Emily Meggett's benne cookies
Photography by Clay Williams

“When I was growing up, I had no idea how much history was in benne cookies. 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 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.” 

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


Serves 8 to 10

  • 1 tablespoon 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 flour
  • ½ teaspoon baking soda
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • ½ cup unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • ½ cup sugar
  • ¼ cup packed light brown sugar
  • 1 large egg, beaten
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease two cookie sheets. 
  2. Melt 1 tablespoon 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 (1 stick) 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 2½  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. 

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Gullah Geechee Home Cooking: Recipes from the Matriarch of Edisto Island

Author: Emily MeggettThe first major Gullah Geechee cookbook from "the matriarch of Edisto Island," who provides delicious recipes and the history of an overlooked American communityThe history of the Gullah and Geechee people stretches back centuries, when enslaved members of this community were historically isolated from the rest of the South because of their location on the Sea Islands of coastal South Carolina and Georgia. Today, this Lowcountry community represents the most direct living link to the traditional culture, language, and foodways of their West African ancestors. Gullah Geechee Home Cooking, written by Emily Meggett, the matriarch of Edisto Island, is the preeminent Gullah cookbook. At 89 years old, and with more than 50 grandchildren and great-grandchildren, Meggett is a respected elder in the Gullah community of South Carolina. She has lived on the island all her life, and even at her age, still cooks for hundreds of people out of her hallowed home kitchen. Her house is a place of pilgrimage for anyone with an interest in Gullah Geechee food. Meggett's Gullah food is rich and flavorful, though it is also often lighter and more seasonal than other types of Southern cooking. Heirloom rice, fresh-caught seafood, local game, and vegetables are key to her recipes for regional delicacies like fried oysters, collard greens, and stone-ground grits. This cookbook includes not only delicious and accessible recipes, but also snippets of the Meggett family history on Edisto Island, which stretches back into the 19th century. Rich in both flavor and history, Meggett's Gullah Geechee Home Cooking is a testament to the syncretism of West African and American cultures that makes her home of Edisto Island so unique.About the AuthorMeggett, Emily: – Emily Meggett is the 87-year-old matriarch of the Gullah community on Edisto Island, South Carolina. She has been featured on television and in print by PBS, the Food Network, Bon Appétit, Eater, and NPR. She is also a member of the family who was raised in the Point of Pines cabin, a 19th-century slave cabin from Edisto Island that has been relocated to Washington, DC, as the central exhibit of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. Her website is www.motheroftheisland.com/. Meggett lives in Edisto Island, South Carolina.

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  • Excerpt From
    Gullah Geechee Home Cooking: Recipes from The Matriarch of Edisto Island, by Emily Meggett, published by Abrams. Text © 2022 Emily Meggett. Photography by Clay Williams.
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