“When I was growing up, I had no idea how much history was in benne cookies,” writes Emily Meggett in her new cookbook, Gullah Geechee Homecooking: Recipes from The Matriarch of Edisto Island. “Also known as ‘benne wafers,’ benne cookies were just another sweet treat that we island folks loved to eat. In fact, I learned how to make these cookies at the Dodge House. A lady named Mamie Frances was the real pro, and she taught me how to make them just right.
“As an adult, I found out that the benne seeds used for the cookie actually arrived to the United States with our African ancestors. Native to the African continent, benne seeds are often confused with sesame seeds. However, benne seeds have a much more distinct taste. They’re nuttier, a bit smoky, and when toasted, they produce an intense, almost woody smell throughout the kitchen. Benne seeds have a rich history in the Sea Islands. Enslaved people cultivated these seeds in their own gardens, and eventually white slave owners took advantage of their crop and started to use benne seeds to produce cooking oil. Their road in the United States has been long and complex, but thanks to the preservationist nature of Gullah Geechee people, they still grow across the Carolinas and Sea Islands today.
“My benne cookies come from Mama, and she learned how to make them from generations before her. Thin and crisp, these cookies should be like wafers; you don’t want them to rise.”