for seasoning.” “Turn the spoon this way.” “Add more liquid before it reduces.” “You have to go faster for that meringue to come out.” “Now you know that needs more salty pork.” Yes, Ms. Emily, as always, you’re right.
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