I could not think of a better cook for Black History Month this month. Matthew Raiford, from coastal Georgia, has written an impressive cookbook. Bress ’n’ Nyam: Gullah Geechee Recipes from a Sixth-Generation Farmer. Gilliard Farms, the farm he runs with his sister, https://gilliardfarms.com/, is an organic farm in Brunswick, Georgia, on land bought and farmed by Raiford’s formerly enslaved great-great-great-grandfather. The family still works the farm, employing sustainable farming methods, and environment-friendly techniques.
I’ve written about Raiford before: his cooking, his family, his deep connection to the land he farms, his unique voice. Historically, African American foodways have shaped America, with little fanfare or praise for the Black cooks, for over three hundred years. The heritage of Raiford’s farm and family shows us the very beginnings of African American influence; seeds brought from Africa, ekeing out a life in a hostile world, to the tastes that are integral to present day America. As Raiford says in his book, “The legacy is in the soil.”
Raiford is the great-great-great-grandson of Jupiter Gilliard, who was born into slavery in South Carolina in 1812. After Emancipation he began to buy land. He raised squash, field peas and corn and a family. His son built a house and raised another generation of farmers and cooks. In search of education and jobs, the family dispersed and some moved north, during the Great Migration. Matthew, his parents and his younger sister moved back to the farm in the nineteen seventies.
Raiford grew up eating local, southern regional foods: soul food. It wasn’t until the nineties that African American cooks and chefs were accepted into the mainstream as talented creators of the foods of the American south. He wasn’t encouraged to pursue these unsophisticated southern foods while attending culinary school. Culturally, it wasn’t considered sophisticated. And yet, it was the hugely delicious, and unsung, part of the American diet.
Like most of us, Raiford remembers older family members cooking, bringing family recipes to life every day, while constantly adapting the recipes according to season and crop yield. Some years there might be an abundance of tomatoes, or a dearth of okra, but there was still a family to be fed. The self-sufficient cooks learned to improvise and adapt, to make do, and were inspired by necessity.
Rice was the foundation crop of the southern tidewater communities. The rice was brought to America by enslaved West Africans, who also had the knowledge and experitise to cultivate the difficult crop. First rice was raised as subsistence food, then as a cash crop, and rice and the food culture surrounding it, flourished. There were regional one-pot rice dishes, from gumbos, and jambalayas and perloos. Raimond has old family recipes for Gullah Rice, with a hearty vegetable stock and roasted vegetables; Reezy-Peezy, peas and vegetables; Cowpea Salad; Mess o’Greens; CheFarmer’s Gazpacho; and Effie’s Shrimp Creole, this week’s Food Friday.
Matthew Raiford’s mother’s recipe for shrimp creole: https://thelocalpalate.com/recipes/effies-shrimp-creole/
Raiford has plenty of recipes for seafood, crab and oysters, wild game, and hogs. I am rather drawn to some of the baking recipes that were also his grandmother’s. I love a nice simple cornbread, poundcake, or biscuits any time of the day. I also love that he remembers that his mother made meatloaf as a way to stretch beef further. His homage to his mother is also humble: Tomato Jam, that recalls the ketchup she used to “shellack” the meatloaf. Raiford uses it to dress up a lowly hamburger. Lucky hamburger!
There are many charming interviews with Raiford on YouTube. Go watch a couple and get to know him, and then go to your local independent bookstore and buy a copy of his book. You will be enchanted by its clean design and the heartwarming story of a successful Black American CheFarmer. Also: https://www.bonappetit.com/story/bress-n-nyam
“Seeds are no mere commercial product, but the embodiment of our living history.”
-Ira Wallace, Southern Exposure Seed Exchange