On my recent trip to Savannah, I was in search of authentic low country southern foods to taste. I wanted to find ones that have been around for 100s of years, not something Paula Dean dreamed up and serves in her tourist trap, “Lady & Sons Restaurant” in the Market District. Everyone knows shrimp and grits, but I wanted to dig deeper and find obscure stuff you only find at the road side stops or in the small towns surrounding Savannah. I had heard of purkel, a goetta-like version of the local livermush served in DeKalb County surrounding Atlanta. I knew that the slaves of the region had influenced the foodways and also wanted to find any remnants of that food heritage I could find.
As I drove down I-17 my wish materialized in the form of the Carolina Cider Company, who advertised their Peach cider, at an upcoming roadside stand. So, I excitedly pulled off to the side of the road. While the peach cider was refreshing and definitely had that cidery taste with distinct peach flavor, I was more excited to come upon a regional food item, the benne, brought by the Goolah or Geechee African American slaves, from Sierra Leon, West Africa.
The benne is the Bantu word for sesame, and is a thin crispy wafer-like cracker with toasted sesame seeds on top. The crackers were eaten for good luck by the slaves. Sesame was one of the food products brought by slaves from East Africa (Madagascar) through West Africa to the Low Country in the Carolinas and Georgia.
Sesame is a versatile seed that can be used in many of the same way as nuts. It has a nutty, sweet aroma with a buttery taste. When toasted the sesame seed’s flavor intensifies, yielding an almost almond or peanut butter like flavor. The seed is also high in protein and low in cholesterol, also rich in calcium, vitamins B and E, and iron and zinc. Think of these benne crackers are the first form of the power bar for African Americans working long days in the Low Country rice paddies.
These West African slaves also brought other foods like peanuts, which were said to be the food rations on slave ships, sweet potatoes, okra, black eyed peas, collard greens, kidney and lima beans, and most importantly – rice.
It was rice that brought these West Africans to the Low Country. Early colonists in Georgia and South Carolina discovered that rice was the only product that grew well in the swampy tropical environments. But, they didn’t have the experience to grow without technical aid. Finding out that Africans from the Sierra Leon region of West Africa, or the Rice Belt, had been cultivating rice for centuries, they specifically requested slaves from these regions to be brought in to help. These slaves were also immune to the malaria and other diseases prevalent in the region, that the white Europeans were not.
So this group very rarely even saw their white slave owners. African American overseers managed them and their white slave owners stayed in their fabulous mansions in the cities. As a result the Gullah were able to keep their customs, language, and food by being so isolated from white culture and other African American slaves elsewhere. They became known as Gullah (also known as the Geechee people in Georgia), and after the Civil War settled on the undeveloped barrier islands of Georgia, like St. Helena. These barrier islands aside from Jeckly, Tybee, and only a few others remain undeveloped and retain much of their natural wilderness.
The artist of our industry murals at the Union Terminal in Cincinnati, Winold Reiss, was commissioned by Survey Graphic magazine in 1927 to create over 20 portraits of the descendants of the Gullah slaves who were associated with the Penn Colony School on St. Helena Island. These beautiful portraits painted a picture of this little known, isolated group of slave descendants on the coastal barrier islands of Georgia who had such a great influence on what we now know as Southern classic cooking.
Boy from St. Helena Island, Coastal Georgia, by Winold Reiss 1927
As the Gullah people were hired out to be house servants and cooks in the urban Savannah and Charleston wealthy homesteads, they brought their West African food items and integrated them into the European cooking creating the dishes we know today.
Now the benne is served as the primary dippin’ cracker for any dips at parties in Charleston. Imagine these nutty, sweet crackers covered in a cheesy- goey, crab-artichoke dip or a nice shrimp pate at a Southern Christmas party. Olde Colony Bakery of Charleston has been making the benne cracker since 1940, representing the fine taste and heritage of their city. Their benne recipe is said to be over 100 years old and the only surviving original recipe.