BRUNSWICK, Georgia – It’s not difficult to say that there may never have been a cookbook party like Matthew Raiford threw on his family farm a few weeks ago.
The title of the book is “Bress ‘n’ Nyam” – “Bless and Eat” in the English language Creole spoken by the Gullah Geechee who live on the coasts of the Carolinas, Georgia, and North Florida. Their ancestors were captured and enslaved in West Africa. Nowhere else in America has the cultural line of Africa been better preserved. (Mr. Raiford’s people call themselves freshwater geechee, which means they are from the mainland off the Georgia coast. Saltwater geechees are from the Barrier Islands.)
Mr. Raiford’s farm is on land that his great, great, great grandfather, Jupiter Gilliard, began buying after his emancipation. Mr. Gillard eventually collected 450 acres of land that Mr. Raiford believes likely belonged to white plantation owners who either abandoned it or sold it cheap, fearing what would happen if they lost their power during the rebuilding. Over the years the property has been inherited, divided and sold. Only 42 hectares remain, called Gilliard Farms.
When he was 18, Mr. Raiford left the farm and vowed never to live there again. He married and had children. He joined the army. He eventually graduated from the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY. Eleven years ago, at a family reunion, his grandmother gave the certificate to Mr Raiford and his sister Althea, telling them that they had to go back to farming.
“I knew it would be difficult to come back,” he writes in the cookbook. “Not just agriculture, but also as a black man in the south who cooks in a kitchen and works the land. That is a lot of the past to be reckoned with. “
For the sake of perspective, consider that the place where Ahmaud Arbery was followed and shot by two white men while jogging through a Braunschweig district in 2020 is “every 10 minutes away from me,” said Mr Raiford. “People are like, it’s a new New South,” he said. “I’m like that, are the people who were there when I was a child still there? Then it is not a new south. ”But it is his home, and now he is finally buried.
For the book party, Mr. Raiford and his new wife Tia LaNise Raiford invited a diverse group of around 30 farmers, family members and friends from all over the deep south to socialize and celebrate. The couple first met in cooking school when they were both in their twenties.
The two have merged their food and farm operations into a company called Strong Roots 9, named after the $ 9 that Jupiter Gilliard paid in property taxes in 1870. This includes Zazou, an herbal tea company that Mrs. 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 for the fall harvest.
Having a good dinner party in this corner of Georgia in midsummer is no small feat. The temperature reached 96 degrees when the guests arrived. Moisture hung in the air like a blanket. There were mistakes few book party planners have ever seen.
But there were other urgent things, like what would everyone be eating?
Mr. Raiford describes Gullah Geechee cooking as an alchemy of “Native American fires, Spanish conquest, Caribbean influence and West African ingenuity”. It’s also about who you know.
The Raifords were lucky. Her friends at the Anchored Shrimp Company in Brunswick had just caught some of the last sweet Georgia white shrimp of the season. Mr. Raiford marinated them with rosemary from two large bushes that he had planted when he first returned to the farm. There were meaty rattlesnake watermelons from Calvin Waye (top left), a family friend from below, and pickled edible flowers and pickles from the farmers’ market. The couple picked up several pounds of stone fruit from Georgia Peach World, a charmer of a grocery stall off Interstate 95. Hibiscus for tea (lower photo, below) was from their own farm.
Mr. Raiford built a grill station out of concrete blocks and metro racks. New York chef Ben Lee, who for a while ran the kitchen at A Voce Madison in Manhattan and worked in Philadelphia for Marc Vetri, for whom Mrs. Raiford once worked as a cook, sweated most of the day at the grill.
Mr. Lee (bottom right, in hat) had long been a student of southern cuisine, but only recently met the Raifords in Philadelphia. Mr. Raiford invited him to the party. He showed up and immediately got to work. “Matthew’s whole model is ‘get it done’,” said Mr. Lee, “and that’s what this farm is all about.”
Mountains of fruit, scarlet chickens, eggplant and okra got a turn over the flames. On the table was a large dish of red gullah rice and, for dessert, grilled peaches and plums with sweet teff pudding.
The chickens weren’t put on the grill until the guests arrived. The party lasted almost five hours. There was enough time to get to know each other. That was what Mr. Raiford wanted.
“The book is about community,” he says. “It’s about keeping paying it and finding out what the community is like from here.”