Sallie Ann Robinson is a Gullah chef, author, tour guide, TV personality, mother, grandmother and sixth-generation native Daufuskie Islander.
Love is her life. In everything she does, the intention is to make others happy. The first thing you get when you meet her is a great big hug! “I’ve never met a stranger and I hope I never will,” she affirms. Her presence exudes humor, warmth, positivity, vital energy, and the living wisdom of experience.
A lot of this can be attributed to how she was raised.
“I grew up in a great time on Daufuskie and I’m thankful for that,” says Sallie, who was immortalized as “Ethel” in Pat Conroy’s landmark memoir, The Water is Wide. Sallie was one of Conroy’s students when he taught at Daufuskie’s one-room schoolhouse in the early ’70s, and she is characterized in the book as sassy, sharp, and possessing a maturity that the hardness of life demanded. Reading the book gives you even more appreciation for the open, loving person she is today, and the tremendous success she has carved out by simply being herself.
“My upbringing was tough,” Sallie concedes. “It was hard work, but it taught me to appreciate the little things because we made do with what we had. We didn’t value material things, we valued each other.”
Like most children, when she and her siblings got up in the morning, they did chores.
But then they had to go out and tend the animals—hogs, cows, chickens, dogs, cats—before eating breakfast and going to school. There was constant upkeep around the house: chopping wood, pumping water, cooking, working the fields, doing laundry with a washboard and basin.
“We used to not want to get up out the bed,” Sallie admits, “we were so tired. But when you get up and start doing, all that bad stuff goes away! You have that power—you can make the negativity go away.”
As children, they mixed work with play.
If their friends came over, Sallie’s mom would say, “No, y’all can’t play with them, they got work to do! But you can help.” So, the friends would pitch in hoping they’d have a chance to play before dark. Likewise, Sallie might get put to work in other homes, as well.
“If I went to Ms. Ella Mae or my Aunt Edna or whoever’s house,” she recalls, “and they said, ‘Sallie, I need you to pump this bucket of water,’ I dare not say no! They had the right to spank me and, of course, we never knew how Mom got the message before we got home—no telephones!—but she’d be there waiting like, ‘A little bird told me.’ What the heck does that mean?”
Sallie laughs with her trademark exuberance, yet it’s clear her upbringing was important.
“These are the things that really make me feel good about myself today,” she says. “I was taught manners, respect, and the Golden Rule of ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you’. I’m not selfish, I’m a very positive person, and I love to see everybody happy. It seems to me like when you’re happy, when you’re relaxed, your body feels good. You reach goals and your love for others is open. But when you’re angry it just eats you alive! There are enough problems in this world without adding to it. So, when someone comes to me with negativity, I’m not gonna say, ‘Yeah, you right, I feel ya…’ because I don’t feel ya! I’m not even gonna try to feel ya! I want to spread happiness.”
In the old days on Daufuskie, elderly people who did not have relatives were cared for by the community.
This was just the Island way. Ladies would come together to cook and clean while the men chopped wood and worked in the yard. If Sallie’s father caught a basket of mulletfish, he took out what was needed to see them through, then gave the rest away. At hog killing time, the meat was shared, also.
“I never knew there was hunger until I left the Island,” Sallie said. “I never knew there was prejudice. We had blacks, as well as whites, in the community and we never grew up with a color barrier. We grew up knowing that it is easier to love than to hate.”
A big shock came in the 8th grade when Sallie was sent to Savannah for school.
Prior to that, she had not known she was Gullah, or any different from anybody else. But the other kids ridiculed how she talked, like selfish bullies. It was the worst year of her life, a struggle to survive in a way she had never known.
“People would say ‘I don’t know how y’all poor folks live on that island,’” she recalls. “Who’s poor? We didn’t know we were poor! We ate better than most and we couldn’t miss what we never had. When you work hard for something you appreciate it more—and believe me, I have seen those days.”
Sallie still works hard.
She is the author of two bestselling cookbooks, “Cooking the Gullah Way: Morning Noon and Night” and “Gullah Home Cooking the Daufuskie Way,” both of which contain her stories and recipes. Due out soon is a third volume, “Down Home Dinna’s.” Sallie also teaches cooking classes and caters special events. “If you want some real love in your food, call me,” she says. “The kitchen is my favorite place in the house, besides gettin’ in the bed when I’m tired.”
Hearing Sallie speak of food makes your mouth water.
Recipes include crab rice, shrimp and potato salad, fried ribs, collard greens and blackberry dumplings. One recipe you won’t find in her books, however, is deviled crab. That’s a closely guarded family secret—you’ll have to call her catering service for that. Sallie recalls how whenever her mother cooked, people showered praises, which always made little Sallie feel proud because she ate like that regularly.
“All the people I ever ate from growing up were excellent cooks,” she says. “They did not take shortcuts and they put a lot of love in it, so when you sat down to a plate of food you said, YES! After I left the Island and couldn’t find that food, it was tough. But I said, ‘Instead of getting mad, I need to get glad and DO it!’”
For more information on Sallie Ann, her cooking and her books, please visit www.sallieannrobinson.com.
By Michele Roldán-Shaw