2023 S.C. Arts Awards: Emily H. Meggett

Folk Heritage Award: Artist Category

Graphic with white copy on a dark blue background overlaid on granite blocks. The white text reads South Carolina Arts Awards 2023.

As the day nears for the 2023 South Carolina Arts Awards, The Hub is focusing on this year’s recipients: five receiving the South Carolina Governor’s Awards for the Arts from the South Carolina Arts Commission and two receiving the Jean Laney Harris Folk Heritage Award, managed jointly by the SCAC and McKissick Museum at the University of South Carolina.

With deep appreciation, we remember the light and warmth from a well-lived life.

Official Statement from the South Carolina Arts Commission

As has been reported elsewhere, the sad news from Edisto Island last week was that Emily H. Meggett passed away April 21 at the age of 90. Emily Meggett was indeed a cultural treasure who deserves to be known—and remembered fondly—by all South Carolinians. Her generosity and creative spirit were the embodiment of ideals toward which we should all strive.

The South Carolina Arts Commission extends sincere condolences to her family and the Gullah Geechee community for their loss. Though she will be recognized with her Folk Heritage Award posthumously, the South Carolina Arts Awards broadcast will nonetheless pay tribute as we remember her consequential life.

Gullah Geechee chef Emily H. Meggett, known by many as “M.P.,” was born on November 19, 1932 on Edisto Island, the place she called “heaven on earth.”

Emily H. Meggett, 1932-2023

Meggett grew up with her family on her grandparent’s farm, where they grew a wide variety of vegetables and also kept livestock for butchering. Meggett learned to cook traditional Gullah Geechee dishes with the ingredients grown on the farm, standing next to her grandmother, Elizabeth Major Hutchinson, whom she called “mama.”

Meggett learned more formal cooking in 1954 when she took a job at a house on Edisto Island owned by the Dodges, a white family from Rockport, Maine, who were in the oil business. Ms. Julia W. Brown, a Gullah woman, was the head chef of their family kitchen, and she was in charge of teaching Meggett how to prepare dishes correctly. Meggett recalled Ms. Julia telling her “You do it right or you do it over,” and true to her word, Ms. Julia would throw anything that wasn’t up to her standards straight into the trash can.

Meggett married Edisto native Jessie Meggett, with whom she had 10 children. They built a four-room home on one acre of land where she cooked for everyone in her family, and many more as she remembered, likely more than a hundred children in the area. Meggett woke up around two o’clock in the morning with inspiration of what to cook the next day. She cooked every day for her family, her neighbors, and anyone who might need a meal. When you saw the small door to her kitchen open you know you’ll be fed, no money needed and no questions asked.

Meggett’s family and friends encouraged her throughout her life to share her recipes in a cookbook, but the idea perplexed her as she had never used one herself. But eventually her friend Becky Smith convinced her to start the long process. Every day Smith would visit Meggett where they would work on one recipe at a time, figuring out measurements, and documenting the process.

In April of 2022, Meggett’s cookbook, Gullah Geechee Home Cooking was published. The book, which was written with the help of food writer Kayla Stewart and oral historian Trelani Michelle, quickly became a New York Times bestseller. Meggett received numerous accolades for her work, including the President’s Lifetime Achievement Award from President Joe Biden.

Biography written by Amanda Malloy, McKissick Museum

The South Carolina Arts Awards are coming live to SCETV on Sunday, May 14, 2023 at 8 p.m. ET.

South Carolina ETV, the state’s public educational broadcasting network, will broadcast the awards ceremony through its 11-station TV network that spans the state. Viewers can access the broadcast via livestream on the homepage of SCETV.org; by using a digital antenna; or through cable, satellite, and streaming live TV providers. Further information about accessing SCETV is available here.