Southern cooks are known for not using written recipes, opting for “a smidge of this and a good bit of that.” In the Georgia Sea Island kitchens it was the same. Recipes were rarely written down: they were kept alive in an oral tradition of watching and asking the cook. Sometimes a cook might omit a step to preserve his or her reputation. The reputation of coastal African American cooks may be traced back to Cupidon (chef to Marquis de Montalet on Sapelo) and his protégé Sans Fox (chef for the Coupers at Cannon’s Point on St. Simons Island) in the 18 th century. Sans Foix’s technique for deboning a whole turkey was a never-told secret.
The St. Simons African-American Heritage Coalition’s annual festival “A Taste of Gullah” brings to guests one-pot rice dishes with shrimp or chicken reminiscent of recipes carried from Africa. As a griot and keeper of local African-American history SSAAHC Executive Director Amy Roberts collects recipes for foods served at church suppers, community barbecues, or family reunions, and “secret” techniques for preserving fruits or canned vegetables. She is glad to have saved recipes for canned okra and tomatoes, and peas and rice from her late friend Annie Cummings. Pound cakes for Church homecomings, whole hog barbecues on weekends, and smoked mullet all taste of tradition. Many of the recipes today were derived from traditions and foodstuffs passed down through Muslim traditions. Katie Brown, the great granddaughter of Belali Mohomet on Sapelo spoke to writers in the 1930s about her grandmother Margaret’s rice cakes which she described as “funny flat cakes’ called ‘sakara.” She said that her grandmother made the rice cakes with honey or sugar on the same day every year, “a it big day,” possibly referring to a Muslim celebration to offer thanks for their blessings and remembering Allah. Shadwick Rudolph, who lived between St. Marys and Folkston, told the same writers that his grandmother Sally makes the best rice cakes with brown sugar, not honey.
Since the 18 th century coastal African Americans have served their knowledge of local produce and traditional foodstuffs in their homes and outside to the white community. Hoppin’ john (black-eye peas), collard greens and pot likker, sweet potatoes or yams, okra, gumbo, hibiscus, and watermelon can be found on tables across the U.S. Often chefs have carried these simple dishes from their childhood kitchens to James Beard award winning restaurants.
Adults in Savannah recall enjoying “thrills” in the summertime. The sweet sticky snack is essentially, frozen juice or Kool-Aid inside a plastic cup with a popsicle stick in the middle. Today James Beard Foundation award chef Mashama Bailey offers thrills at her restaurant The Grey as a palate cleanser. Bailey’s pops are derived from muscadine, and yet the effect mirrors the original. They remain fun, nostalgic, a tether of memory yanking at the heart and tongue.
And no doubt some of the recipes recorded in the Cassina Garden Club cookbook echoed the talents of their African- American housekeepers and cooks.
Sources that contributed to this article: Drums and Shadows, Georgia Writers Project 1940; Article by Narjis Nichole Abdul-Majid , July 2015 on website www.sapelosquare.com; articles about Thrills: Savannah Morning News, Sept. 14, 2023 and Gabrielle Ware, GPB. July 2015.
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