“Red rice goes back to the old, old days — the days before me, my mom, and her,” writes Emily Meggett in her new book. Gullah Geechee Home Cooking: Recipes from the Matriarch of Edisto Island. Photographs by Clay Williams illustrate the cooking life of Meggett, the 89-year-old matriarch of the Gullah community on Edisto Island, SC
The Gullah Geechee people of the Sea Islands of South Carolina and Georgia have a history going back centuries – well before the founding of the United States of America. They came over as enslaved members of West African tribes and eventually settled in the lowlands. Because of their physical separation from the rest of the South and an almost instinctive commitment to preserving their roots, their culture lives on and actually thrives in people like Meggett.
Meggett has lived in the Gullah community all her life and counts 50 grandchildren and great-grandchildren among her heirs. For the first time, her recipes are now documented in a book that is part history and part living culture.
» READ MORE: This cookbook celebrates the community and cuisine of Gullah Geechee
One of the crops that the West Africans brought to the Americas was rice, and with that they brought with them their know-how of growing it. Rice thrived in the lowlands thanks to their skills and remains a staple of their cuisine to this day.
“Red rice is a beautiful, earthy one-pot rice dish that harks back to the traditions of my African ancestors. Red rice, sometimes called Charleston Red Rice, really owes a lot to the enslaved Africans who brought their knowledge of growing rice and vegetables to the United States,” writes Meggett.
It may be a cousin of jambalaya and jollof, but red rice is a dish in its own right. “Here on Edisto, Wednesdays and Fridays were Seafood Days. We had shrimp or fish with red rice so it was something to look forward to. In the past, you didn’t use tomato paste and sauce, you used the tomatoes you planted in your garden. The tomato paste works just as well though, and the Gullah Geechee red rice is one of the best dishes to enjoy,” explains Meggett.
She finds that cooking red rice requires more skill than your average rice pot. Tomatoes contain varying degrees of moisture, and if the liquid-to-rice ratio isn’t right, “it comes out like mush. If you have too much rice, you can add water, but the texture will be uneven. At the beginning of cooking, you want to use your spoon to feel the weight of the rice and make sure it cooks evenly.”
The finished rice should be shiny red, each grain coated with a little pork fat, but not lumpy. Still, Meggett encourages: “Don’t let this dish intimidate you – with well-seasoned vegetables, sliced sausage and perfectly cooked rice, you almost have a meal. Oh, and if you put some fatback in it? Now you’re talking.”
Active time: 45 minutes | Total time: 1 hour 5 minutes
Storage Instructions: Store in the fridge for up to 4 days.
3 thick slices of bacon or about 3 ounces of salt pork, cut into ½-inch pieces
1 medium yellow onion (8 ounces), diced
1 bell pepper (any color), diced
2 sticks celery, chopped (about ½ cup)
8 ounces smoked pork sausage, sliced into 1/4-inch thick or chopped into bite-sized pieces
6 tablespoons tomato paste
2½ cups water
½ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
¾ teaspoon Nature’s Seasons, Sazon, Adobo powder, or other similar salted spice mix, plus more to taste
1 cup (about 6 ounces) long grain rice, unrinsed
In a large saucepan over medium-high heat, sear the bacon or salt pork, stirring occasionally, until browned on all sides, about 5 minutes. Add the onion, bell pepper, and celery and cook, stirring occasionally, until tender, 5 to 7 minutes. Stir in the sausage and cook until lightly browned, about 5 minutes, stirring as needed. Stir in the tomato paste, allowing it to cover all the vegetables and meat, then add the water. Increase the heat to high and bring to a boil.
Stir in the crushed red pepper flakes and Nature’s Seasons or other seasoning mix. Taste and season if necessary. Add the rice and cook, stirring frequently so the rice is not sticky, until most of the liquid has been absorbed and the rice is tender, about 10 minutes. Reduce the heat to the lowest possible setting, cover the pot and cook, stirring occasionally with a wooden spatula or fork to fluff the grains, for 25 to 30 minutes or until the rice has absorbed all the liquid and is tender and fluffy. Remove from the heat and serve family style.
Adapted from Gullah Geechee Home Cooking: Recipes from the Matriarch of Edisto Island by Emily Meggett (Abrams, 2022).
Daniela Galarza is a staff writer for the Washington Post’s food section and also writes Eat Voraciously, a newsletter featuring easy dinner recipes, cooking tips and inspiration.