At the end of the 19th century, Matthew Raiford’s great-great-great-grandfather Jupiter Gilliard bought a farm near Brunswick, Georgia. Born into slavery in 1812, Gilliard passed this land on to his sons. Raiford, born in 1967, left Georgia and the South at the age of 18, vowing never to return. After serving in the U.S. Army with assignments in Germany and the Middle East, learning to be a chef and then cooking nationwide, Raiford finally returned in 2011 to the family farm in Georgia.
His new cookbook ‘Bress’ n ‘Nyam’ (Countryside), which means ‘bless and eat’ in the Gullah language, celebrates the food he cooks on his farm, the flavors he discovered while traveling and the people. Gullah Geechee, preserving parts of their West African culture even after being brought to America and enslaved.
The American South: If I were on your farm, what would I see now?
Matthieu Raiford: You would see wisteria wrapped around the trees. You would see tomato plants start to bloom. You would see oregano in full bloom. You would see rosemary and hibiscus enter the soil. We are also making rice for the first time this year, planting black rice, scarlet red rice and arborio.
TAS: What did it mean to your family to have owned land in America since emancipation?
M: It’s a story of resilience and the story of understanding that the land has power. In my family, they have always viewed farming as a business and not just a means of subsistence. You keep your taxes paid. You stay up to date with what’s going on in the community. Agriculture is not only about growth, but also about being connected to the community as a whole.
TAS: When you were 18, you left the South and swore to yourself that you would never live there again. Now you are back. How has the region changed? How does this still have to change?
M: I am located in Brunswick, Georgia. Less than 10 minutes from my farm, this is where Ahmaud Arbery was assassinated. Coming home and still having these things in front of me so blatantlyâ¦ that was one of the reasons I left. These are the things that I pray that they will continue to change. I pray that people will learn that tolerance is needed more than ever. What has changed is the way people view the South. Southern food is one of the first food trends that not only spread, but never disappeared. Every major city in the United States tries to boast the most amazing Southern food – cookie, pie, barbecue. Southern cuisine has just taken on a life of its own over the past 20 years. I believe from the bottom of my heart that southern foods are not going away anytime soon.
TAS: What story did you want to tell with this cookbook?
M: I wanted people to know that there are blacks who come from the land. We are not a one-dimensional group of people. Many of us cultivate and ensure that the legacy lives on. I also wanted to show that they’re not just a bunch of old chefs and old farmers doing this. There is a younger group of people who are there.
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TAS: How well does your book represent Gullah Geechee culture? And how much is a personal reflection of you?
M: It’s very intertwined. Normally, when people think of Gullah Geechee, they automatically think of South Carolina, and that’s it. You don’t really think of Georgia. I wanted people to understand that the Gullah Geechee corridor runs from North Carolina to Florida. I also grew up in fishing, crabbing and farming. I grew up hunting. I grew up doing all of these things that haven’t really been part of American history for people of African descent. I wanted to make sure this was part of the book. I was in the army. I have participated in wars. I have traveled the world. I have been fortunate enough to work in amazing places. I have been fortunate enough to live in amazing places. All of this is what makes up Matthew Raiford.
Note: The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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