Southern Benne Cookies

Crisp, nutty, buttery sweets tie back to centuries of Southern and African history

Photo: Clay Williams

“When I was growing up, I had no idea how much history was in benne cookies,” wrote Emily Meggett, the late matriarch of Edisto Island, in her 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.”


  • Benne Cookies (MAKES: ABOUT 40 COOKIES)

    • 1 tbsp. margarine or butter, or more as needed (butter can be used to toast the benne seeds, but it burns more easily than margarine)

    • 1 cup benne seeds or sesame seeds

    • 1 cup sifted all-purpose flour

    • ½ tsp. baking soda

    • ½ tsp. salt

    • ½ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temperature

    • ½ cup granulated sugar

    • ¼ cup packed light brown sugar

    • 1 large egg, beaten

    • 1 tsp. vanilla extract


  1. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Grease two cookie sheets.

  2. Melt 1 tbsp. margarine in a cast-iron skillet over medium heat and add the benne seeds, stirring to coat them—add more margarine if needed. Toast the seeds, stirring frequently, until fragrant and darkened a shade. Take care not to burn the seeds. Scrape onto a plate and let cool completely.

  3. Sift the flour, baking soda, and salt together into a medium bowl.

  4. In a large bowl, cream together the ½ cup butter and the sugars until well combined and fluffy. Add the egg and beat well. Add the cooled toasted benne seeds and the vanilla. Stir in the flour mixture.

  5. Drop rounded teaspoonfuls of the cookie dough at least 2 ½ inches apart on one prepared cookie sheet. Bake for 8 to 10 minutes maximum, until golden brown around the edges. Remove the wafers from the cookie sheet immediately and place on waxed paper to cool. Repeat with the remaining dough on the second cookie sheet, reusing the first sheet when it’s cooled.

Excerpt from the new book Gullah Geechee Homecooking: Recipes from The Matriarch of Edisto Island, by Emily Meggett, published by Abrams. Text © 2022 Emily Meggett. Photography by Clay Williams.