Emily Meggett, a Southern home cook who never measured her ingredients or used recipes but became one of America’s most important Gullah Geechee cooks and last year published a best-selling cookbook on Gullah Geechee cuisine, died on Friday at her home in Edisto Island, S.C. She was 90.
Her daughter Lavern Meggett said she died after a short illness.
Mrs. Meggett had been cooking for nearly 80 years before “Gullah Geechee Home Cooking: Recipes From the Matriarch of Edisto Island,” was published in April of last year — the first high-profile cookbook centered on the food of the descendants of the enslaved people of the coastal South. She had collaborated with a mostly Black team to create it.
“She left us with a lifetime of work that was overlooked and undervalued for years,” said Kayla Stewart, the book’s co-author. (Ms. Stewart has written for The New York Times.) “She really moved the needle in terms of how we’re talking about Gullah Geechee cuisine and culture.”
“Gullah Geechee Home Cooking” became a New York Times best seller last July, and on Wednesday it was nominated for a 2023 James Beard book award in the category of U.S. Foodways.
Emily Hutchinson Meggett was born on Nov. 19, 1932, and raised on Edisto Island, southwest of Charleston, as were her parents and grandparents. Her lineage traced back to enslaved Africans who worked along the Gullah Geechee corridor, a collection of small coastal communities from North Carolina to North Florida. Mrs. Meggett’s family and other enslaved people held onto some of their traditions and adopted new ones, forging a culture known as Gullah Geechee and a Creole language.
Mrs. Meggett grew up in the Jim Crow South and began her career cooking for white families who kept homes on Edisto, following a tradition with a fraught and complicated history.
“Many Black women,” she wrote in the book, “paved the way for cooks like me to find a career that could support my family and give me the chance to do something I’m good at.”
As Lavern Meggett put it, “She endured it and she made it.”
Her cookbook included 123 recipes created over a lifetime of cooking for her own large family, her church and the families she worked for.
The book, true to Gullah Geechee cuisine, focused on rice, seafood and fresh local vegetables. But it also featured one-pot African recipes like chicken perloo and okra soup. Other dishes, like pot roast, stuffed bell peppers and broccoli with cheese sauce, she acquired while cooking for white families.
Mrs. Meggett learned to cook from her maternal grandmother, Rosa Major Doctor, who raised her. Recipes were handed down orally without the guidance of measurements or written instructions. For two months while she worked on the book, Ms. Stewart learned to cook that way under Mrs. Meggett’s guidance, making complex dishes like a stuffed shad, which they deboned, filled with parsley rice and sewed shut, a two-day project.
But it took years for the book to come to fruition. It started in 1994, when Mrs. Meggett began cooking for the family of Becky Smith, who summered on Edisto Beach. Mrs. Smith repeatedly encouraged Mrs. Meggett to write a book, and the two developed a close friendship. Mrs. Smith pulled out measuring cups and spoons to record the amount of ingredients that Mrs. Meggett used as she cooked, and she recorded her stories.
“I never wanted to forget the things she told me because she changed me,” Mrs. Smith said in a phone interview.
Mrs. Meggett always gave to people in need and had strong religious faith. She drove around with a pot of food in her car and asked God to lead her to people who needed help, Mrs. Smith recalled.
Everyone knew that if her kitchen door was open, anyone could stop by for food — including a couple of tourists who, after reading Mrs. Meggett’s cookbook, drove to Edisto from Texas last year. Mrs. Meggett served them shrimp and grits.
Mrs. Meggett and Mrs. Smith worked on the cookbook together over the years. During the pandemic, Mrs. Smith’s son Elliot edited the manuscript. He asked BJ Dennis, a Gullah chef in Charleston, for his feedback. A few weeks before the Smiths and Mrs. Meggett were going to publish the book themselves, a literary agent asked Mr. Dennis if he was interested in writing a book. He suggested that the first book on Gullah Geechee cuisine should be Mrs. Meggett’s.
At first, Mrs. Meggett didn’t like the idea because it would take much longer to publish.
“I thought I would be dead and gone because of Covid by 2022,” she told The New York Times in an interview last year. “But I prayed about it, and said, ‘Let’s do it.’”
Her life story was woven throughout the cookbook, published by Abrams. Her parents, Laura V. Hutchinson and Isaiah Fludd, were sharecroppers.
In 1951, she married Jessie Meggett, who maintained roads and worked at a grocery store. He liked grits for breakfast and rice with dinner, but the toppings always varied, Lavern Meggett said.
The couple had 10 children.
In addition to her daughter Lavern, Mrs. Meggett is survived by seven other children, Christopher Hutchinson, Mildred Heyward, Elizann Mack, Louise Meggett, Carolyn Goodwin, Elizabeth Jones and Marvette Meggett; a stepson, Ronald Bailey; her brother, Cornelius Thrower; and more than 65 grandchildren, great-grandchildren and great-great grandchildren. Mr. Meggett died in 2006.
“Cooking was her life,” Lavern Meggett said, adding, “She has impacted people’s lives throughout the world with her story about her upbringing and where she came from.”
She also taught her children and some of her grandchildren to cook dishes, like red rice and shrimp and gravy with grits, just as she did — by feel, and not with recipes. Their large family gatherings always centered on food, like the Thanksgiving turkey stuffed with cornbread dressing, which she taught Lavern to make when Lavern was 10.
“My mom always felt that food brings people together, regardless of who you are,” Lavern said.