I grew up in South Jersey and like many others, my family’s presence there was the result of the Great Migration. Growing up, my childhood was filled with foods characteristic of the Northeast mixed with Southern influences, like scrapple with cheese grits and my grandmother’s favorite, cucumber and tomato salad made with Jersey tomatoes and Italian dressing.
I am ever aware of my Southern roots, but without access to the deeper details of my ancestral story, I’ve only been able to trace my paternal ancestral line back to a slave registry. It is common for many Black Americans to be cut off from their personal history — a potent device of the Atlantic slave trade. This lack of history and ancestral connection has always triggered a quiet note of shame and frustration for me, but it’s also why a new book celebrating Gullah Geechee culture resonates so strongly.
Chef Matthew Raiford’s Gullah Geechee roots are long and deep. One hundred years ago, his great-great-grandfather purchased a piece of land that has become Gilliard Farms, located just west of Brunswick, Georgia. Raiford’s Nana passed over the farm’s deed to him and his sister in 2010, and in 2011, Raiford returned to the land.
What is unique about the Gullah Geechee is the nature of their subjection isolated them to coastal plantations and the Sea Islands, a chain of tidal and barrier islands on the Atlantic Ocean coast of the Southeastern stretching between St. Johns River in Florida to South Carolina’s Santee River mouth. This isolation created a unique culture with deep African roots, where West African culture, language, food, and traditions were protected and passed down.
The Gullah Geechee kitchen consisted of items found in most colonial kitchens, such as vegetables, fruits, game, seafood, livestock, but they also made use of ingredients not indigenous to the Americas. These goods were imported from Africa during the slave trade like okra, rice, yams, peas, peanuts, sesame “benne” seeds. Along with his wife and partner, Tia McDonald Raiford — a brilliant chef in her own right — Raiford created an organization called Strong Roots 9, to celebrate these culinary roots. An inclusive collective of BIPOC farmers, growers, chefs, and naturalists who are dedicated to pioneering a return to the holistic practices of their forefathers, the organization has a mission to help members rediscover their connection to nature through the creation of products and safe spaces that center on agriculture and equality.
Over the last decade, Raiford has expanded his connection to the Gullah Geechee heritage that is his birthright. In his beautiful new cookbook, Bress ‘n’ Nyam (”bless and eat” in Gullah Geechee), Raiford pays tribute to the land, food, and heritage that has nurtured his family for seven generations. In his collection of new and old family recipes, Raiford also tells the story of a community brought together by an often-overlooked cuisine that is deeply integral to this country’s food history. I had the privilege of speaking with Raiford about his new book, his family’s legacy, and how we can celebrate Black foodways.
What inspires your work?
Matthew Raiford: My work is inspired by the past, present, and future. The past is represented by the work of my ancestors. My great-great-great-grandfather, Jupiter Gilliard, was born enslaved in 1812, and in 1874 purchased the land that Gilliard Farms is still located on today. We inherited that land from my Nana, Ophelia Killens, who instilled in my sister and me that hard work breeds success, but that success is not overnight. In the present is my family and me, who still today are located on this farmland — planting rice, hibiscus, and sweet potatoes, and using the old ways to create a compost made from fish scraps, horse manure, and wood chips. The future is my children who have come to love being on the land, inheriting an amazing legacy of citrus trees, pecan trees, southern huckleberries, so that their children’s children can continue to cultivate the land, not only for themselves but also for their community.
What was your thought process for developing Bress ‘n’ Nyam ?
MR: Writing Bress ‘n’ Nyam was an ode to the ancestors! It took me three years from start to finish, and I constantly took time to sit under the big oak trees with the majestic Spanish moss hanging and just listened to the breeze as I was writing. This process allowed me to look up and see what my ancestors saw, as my great-grandfather Horace would come in with a mess o’ fish, or my Nana was making them sweet potato pies. I paid homage to the recipes gathered from the family to create a book that really spoke to the cuisine of the Gullah Geechee region that has nourished my family for generations.
Why do you believe that now is the right time for the work you’re doing with the cookbook and Strong Roots 9?
MR: I believe now is the time for us all to be thinking about a sense of place and asking the question, “where does my food come from?” There is a reason why certain smells and sounds invoke a sense of nostalgia in us all. I believe food is in our DNA. It resonates in our subconscious, and it’s time to listen. That connectivity is essential for a better life. As for Strong Roots 9, my partner Tia McDonald and I wanted to create a lifestyle brand guided by Black folks and elevating the voices of Black farmers, naturalists, chefs, and more. We took a look around to see what was out there by way of culinary brands, and we decided we wanted to create an umbrella under which our brands could live, and our talents can shine. We want to help our diverse community regain its connection to nature through the creation of products and safe spaces that value agriculture and equality at their core. Tia launched her cold-brewed teas, Zazou Teas, in 2019, and I was in the process of creating a coffee, tea, and spice line (Hard Grind - coming soon!). We’re also joining forces to create other products and brands that speak to our passions, like a line of CBD-infused cooking products, a variety of sauces, and much more to come.
What should a reader take away from their time with Bress ’n’ Nyam?
MR: I hope that Bress ‘n’ Nyam can create a visceral reaction for readers. I want them to feel the cool breeze of the Georgia coast while thinking of Low Country oysters on hot tin, salivate at the thought of the sweetness of molasses pound cake, or feel the condensation on the side of a mason jar gin rickey made with Gullah Geechee gin. I hope the readers will feel a special connection to the Gullah Geechee region that has been my family’s home for generations and perhaps uncover a new appreciation for a Black foodway that they may have never encountered.
What is a recipe that speaks volumes about who you are as a chef?
MR: The recipes that come to mind are venison with blackberry sauce and seafood-packed coastal paella with Raiford’s Blood & Sand drink.
How can Black people begin to capture their own family histories through food?
MR:I believe the easiest way is to start where you are! Ask questions, come with a notepad ready to write so that you truly understand the pinches, dashes, and drizzles! Also, patience — patience to listen, patience to observe, patience for the answer.
What lessons have you taken away from this time of global crisis, pause, and pivot?
MR: I actually finished Bress ‘n’ Nyam during the pandemic, and I have been somewhat a loner. What it has taught me is true self-reflection allows you to understand the pause and the pivot. Self-reflection is not an easy task, however, once you start to let go of what is not serving your spirit, you quickly realize how easy your soul starts to feel!
Bress ‘n’ Nyam is available wherever books are sold. To learn more about Strong Roots 9, visit strongroots9.com.
Tiffani Rozier is the host of the “Afros and Knives” podcast, founder of Set the Table Media, and a food writer.