Author Celebrates Gullah Roots With Sumptuous Spread

BRUNSWICK, Georgia – It’s no exaggeration to say that there may never have been a party for a recipe book like the one Matthew Raiford ...


BRUNSWICK, Georgia – It’s no exaggeration to say that there may never have been a party for a recipe book like the one Matthew Raiford started on his family farm a few weeks ago.

The title of the book is “Bress ‘n’ Nyam“-” bless and eat “in English Creole spoken by the Gullah Geechee people that live along the coasts of the Carolinas, Georgia and northern Florida. Their ancestors were captured in West Africa and enslaved. Nowhere else in America has the African cultural lineage been better preserved. (Mr. Raiford’s people call themselves Freshwater Geechee, which means they come from the mainland of coastal Georgia. Saltwater Geechees come from the Barrier Islands.)

Mr. Raiford’s farm sits on land that his great-great-great-grandfather Jupiter Gilliard began to buy after his emancipation. Mr Gillard eventually amassed 450 acres, land which Mr Raiford said likely belonged to white plantation owners who either abandoned it or sold it for a low price, fearing what would happen when they lost. their power during Reconstruction. Over the years, the property has been passed down, divided and sold. Only 42 acres remain, called Gilliard Farms.

At the age of 18, Mr. Raiford left the farm and swore he would never live there again. He got married and had children. He joined the army. Eventually he graduated from the Culinary Institute of America, in Hyde Park, NY Eleven years ago, at a family reunion, his grandmother handed the deed to Mr. Raiford and his sister, Althea, and told them they had to return to agriculture.

“I knew it would be hard to come back,” he writes in the cookbook. “Not just agriculture, but also as a Negro from the South who cooks in a kitchen and works the land. It’s a lot of the past to be reckoned with.

For perspective, consider that the place where Ahmaud Arbery was chased by two white men and shot dead while running in a Brunswick neighborhood in 2020 is “all 10 minutes away from me,” Raiford said. “People are like, it’s a new New South,” he said. “I’m like, are the people who were there when I was a kid still here?” So this is not a New South. But this is his home, and now he’s buried for good.

For the book festival, Mr. Raiford and his new wife, Tia LaNise Raiford, invited an eclectic group of about 30 farmers, families and friends from the Deep South to bond and celebrate. The couple first met at culinary school, when they were both in their 20s, and then reconnected recently while working on a project for the Earth Dance organic farm school in Ferguson, Mo. They got married in May.

The two merged their food and farming businesses into a company called Strong roots 9, named after the $ 9 that Jupiter Gilliard paid in property taxes in 1870. It includes Zazou, an herbal tea company, Ms. Raiford started in Philadelphia, where she lived until she moved to the farm. She uses a lot of hibiscus, which grows well in Georgia, and has planted turmeric and ginger to harvest in the fall.

Organizing a good dinner in this corner of Georgia in the middle of summer is no easy task. The temperature reached 96 degrees when the guests started to arrive. Moisture hung in the air like a blanket. There were bugs like few book party planners have ever seen.

But there were other pressing questions, like what was everyone going to eat?

Mr. Raiford describes Gullah Geechee cuisine as an alchemy of “Native American fires, Spanish conquest, Caribbean inflection and West African ingenuity”. It’s also about who you know.

The Raiford were lucky. Their friends at Anchored Shrimp Company in Brunswick had just pulled out some of the last sweet Georgia white shrimp of the season. Mr. Raiford marinated them with rosemary from two large bushes that he planted on his return to the farm. There were fleshy rattlesnake watermelons from Calvin Waye (top, left), a family friend down the road, and edible flowers and small cucumbers from the farmer’s market to pickle. The couple picked up several kilos of stone fruit Georgia Fishing World, a charmer from a produce stand along Interstate 95. The tea hibiscus (bottom photo, below) was from their own farm.

Mr. Raiford assembled a grill station from concrete blocks and subway supports. New York chef Ben Lee, who for a time ran the kitchen of A Voce Madison in Manhattan, and worked in Philadelphia for much of the day. Marc Vétri, a chef for whom Ms. Raiford also worked.

Mr. Lee (bottom right, in a beanie) had studied Southern cuisine for a long time, but only recently met the Raifords in Philadelphia. Mr. Raiford invited him to the party. He introduced himself and immediately got to work. “Matthew’s whole model is ‘do it,’ Mr. Lee said,“ and that’s what this farm embodies. “

Piles of fruit, boiled chickens, eggplants and okra all had a turn on the flames. There was a large platter of red Gullah rice on the table, and for dessert, grilled peaches and plums topped with a sweet teff pudding.

The chickens did not go on the grill until the guests arrived. The party lasted nearly five hours. There was plenty of time for everyone to get to know each other. This is exactly what Mr. Raiford wanted.

“The book is about the community,” he said. “It’s about paying it forward and figuring out what the community looks like from here. “

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