“She was a remarkable woman! Everybody gravitated toward her, no matter who they were. And I’m just proud to call her mom!” That’s how Lavern Meggett describes her late mother, Emily Meggett of Edisto Island, South Carolina.
The Gullah Geechee cook became famous worldwide when she published her first and only book, “Gullah Geechee Home Cooking: Recipes from the Matriarch of Edisto Island,” in 2022 at the unbelievable age of 89. She was inspired to do it by her good friend, Becky Smith, whose family she cooked for whenever they vacationed on the island for over 20 years.
“Becky told her, ‘Emi, you need to write a cookbook,’” remembers Meggett, one of Emily’s ten children. “My mom said, ‘No, I’m not writing a cookbook. Everything I need for cooking is in my head, my heart and my hands.’ So Becky started writing down dishes my mom was cooking and taking photos of them.”
Twenty years later, they had 80 percent of the book done when another Gullah Geechee cook, Chef BJ Dennis of Charleston, called. “BJ is like a son to my mom; he’s family,” notes Lavern, who lives in a suburb of Columbia, South Carolina. “So when his [publisher] called to ask if his book was ready to be published, he said, ‘not yet’ and suggested the publisher take mom’s book instead. How noble of BJ to put my mom’s book ahead of his,” the legendary cook’s daughter emotes.
Becoming the Matriarch
Though the book made Emily Meggett famous worldwide, she was already renowned on the Gullah Geechee Sea Island of Edisto, where she was born and lived her entire life. “My mom was born in 1932 and was raised by her maternal grandmother,” notes Meggett.
“Life wasn’t easy for them. They had to farm and everything they ate they grew, like okra, tomatoes and corn,” she continues.
“And they would slaughter hogs and hang the meat in the smokehouse. But my mom didn’t like working in the field. So my grandmother told her that if she wasn’t going to work in the field, she would have to cook and prepare breakfast and lunch for the family members in the field.”
That’s how Emily learned to cook as a preteen. “And back then, the only spices they had were salt and pepper. They didn’t have any of those fancy spices that we have now,” notes Meggett. “My mother said that there was no such thing as ‘Gullah Geechee cuisine’ the way they call it now; it was just the way that Gullah Geechee people cooked. And even with only salt and pepper, the food always had a lot of flavor,” Meggett says with pride.
When Emily got older, she met Jessee Meggett and raised ten children on Edisto, less than an hour south of Charleston. “Mom called it ‘a little piece of heaven,’” smiles Meggett. “Our house was the house in the neighborhood where everybody gathered to play and there was always food,” Meggett says reminiscing.
“Actually, everything my mom did was centered around food. She had a love for food and people.” She continues, “Growing up, I thought she was God, that she could do any and everything. Everybody came to my mom if there was a problem in the neighborhood, and she was so giving and caring that she felt the need to help everybody.”
Even with ten children and working for White families, Emily was able to keep the house clean, the children’s clothes cleaned and starched, and cook a hot breakfast for the family every morning. “We always had grits with sausage and waffles or biscuits,” remembers Meggett. “And we always had a big dinner and an extra big dinner on Sundays. I don’t know how my mother did it all.”
In the midst of it all, Emily still found time to be sure her neighbors were fed, especially the elderly and sick and shut-in. “When she got up in the morning, she’d say her devotions and say, ‘Lord, just guide me to somebody that I need to bless or do a good measure for today,’” explains Meggett.
“Then she’d cook a big pot of lima beans with neck bone in it and cook rice and fry chicken and make cornbread and get in her van and feed whoever. And when she got a little older, like age 88/89, she would call people to come pick up the food and have them take it to people in the neighborhood.”
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Meggett continues, “She treated everybody like family, no matter what their race. And she did it out of the goodness of her heart and never asked for anything back. Maybe that’s why they called mom, ‘The Matriarch of Edisto Island.’”
The Cookbook and Fame
With Emily not slowing down, even in her 80s, it’s no surprise that she would publish a cookbook at 89. “Mom never used a recipe, it was all in her brain, her heart and her hands,” Meggett exclaims. “When making the cookbook, they sent a chef and a food stylist and a photographer and mom said, ‘This is the way I’ve been cooking all of my life, and I’m not going to change anything. So you are not allowed to jazz up my food,’” Meggett laughs. “And they learned more from her than she did from them. She taught them things like washing your grits three or four times to get the corn husks out of it.”
