Matthew Raiford is a chef, author and farmer on a mission to raise awareness of the life cycle of food, especially in the African-American community. As a sixth-generation Gullah Geechee in the coastal South, Raiford is working to pass on his ancestral and acquired knowledge of growing, cooking and preserving food, by hosting dinner discussions, supper clubs and creating teaching curriculums. In this Voices in Food story, Raiford talks about why Black chefs and farmers need to take ownership of their land and pride in conserving culinary agriculture.
In 1874, my great-great-great grandfather, Jupiter Gillard, was one of the first free men to purchase land in coastal Georgia. Over time and through marriage, the plot increased to 476 acres. We used the land for farming organic sweet potatoes, corn, sugarcane, watermelons and peas, and for raising chickens and hogs. We cooked whatever we grew on our family-run farm and sold the excess at farmers markets. My sister, Althea Raiford, and I are the sixth generation to be farming at Gillard Farms.
Most people believe that the first crop grown by enslaved people was cotton. But the truth is, we were brought to the United States for our agricultural knowledge to grow rice. My ancestors come from rice-growing regions of Ghana and Cameroon, and our heritage is termed Gullah Geechee. Because of us, rice became one of the first food staples in the United States, and you can see different adaptations of our traditional rice dishes — jambalayas, congee and jollof rice — across the country.
Unfortunately, there are very few people like me today, of African origin, who grow their own rice or even own any rice plantations. We became dynamic chefs, essential in shaping America’s culinary traditions. But how we participated in growing and farming our food is often a forgotten part of history. My goal is to reclaim the work that was done by my people, bring light to where agriculture lies within our culture, and advise how new generations can follow some of these traditions.
I am going to be the first generation free man to plant rice on this land in Brunswick, Georgia. My wife, Tia Raiford, and I are working with the Jubilee Justice project, which helps restore and accelerate Black land ownership. Through their System of Rice Intensification (SRI) sustainable farming methods, we are now understanding our soil, irrigation and cultivation. We hope that by the end of 2022, we should be able to have our first harvest and sell our rice commercially.
“We became dynamic chefs, essential in shaping America’s culinary traditions. But how we participated in growing and farming our food is often a forgotten part of history.”
But my goal is not just to grow and sell rice, it is also to teach other farmers and consumers about the full life cycle of food. We, as a society, treat the cycle of food — growing, shopping, cooking, disposing — all as separate entities, and that shouldn’t be the case. We are disconnected from where our food comes from, which is why we are seeing supply chain issues right now. Our culture is used to having all sorts of food, all the time. Unlike our forefathers, who used every part of the ingredient til there was no nutrition left, our consumption habits today are focused on having the biggest plates, at the most reasonable prices, while wasting what’s excess.
There are not enough places on the East Coast for people to understand how to grow their own food. What Tia and I are doing is creating an educational curriculum to bridge the gap between science, engineering and math, to farm on whatever land size we have. By applying the principles of community and economics, we can better the food system, and preserve the well-being and health of the African diaspora. It is past time for someone to start doing this, not just in an academic environment.
“Because of us, rice became one of the first food staples in the United States, and you can see different adaptations of our traditional rice dishes — jambalayas, congee and jollof rice — across the country.”
We are also having conversations within a larger community through collaborative Gullah-Geechee dinners at restaurants, food festivals and museum events around the country. At the farm, we have a supper club for the public, and this year, we are starting a nonprofit, Jupiter’s Harvest. The recipes in my book “Bress ‘n’ Nyam: Gullah Geechee Recipes from a Sixth-Generation Farmer,” which translates to “bless and eat” in the Gullah language, also showcase African American foodways, while reiterating that we are all interconnected through our common values in community and farming.
It is important for me to share this message because of who I am and where I come from. I have over 30 years of experience in cooking and sustainable farming. After serving in the U.S. Army for 10 years, attending Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, and University of Santa Cruz Center for Agroecology and Sustainable Foods, I worked at hotel kitchens, restaurants and catering. But I came back to take over the family farm, where I was raised. Because I have this knowledge, I feel obligated to share it.