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Gullah storyteller Theresa Hilliard discusses her cookbook, Mama Doonk's Gullah Recipes

Nothings into somethings

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"Grits were eaten daily for breakfast and sometimes for supper. It was eaten with everything under the sun. We ate it with butt meat and eggs. With homemade butter or fatback grease. We sometimes poured warm milk over it too!"

Edisto native Theresa Hilliard grew up on grits and fried oysters, okra and gumbo, "nut cookies" made with the "largest, sweetest pecans ever" that dropped to the ground from the tree in her yard. "I didn't know it was 'Gullah' then, that was just what we ate," says Hilliard.

Hilliard's cookbook, Mama Doonk's Gullah Recipes, published this past November, details the dishes of her life, divided into categories ranging from Meats and Wild Game to Rice and Casseroles. Each recipe is paired with an anecdote — for the Barbecue Pig's Feet, "When Grandma killed a hog, nothing went wasted. We ate the feet, the head, the intestines, the ears, the skin, and the tail. I guess you can say, she made Gullah dishes from the rooter to the tooter. A cookout was not a cookout without pigs feet on the table, make sure there are lots of napkins on hand!"

The paperback is chock-full of Hilliard's simple instructions, a balm to the souls who have been victim to one too many ceaseless online ramblings. Hilliard relies on her senses, rather than a line on a cup, when it comes down to measurements. The Barbecue Pig's Feet calls for eight pig's feet, salt and pepper to taste, a medium onion, "my mother's barbecue sauce to taste," and two cups of water.

Hilliard says that she is a first-time author, which may be true in the traditional published sense. But she's also a skilled orator, a Gullah Geechee storyteller who has been featured by National Geographic. In a Nat Geo video, Hilliard stands in front of a dilapidated building in the woods on Edisto as she recalls what it was like growing up Gullah Geechee on the island, explaining how her generation is the last generation to have contact with Gullah speaking people. "Unless we pass it on to our children, then it will die out."

The main impetus for putting together Mama Doonk's, Hilliard says, was to preserve this narrative, especially for her three children and 10 grandchildren. "My children after they grew up they'd always say 'How do you fix this? How do you fix that? As older people die out, my grandmother of course never wrote anything down, neither did my mother."

The book is dedicated to Hilliard's "three guardian angels," her grandmother, Susan Jenkins, known as 'Mama Doonk' to the locals; her mother Molly 'Dot' Jenkins; and her aunt, Edna 'Bigsis' Jenkins. "It's a tribute to their memories," says Hilliard. These women taught Hilliard how to "take nothings and make somethings," which is the hard truth of how and why Gullah cuisine came to be — the descendants of West African slaves brought to the coastal Carolinas, Georgia, and northern Florida utilized leftover food, food "that was really thrown away" says Hilliard. "Our early ancestors did not have the kinds of foods we eat today so it was things that were not eaten by plantation owners."

This is food that is almost stark in its simplicity — for the at-home cook or the chef endeavoring to prepare native Lowcountry cuisine, the temptation to add a bit of flair must be quashed. "Gullah food is all about taste," says Hilliard. She says that while there are endless possibilities today when it comes to seasonings, it's not the spice aisle at your local Teeter that will make or break your dish. "It's the fat." Hilliard's ancestors "didn't use all the fancy seasonings" it was that same grease in the pan that "gave it all the taste you'd really need."

RUTA SMITH
  • Ruta Smith

Hilliard has noticed, as someone who has lived in the Charleston area her entire life (except for a brief stint in New York, it wasn't for her) the evolution of perception when it comes to Gullah cuisine. Years ago, her family's recipe for Gullah hoppin' john with cow peas and hog jowl would not exist anywhere other than their minds. Today, though, "A lot of it has really become a delicacy now ... it was undesirable back then, and it's costing a whole lot more, when you can get it at throwaway prices. It's just amazing now it's changed so much. It's because more people are being exposed to it," says Hilliard.

Since her book has been published, Hilliard has been able to spread the stories of the Gullah people, and give her listeners something to take home with them. "You can't talk about the culture without talking about the food. It's important that people know where it came from and how it got started and that it was here ... things can be so easily lost and forgotten now, this can get lost in the shuffle. To preserve that, once it's in writing, it lives on so that somebody years from now can say 'oh what is this about?'"

You can purchase Mama Doonk's Gullah Recipes on Amazon, the app store, Google Play, Kindle, and gullahrecipebook.com and in-person at the Preservation Society, the Old Slave Mart Museum, the Old Exchange building, and the Edisto Island Museum. Reach Hilliard directly at info@gullahrecipebook.com.

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