Once the book was published, the attention she started getting didn’t change her. “When I told her, ‘Mommy, your cookbook is a New York Times Bestseller,’ all she said was, ‘Oh, really?’” shrugs Meggett. “It was like any other day. But the book launch was amazing!”
She continues, “We ordered 500 books, which sold out, and mom stayed late and signed every last one of them. And today, “Gullah Geechee Home Cooking” is in its third printing. [Food historian and journalist] Toni Tipton-Martin told mom she was so proud of her for keeping the recipes in her head so that they could be put in a cookbook by an actual Gullah Geechee cook, considering the 400 or so cookbooks on Gullah cooking are written by White authors using Black recipes.”
Meggett says she loves all of her mom’s recipes in the cookbook, but especially her red rice with sausage, shrimp and gravy with grits, squash casserole and her fried shrimp with pink sauce, which is made by mixing ketchup and mayonnaise together with a little hot sauce.
Also in the cookbook is Emily’s version of Chilly Bears, made by freezing Kool-Aid in little Styrofoam cups. “On hot days when we were outside playing with the neighborhood children, my mom would come out with this long, silver tray loaded with cups of Chilly Bears for all of us,” Meggett reminisces.
She also says her mother’s biscuit recipe is the best. “She worked for the Dodge family at the Dodge House [a former plantation] for 45 years,” notes Meggett. “She started as a dishwasher making $11.16 a week, but then she learned to cook under the wing of Julia Brown, another Gullah Geechee cook. And every time my mom made biscuits, if she didn’t do it right, Julia Brown would throw them in the trash can,” Meggett laments. “And my mom would get so angry. But she said that’s how she learned to make the best biscuits.”
Full of memories, Meggett continues, “In her cookbook, she said, ‘If my side door is open, there’s food in the kitchen.’ And every time you walked into her house, you could find a piece of cornbread or biscuits with whatever she cooked that day.”
The cookbook is a James Beard Award nominee and won the 2023 Art of Eating Prize for best food book of the year.
Continuing Emily Meggett’s Legacy
Emily Meggett received many honors, including the President’s Volunteer Service Award, presented by U.S. Representative James Clyburn of Columbia, South Carolina. This past March, she was honored as one of “The Matriarchs of the Low Country.”
“They unveiled a painting of mom there, and that painting is now in the new International African American Museum in Charleston, in the Gullah Geechee exhibit,” notes Meggett. Emily passed away at age 90 on April 21 of this year.
The legendary cook’s legacy was honored in July at the Wine & Culture in Atlanta and The Edisto Island Museum is also celebrating her in their new Gullah Geechee exhibit. On November 2, the International African American Museum will host “Gullah Geechee Home Cooking: The Soul behind the Stove of Matriarch Emily Meggett of Edisto Island.”
Meggett is honoring her mother by carrying on her legacy of helping the community. “My mom taught us not to turn people away and not to say no because you don’t know what people are going through,” she states. “And I see a lot of my mom in me. I love to cook too, and there are five or six elderly families from my church who I cook for. I cook enough for them to have meals for two or three days,” she smiles.
Other Meggett family members are following in her mother’s footsteps. “My oldest niece, Denise Ravenel, is just like my mother. She loves to cook,” exclaims Meggett. “She cooks for her church and owns ‘Dem Ravies’ food truck.”
She adds, “And like my mother, Denise never gets tired and never says no, so I feel like she’s also carrying on my mother’s legacy.” Meggett also has a 12-year-old great-niece who was always in the kitchen with Emily, her great-grandmother.
“She called me one night to say, ‘Guess what Aunt Poochie? I’m getting ready to cook something from grammy’s cookbook.’ So she also gives me hope for the future. And as long as I have breath in my body, I’ll do my best to keep mom’s cooking legacy alive, so the Gullah Geechee community doesn’t forget it, and so other people don’t try to steal it.”