There is something both familiar and exotic about the Lowcountry.
For those looking to unlock its mysteries, understanding the Gullah culture in South Carolina may just be the key.
In the late 1600s, rice was desired all over the world. Enslaved Africans from West Africa’s “Rice Coast” were brought to the Lowcountry to work in the rice and cotton fields. The landscape was hot, remote and teeming with mosquitos. Physically and culturally isolated, the workers lived, worshiped, spoke and cooked as they wished. They became known as the Gullah, and they created their own cuisine and language, holding tight to treasured West African skills and traditions.
Gullah cuisine grew out of the resourcefulness of enslaved African women.
They applied European and African cooking methods and flavors to locally available foods. These included:
- tomatoes, native to the Americas
- corn, native to the Americas
- squash, native to the Americas
- Peanuts, native to the Americas
- watermelon, native to the Americas
- yams, imported from Africa
- okra, imported from Africa
- collard greens, imported from Africa
Quintessential Gullah dishes include fried fish, stewed shrimp and hoppin’ john. In fact, many classic “Southern” dishes came straight from Gullah kitchens.
An English-based hybrid, the Gullah language includes nearly 4,000 African words.
Gullah is still in use today, especially in storytelling. Spoken, chanted or sung, Gullah stories are proudly passed from one generation to the next.
The Gullah also craft beautiful coiled baskets handwoven from sweetgrass and palmetto fronds. Other Gullah traditions include the making of cast nets and the singing of lively spirituals, music that influenced American jazz, blues and gospel traditions.
Today, America’s Gullah population is approximately 300,000. However, because up to 70 percent of enslaved Africans landed in the Lowcountry, many more African Americans have Gullah roots.
The history of the Gullah people is one of adaptation, survival and community — and the story of the Lowcountry is incomplete without the Gullah experience.