From New England to the American Southwest, Louisiana’s Bayou country to the Pacific Northwest, along with a few pockets in between, the United States boasts an array of regions with distinct, acclaimed food scenes. But for its abundance of seafood, fertile soil, moderate climate, and Native American and African slave influences, we’ll hold up the Lowcountry of Georgia and South Carolina as this nation’s most culturally important cuisine.
To be sure, that stretch of coastline and islands is rich with history—fascinating, complicated, and downright ugly when you consider the centuries of slavery and extermination of Indigenous people by European settlers. All the more interesting is the modern-day Gullah population: descendants of slaves (in the main) who proudly speak Gullah, an English-based Creole language with ample sprinklings of African words.
This week we’re thrilled to spend time with Sallie Ann Robinson, a six-generation Gullah and Native American from the tiny island of Daufuskie off the coast of South Carolina. Rachel Jagareski reviewed Sallie Ann’s latest cookbook, Sallie Ann Robinson’s Kitchen, in the September/October issue of Foreword Reviews—a “valuable [contribution] to American culinary history, recording an oral tradition of family recipes and kitchen wisdom passed down from many ancestors,”—and we quickly reached out to the University Press of Florida to help us put reviewer and author together for this conversation.
Rachel, take it from here.
Your book is a delicious and illuminating mix of recipes, Gullah cultural history, and family memories. You portray growing up on isolated Daufuskie Island with such love and joy. When did you first come to understand that your community’s way of life was so unique and needed to be preserved in your books?
Though we spent most of our time on Daufuskie, we were aware of the world beyond us from our infrequent boat trips to shop in Bluffton and Savannah, especially at Christmastime. Our schoolteacher, Pat Conroy, also took us on field trips that exposed us to other places. In the early seventies, the tourist boats started to come to Daufuskie and that was when we had our first experiences with outsiders criticizing us and telling lies about us, as I relate in the book. That started the fire.
Later, when I was my mother’s caregiver during her last years I would discuss these things with her. She would tell me, “Don’t get mad. Do something about it.” I was busy raising my kids when I lived away from Daufuskie, but parenthood changed my perspective. I was nostalgic for my close-knit upbringing and I could hear my ancestors’ voices telling me “You need to be home.”
Growing up, we children listened to many stories from our parents and grandparents and I needed to write them down to preserve this precious heritage. I have always heard the voices of my ancestors guiding me through life, encouraging me, giving me strength, and letting me know that I can never give up, and need to speak up! I am blessed to have this legacy of love and striving to make the world better.
Your childhood sounds idyllic, surrounded by a wealth of loving relatives and neighbors and with so many things to do. Though you and the other kids never lacked for chores, you describe the fun of working communally to fish, farm, and prepare food throughout the seasons. How have these nostalgic memories of a pre-electricity, pre-television, and (horrors!) pre-internet/cellphone era been received by your children and grandchildren?
I am blessed to have fourteen grandchildren and when I spend time with them I am always sharing stories about my childhood and relatives. It was different in my family than in other households. Our parents were strict about having all of our homework and chores done before we could go out and play. If our friends or cousins came over they would have to help us with our work if we weren’t finished!
But as I tell my grandchildren, things were easier for us back then because our parents gave us focus and strength and taught us the value of hard work, determination, and tough love. These were happy times. We didn’t worry and we felt secure and loved. We didn’t know how blessed we were. My childhood was just fascinating: just love, hard work, and plenty to eat!
Grandmomma Blossom was my favorite person from your book. You describe her as a strong personality who didn’t suffer fools and didn’t waste time, though she did have a soft spot for her precious vegetable patch and for feeding others. Do you have other memories of her to share?
Grandmomma Blossom was strict and firm with us kids. She had a look—and you did not play with that look! But she also had a sweet side and would share heaping plates of her homegrown, homecooked food with anyone who came by.
You touch on the difficult topics of slavery and bigotry in your book and note that these topics were not discussed by the adults at their get-togethers or with the children. In hindsight, do you think these hard discussions would have benefitted you and your peers? Or were your elders right to shield you from these hateful subjects during your younger years?
I don’t know whether our parents were trying to protect us or didn’t discuss these subjects out of fear. They were certainly not going to be comfortable conversations.
I know my ancestors went through hard times, but while they didn’t specifically discuss slavery and racism, there was always advice about learning to be tough, while always having manners and treating people with respect. The advice we got growing up was “Keep on the right path to be a leader, not a follower.” “Do what you love, but always have a backup plan.”
I still hear my ancestors guiding me. Everybody has a different path in life and that’s how we move forward. I am happy and proud of my Gullah heritage and I keep moving forward, even when I have suffered the most, like when my first child was killed by a drunk driver when I was only 21 years old. I kept moving forward and I didn’t give up.
I asked my mother about slavery in later years when I was an adult, and her response was “Gal, don’t know nuthin’ ’bout that.” I do know that somebody recorded oral conversations with Daufuskie residents in the past and I am in the process of tracking down this information for my research for future books on Gullah history.
I love all the photos of the Dafauskie landscape and farm animals. With your busy schedule as a chef, caterer, tour operator, author, and other activities, do you have time for a garden and livestock now as you did in your youth?
I don’t have time for a big garden but I always have to have my hands in the dirt! I always have some peppers and tomatoes to tend in containers. We got used to growing our own food on Dafauskie, eating delicious, fresh meals. Now natural and organic food is in style, but that’s what we always ate.
I was as dazzled by the fresh flavors of your recipes as I was charmed by the generous use of Gullah dialect and your beautiful prose. Your writing is often lyrical—“We lived in peace, free from running over others to get where we were going.”—and full of passion and energy. Have you studied writing or is this a natural gift?
My writing comes naturally. I feel I am a young person with an old soul, guided by the voices of my ancestors. Writing is in my soul. The more I write, the more peaceful I feel and the more that opens up. Right now I have five books I am working on: an autobiography, a book on Daufauskie people, a book on Gullah life, and two children’s books.
You note in your book that you live on Daufuskie Island now and that there have been many changes in the landscape, residents, and pace of life. How do you view how things have changed?
I lived away from Daufuskie for fifteen years and now that I am back home, I better appreciate the quiet and rural nature. Living in the country isn’t for everybody, but I need a peaceful space for my writing. There certainly is a new crowd living on parts of Dafauskie, with gated communities and tourists buzzing around in golf carts during the packed summer season.
Taxes have also gone up. I mention in the book that the house I grew up in is in need of renovation. I am hoping to work on repairing it so my family can come stay here and enjoy their inheritance and we can lease it out at other times.
I am looking forward to continuing my work to preserve Gullah and Dafauskie heritage. I recently bought a tour bus and have started tours of Dafauskie Island. I love sharing my culture and recipes with these tours, cooking classes and demonstrations, my book projects, and speaking appearances. Feel free to visit my website, thegullahdiva.com to contact me if you want learn more about Gullah culture. (Sallie Ann’s tour company website: www.sallieannauthenticgullahtour.com).