Sallie Ann Robinson was born in 1958 on Daufuskie Island in South Carolina, a sixth-generation Gullah raised on the island.
The Gullah are African-Americans who live in the Lowcountry of Georgia and South Carolina, a group of maybe 125,000 folks who speak a distinct Creole language, one born of isolation from whites while working on plantations, a language influenced heavily by the grammar and cultures of Central and West Africa.
Daufuskie Island: No bridge to the mainland, just 125 people total. Everyone knew everyone. She and the other nine kids in her family were raised by the village. Wash days were Wednesday and Saturday, a washboard and a tub and a whole lot of elbow grease. There was a garden to tend, chickens and hogs to keep fed and watered, canning to do with her mom to put things up for the winter.
She has spent much of her adult life on Hilton Head Island, S.C., and in Savannah, Ga., but the island of her childhood looms large. She has built a career on writing books that chronicle Gullah recipes and dialect, folklore and her own family history.
SEE MORE PHOTOS: Sallie Ann Robinson shows us her home on Daufuskie Island.
The author of Gullah Home Cooking the Daufuskie Way and Cooking the Gullah Way, Morning, Noon, and Night, Robinson will be in St. Petersburg for the Tampa Bay Collard Greens Festival, presenting on Feb. 15 at a private reception called Collards After Dark and then doing a cooking demonstration in the Legacy Gardens of the Dr. Carter G. Woodson African American Museum on Feb. 16.
We caught up with her by phone to discuss cooking, Lowcountry culture and what she'll be making in St. Petersburg — her famous shrimp and potato salad, Daufuskie deviled crab, crab rice and, of course, collards.
What was different about growing up on the island?
It was a place with all this space. We farmed, we hunted, we went to the ocean for all our seafood. We didn't think it was strange because it's all we ever knew. I grew up in an old house with a tin roof and shutters, very drafty. We didn't grow up with toys or things that were distracting, we had chores that taught us to be strong and independent.
The school on the island went up to eighth grade. What did you do after that?
After eighth grade, you had to go to the mainland and live with a family member or pay someone to keep you. My mom sent me to my aunt in Savannah. When you eat with other people, you compare it to your family's food. One of the things I didn't know before that was we had such organic food on the island. Then you go to the city and buy store-bought food.
I became a mother when I was 16, but I made sure I graduated. Plenty of girls got pregnant and quit school. But I'd come too far to quit. My first job was washing dishes at a hotel in Hilton Head, then I asked them if I could cook. In my 20s, I decided that I wanted to be my own boss. I started cooking and I would have folks come over and eat. And then I went into nursing, and that led to my first book. My grandfather would say, "Only a poor mole has one hole." He meant that if you don't get off your butt and do something, you'll end up with just one hole or option.
You're an author in your own right, but also a muse. The character Ethel in Pat Conroy's memoir The Water Is Wide was modeled after you. Conroy taught on Daufuskie Island and maintained a friendship with you.
He was a person who loved teaching kids. He became my teacher, he inspired me. I had drive and determination, and I wanted to do better than my parents. I didn't want to see myself farming all my life. So, I said I'm going to do a cookbook. I wrote my first book in the mid-1990s. I had to reach out to different people and ask a lot of questions. Believe me, when it got published I was overwhelmed.
What did you get from your mother, in terms of your skills or philosophy in the kitchen?
Everybody thought she made the greatest gumbo, but she did not cook the same thing every week. She would change it up, crab over rice or crab stew, it was never the same. It was hard when I started writing books, (because) I do not cook and measure at all, that's not how I was taught, I would estimate. I originally just called what I did "downhome cooking." Gullah wasn't in my vocabulary.
What advice do you have for new cooks?
Never go in the kitchen mad. I think that's what hinders people. They come home tired and busy. You go in there with a positive attitude and it's full of love, food for the soul. With Gullah cooking, you start from the bottom: You have to raise that chicken before you can enjoy that meal. We knew our food, and everything was from scratch. So many young folks don't know nothing about where that chicken came from.
And how about collards. Do you have any special methods of cooking them?
I don't use vinegar or sugar. My mother didn't believe in adding things like that. I cook my collards with rutabaga. The rutabaga gives it a natural sweetness. But you don't have to do what others do to be what you are. You have to find your own love and your own joy.
Collard Green, Rutabaga and Smoked Turkey Wings
Smoked turkey wings
1 large bunch collard greens, torn into medium pieces
1 medium rutabaga, peeled and medium diced
1 large onion, diced
1 tablespoon salt
2 teaspoons black pepper
Fill a large soup pot with water and add smoked turkey wings, then place pot on medium-high heat and bring to a boil for about 30 minutes. This removes much of the salt from the turkey wings. Drain all water from pot, but leave the turkey wings.
Fill pot ¼ full with water, add rutabaga and bring to a boil.
Cook for about 20 minutes or until rutabaga starts to become tender. Rinse collards and drain at least two to three times, then add to pot with rutabaga and wings. Add onions, salt and black pepper and stir, placing lid on pot and cooking for about 45 minutes. Continue cooking and stirring occasionally for another 1 ½ to 2 hours. Check seasonings and texture by tasting a small piece of collards. Collards should be tender but not mushy.
Source: Sallie Ann Robinson
Shrimp and Tada (Potato) Salad
4 to 5 medium white potatoes, peeled, medium diced
1 teaspoon salt
1 ½ pounds fresh or frozen small or medium shrimp, peeled and deveined
5 to 6 hardboiled eggs, small diced
½ stalk celery, small diced
¼ green bell pepper, small diced
¼ red bell pepper, small diced
2 teaspoons black pepper
2 tablespoons Mt. Olive Sweet Salad Cubes (a condiment like relish, but a larger cut)
2 teaspoons garlic powder
2 to 3 teaspoons paprika
2 heaping tablespoons Hellmann's mayonnaise
Hot sauce, to taste
Add potatoes to medium pot with enough water to cover potatoes by about ½ inch. Bring to a boil on medium-high heat until potatoes start to become tender (check using a folk).
Add shrimp and cook for about 3 to 4 minutes until potatoes are fully cooked. Remove from heat and drain well. Place in refrigerator to help cool potatoes for about 20 to 30 minutes.
Remove from refrigerator and place potatoes and shrimp in a bowl and toss. Add eggs, celery, green and red bell pepper, black pepper, sweet salad cubes, garlic powder and paprika. Toss together, then add mayonnaise and combine mixture well. If you like more mayonnaise, add your desired amount.
Cover and place in refrigerator and chill until ready to serve. When you are ready to eat, if you like spice, add 1 to 2 dashes hot sauce.
Source: Sallie Ann Robinson
Tampa Bay Collard Greens Festival
The Tampa Bay Collard Greens Festival runs 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday at the Dr. Carter G. Woodson African American Museum, 2240 Ninth Ave. S, St. Petersburg. Visit tampabaycollardgreenfestival.org for more information.