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Cookbook celebrates the tradition of Gullah Geechee cuisine

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

Last year we celebrated a chef who got a book deal at age 89. Emily Meggett from Edisto, S.C., was a queen of Gullah Geechee cooking, and her cookbook became a bestseller. NPR culture correspondent Anastasia Tsioulcas traveled to Edisto last spring to spend some time in Emily Meggett's kitchen. Meggett died on April 21 at age 90 after a brief illness. In tribute to her life, we're sharing her story again today.

ANASTASIA TSIOULCAS, BYLINE: Edisto Island is a beautiful, quiet community of about 2,000 people nearly an hour's drive south of Charleston. The roads are fringed 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.

EMILY MEGGETT: Go right to that drawer right there. Get the spoon.

TSIOULCAS: 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, I ask her, what's the first thing she remembers making as a girl?

MEGGETT: Grits.

TSIOULCAS: Grits.

MEGGETT: (Laughter) Grits and this salt pork right here.

TSIOULCAS: Ms. Emily is Gullah Geechee. Her community's ancestors were enslaved people from West and Central Africa. In their insulated locations throughout the coastal areas of the Carolinas, Georgia and Florida, they managed to preserve much of their rich culture, language and music.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE BUZZARD LOPE")

BESSIE JONES AND GEORGIA SEA ISLAND SINGERS: (Singing) Throw me anywhere, Lord, in that ole field. Throw me anywhere, Lord, in that ole field.

TSIOULCAS: Her cookbook is called "Gullah Geechee Home Cooking." Right now Ms. Emily is focused on making her gravy - salt pork, onion, flour and some seasoning salt. That's it.

MEGGETT: Now, you watch me every step of the way.

(SOUNDBITE OF SPOON SCRAPING)

TSIOULCAS: She's 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.

MEGGETT: I'm from the old school. And people would, you know - you add things to see how that going to taste. But sometimes, I think they jazz it up too much. This is a 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.

TSIOULCAS: 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. They grew their own vegetables, beans and fruit. They raised hogs, chickens and other livestock. They fished and hunted.

MEGGETT: Because we even had our own rice pond when I was growing up.

TSIOULCAS: 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.

MEGGETT: The red rice and the Hoppin' John.

TSIOULCAS: Her beloved late husband Jesse 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, whom friends around the island call M.P., recounts plenty of family stories as well as her own complex history in "Gullah Geechee Home Cooking."

MEGGETT: When I came along, I guess I was the last of the enslaved because when I went out to babysit, I got $1.25 from 8 o'clock in the morning until 3 o'clock in the afternoon. And that was in the '50s.

TSIOULCAS: Not long after, her mother told her she had to choose. She could either work in the fields, or she could become a cook for wealthy white families. One of those was the Dodge family from Maine. And Ms. Emily cooked for them for 45 years.

MEGGETT: And then when I went over to the Dodge house, a week's pay was $11.15 a week. And every year, it went up a dollar and three penny. I start from the bottom of the barrel up to this time. I think I did good for myself and also my children because if I wasn't taught what to do and how to do it, then I couldn't have taught my children.

TSIOULCAS: And those recipes are imprinted in her memory.

MEGGETT: That's how I cook. I cook by my brain and my hand and my heart.

TSIOULCAS: 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. Cooking for Ms. Emily is about sharing history. And as she says in her book, food is one of the most important ways we can take care of each other. That was the whole impetus for her cookbook.

MEGGETT: A lot of time, we has a treasure in our head. And we would 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.

TSIOULCAS: Gretchen Smith is the director of the Edisto Island Historic Preservation Society. She's thrilled that her good friend Emily Meggett is attracting so much attention with her cookbook.

GRETCHEN SMITH: It's just got so much more than recipes in the book. It's stories. It's anecdotes. It's the culture of the Gullah community. And it's just - it's not just a cookbook by any means. And I think that's what really has ignited the interest in it.

TSIOULCAS: In the meantime, the gravy is ready.

MEGGETT: All right. Now, you see what I put in there? I didn't put no celery, no bell pepper, no tomato, no water.

TSIOULCAS: At nearly the last moment, she sautes the shrimp in a separate skillet. They're done in just a couple of minutes. And she quickly folds them into the sauce.

MEGGETT: If you make the gravy and put the shrimp in there to cook, it makes it tough. Now, you taste the gravy - hot now.

TSIOULCAS: OK. I got it. Thank you (laughter).

MEGGETT: You got the crunch of the shrimp.

TSIOULCAS: She's absolutely 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.

MEGGETT: The whole entire world (laughter), 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.

TSIOULCAS: As soon as the shrimp and grits are ready, we gather over the kitchen table for a moment of prayer, holding hands and communion. Ms. Emily says grace.

MEGGETT: Thank you for family and friend. These and all the other blessing I'm asking in you (ph)...

TSIOULCAS: And then we feast together. Anastasia Tsioulcas, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHOO LIE LOO")

RANKY TANKY: (Singing) I'm just in the kitchen - shoo lie loo (ph) - with a handful of biscuits - shoo lie loo. We Ranky Tanky - shoo lie loo. Fly away over yonder - shoo lie loo. I'm just in the kitchen - shoo lie loo - with a handful of biscuits - shoo lie loo. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anastasia Tsioulcas is a correspondent on NPR's Culture desk. She is intensely interested in the arts at the intersection of culture, politics, economics and identity, and primarily reports on music. Recently, she has extensively covered gender issues and #MeToo in the music industry, including the trial and conviction of former R&B superstar R. Kelly; backstage tumult and alleged secret deals in the wake of sexual misconduct allegations against megastar singer Plácido Domingo; and gender inequity issues at the Grammy Awards.