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Emily Meggett Embodied the Beauty of Gullah Geechee Life and Cuisine

The beloved South Carolina chef, who passed away in April, taught generations how to not just enjoy food, but respect its true origins.

The chef Emily Meggett in a pink shirt and white apron
Emily Meggett
Clay Williams

It struck me that during my first meeting with Emily Meggett — a meeting in which she was supposed to be vetting me, a first-time cookbook collaborator, to essentially write her remarkable life story and recount her life’s work — her primary concern was making sure I had enough to eat. She’d prepared a full spread, complete with fried shrimp paired with her lauded pink sauce, fried chicken, and various casseroles. It would set the stage for the remainder of our time together — two years that would include a bounty of seafood dishes and days spent chatting on her porch, overlooking her front yard in Edisto Island.

In April, Mrs. Emily (as she was affectionately called by most who knew her) passed away after dealing with a brief illness. While I and so many who loved her were heartbroken, I also found myself in awe. In her 90 years of life, Mrs. Emily had fed and nourished her South Carolina Lowcountry community through a seemingly endless repertoire of recipes. As a mother, wife, and professional home cook, she personified the legacy of the Gullah Geechee people, a group of African Americans who persevered along the coasts of the Carolinas, Georgia, and upper Florida, integrating African traditions into Southern American foodways. And in her life and posthumous legacy, she should join the ranks of a vanguard of Black women cooks, including Edna Lewis and Leah Chase, who redefined American cuisine through the lens of Black womanhood and cooking.

Mrs. Emily grew up in a generation that vilified Gullah Geechee culture as being less valuable than white American culture. She rejected these racist beliefs, and instead carried her knowledge of Gullah Geechee foodways forward, educating a new generation of Gullah Geechee cooks.

I’m not of Gullah Geechee heritage, and it was extremely important to both of us that I could understand and properly articulate her life story within the context of that heritage. Our chemistry was pretty immediate when we first met in February 2020, making the task not only possible, but an exciting journey for both of us. As a journalist and researcher with a background in African American studies, I had a deep familiarity with the history of the Gullah Geechee people, and with the ruthless ways in which their remarkable heritage — forged in spite of slave systems built to dismantle the African traditions that gave South Carolina its immense wealth — has been devalued and underrepresented in narratives about South Carolina culture. Charleston restaurants, just an hour’s drive from Mrs. Emily’s home, boast regional favorites like red rice, shrimp and grits, and okra and seafood gumbo, yet rarely do these restaurants acknowledge how those dishes became so interwoven with the region’s foodways in the first place. It’s only through the efforts of figures like Mrs. Emily that the story of Lowcountry cooking became complete.

Mrs. Emily gave thousands of readers a vivid and exacting example of this history, which she and I detail in her James Beard-nominated cookbook, Gullah Geechee Home Cooking: Recipes from the Matriarch of Edisto Island. We spent nearly two months together on Edisto Island, cooking and driving anywhere that provided insight into her world. And the resulting text, brought to life with input from Gullah Geechee oral historian Trelani Michelle, is the first Gullah Geechee cookbook to be published with a major American publisher, formalizing Mrs. Emily’s embodiment of the beauty and endurance of Gullah Geechee life and cuisine.

Like many Black women of her generation and the generation that preceded it, Mrs. Emily learned how to cook through oral traditions. She was taught to measure by feel and sight, and, until she wrote her own, had never found much use for cookbooks. Local cooks learned from her words, and from observing her natural aptitude for the culinary arts. And though Mrs. Emily may not have followed typical measuring methods, her recipes — such as a rich she-crab soup, which requires time and patience to achieve the right texture, and chicken perloo, a one-pot rice dish reflective of Mrs. Emily’s deep knowledge of Gullah Geechee culinary practices — reveal her to be a cook rooted in both culture and strong technique.

But while I was impressed by Mrs. Emily’s ability to prepare a stuffed shad fish for dozens of guests — an intricate recipe that requires two people — I was even more intrigued by her insistence that everyone who helped prepare the meal eat well, too, and amid hours-long interviews, recipe testing that often extended well into the night, and visits to cultural institutions across her beloved island, I was met with a rare, albeit sorely needed, sense of kindness and compassion.

Mrs. Emily produced perhaps the most groundbreaking work to come from a Gullah Geechee chef in this nation’s history. Yet, even when appearances on CBS News and NPR and a spot on the New York Times bestseller list made her name more recognized across the U.S., her priority continued to be her loved ones. Her children, of which she had 10, were her lifeblood. Marvette and Lavern, who Mrs. Emily lovingly called “the corporal and the general,” were with us regularly during my months of research. While they helped to organize and assist with administrative tasks, they were also simply Mrs. Emily’s children. She remembered their likes and dislikes, preparing a separate batch of okra soup for her youngest, Marvette, without pork, since she wasn’t a fan. She regularly sent visitors home with to-go containers so they could enjoy a nourishing meal at home; food was often the language she used to care for others. Once during recipe testing, a plumber stopped by to take care of a house issue. When he was done, Mrs. Emily abruptly halted testing so she could ask the plumber about his family, and give him a plate to go.

This relationship to food could easily fall into old, reductive stereotypes about women in the kitchen, but Mrs. Emily was no doting subordinate or mammy-like figure. She became such a skilled home cook that she ultimately led the kitchen at the Dodge House, home to a wealthy white family, where she cooked professionally for almost 50 years. She was a leader in her church, cooking for hundreds of people at a time, consistently reminding the local community of the invaluable contributions Gullah Geechee people have provided to the region.

Though Mrs. Emily will no longer be charming rooms full of people eager to hear her life and culinary anecdotes, her legacy will continue. Her cookbook has reached audiences across the country, and even in other parts of the world, allowing a new generation to learn about the history and legacy of Gullah Geechee people, and teaching them how to not just enjoy food, but respect its true origins. Mrs. Emily has also mentored and educated a future generation of Gullah Geechee chefs and home cooks, such as BJ Dennis and Amethyst Ganaway, both of whom have referenced her as central to their culinary philosophy and development as guardians of Gullah Geechee heritage and foodways.

When Mrs. Emily passed away, I admittedly wasn’t ready. I knew that she was at peace, far from the pains of a tough illness, but selfishly, I wanted more time. After spending a few days reflecting on her life, however, I recognized that Mrs. Emily has left me with an invaluable, intangible gift: wisdom. She taught me that our work and our craft was integral to life, but should never ever be the sole center of it. She taught me that love, in its purest, most generous form, can be given and received in many ways — through friendship, through parenthood, and yes, of course through food. She reminded me that even though centuries of disrespect and ignorance rendered Black food as “lesser-than” for many years in the food establishment, Black women have been feeding people, innovating in the kitchen, and redefining American food for generations, and no amount of racism or white supremacy could ever counter or destroy these contributions to America’s culinary fabric. She — and cooks like her — deserve to be exalted well into the future.

And finally, Mrs. Emily taught me that, way more often than not, she was right. During our time spent cooking together, I watched Mrs. Emily prepare generously seasoned, expertly crafted meals, many of which she, a cook who for most of her life used no measuring tools, would “fix” during the cooking process. “Add more seasoning salt.” “Turn the spoon this way.” “Add more liquid before it reduces.” “You’ve got to go faster for that meringue to come out.” “Now you know that needs some more salt pork.” Yes, Mrs. Emily, you are, as always, correct.