Cohen offers taste of Gullah traditions

March 30, 2011 

Louise Miller Cohen can trace her Hilton Head Island roots back to the 1800s. She grew up on Hilton Head before the bridge was constructed. She remembers her relatives telling stories with a Gullah dialect.

"There was a time when the Gullah language was considered 'broken English' and children were discouraged in speaking the way of their culture," Cohen said. "Now this dialect is one to understand and to enjoy as one learns more of the culture and ways to preserve it."

Cohen is a fifth-generation native of Hilton Head. She has as much of a passion for learning as she does for sharing the knowledge of the Gullah culture. In researching her ancestry, she discovered a story about her grandmother's father, William Simmons -- a former slave and Civil War veteran. He escaped from a Lady's Island plantation by borrowing a pass from a man who had permission to go to the military base to sell berries and oysters to the troops. Using that pass, Simmons enlisted in the Army. Many years later, when he applied for his pension, he recorded his personal history in his deposition. Cohen grew up on the 15 acres of land Simmons purchased on Hilton Head's Gum Tree Road.

One story leads to another. At a meeting years ago, Cohen and other Hilton Head Islanders discussed unsightly properties around town. Decisions were being made as to the best plan to begin the demolition. It was at this presentation that Cohen spoke up and said, "I plan to preserve the little house on Gum Tree Road." She questioned why she had said it. "It seemed as if a voice over which I had no control was speaking for me. I wondered what was I getting myself into."

From that moment, she has worked to preserve Gullah heritage on Hilton Head. She helped develop a business plan to create the Gullah Museum of Hilton Head Island, a nonprofit organization established in 2003 with the mission to preserve the Gullah history, culture, customs, traditions, language, stories, song and structures. She also won support to restore the little house, built in 1930.

This Friday, Cohen, members of the museum board and others will travel to Columbia for the presentation of the Palmetto Trust for Historic Preservation Governor's Award. The award honors the renovation efforts on that special little house.

Cohen also keeps the Gullah story alive in her kitchen. She has kept the way of her mother, grandmother and those that came before them. She eats of the rivers and creeks as her son Anthony continues the legacy of his father, who was a fisherman and shrimper. Cohen shares her love of the culture with the sharing of recipes.

Shrimp and Rice

2 pounds shrimp

3 tablespoons Worcestershire sauce

2 cups rice

1 teaspoon salt

2 cups water

2 sticks butter

2 medium onions, chopped

4 stalks celery, chopped

1/2 green pepper, chopped

3 tablespoons flour

Boil shrimp and peel. Place on container and pour Worcestershire sauce over them. Cover and refrigerate overnight, or at least for several hours.

Cook rice with salt and water. Melt 1 stick of butter in large skillet. Add onions, celery and green pepper. Saute until crisp-tender.

Remove shrimp from refrigerator and coat with flour. Saute with vegetable mixture until shrimp are brown.

Mix well with rice and return to pot. When ready to serve, cut up 1 stick of butter over rice and let melt.

Shrimp Crab Casserole

1 pound shrimp

1 pound crab meat

2 eggs, lightly beaten

1/2 cup milk

2 cups bread crumbs

1/4 cup butter, melted

1 tablespoon seafood seasoning

1 teaspoon Worcestershire sauce

Salt and pepper, to taste

2 hard-boiled eggs, chopped

Heat oven to 375 degrees. Devein and cook shrimp until light pink.

Combine shrimp, crab meat, eggs, milk, 1 cup bread crumbs, seafood seasoning, Worcestershire sauce, salt and pepper. Pour into greased baking dish.

Mix remaining bread crumbs with melted butter. Top casserole with bread crumb mixture. Bake for 45 minutes. Cool. Garnish with hard-boiled eggs.

Sweet Potato Pudding

2 cups sweet potato, grated

1 cup milk

1 cup sugar

2 eggs, slightly beaten

2 tablespoons butter, melted

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1/4 teaspoon salt

Heat oven to 350 degrees.

Grease 1 1/2-quart casserole. Mix all the ingredients in a large bowl. Pour into prepared casserole. Bake casserole one hour or until center is firm. Serve warm.

Port Royal resident Ervena Faulkner is a retired educator who has always had an interest in food and nutrition. E-mail her at features@beaufortgazette.com.

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