When I Think of New Year's Gatherings in the Lowcountry, I Think of Gizzard Perloo
Celebrating Watch Night with my church community is one of the most meaningful nights of the year — and the food takes center stage.
Photo: Trenise Elmore of Your World on Film/Food Styling: Rashaunda Grant of Carolina Cookery
On both sides of my father's family, I grew up in the African Methodist Episcopal Church in the Lowcountry of South Carolina. I didn't grow up in a city at all, and my family churches were literally just that — all family members. I have fond memories of overhearing cousins and uncles volunteering to take care of the church property, and aunts always cooking up classic church to-go meals in the reception hall. Because we are in the Lowcountry, which is rich with Gullah heritage, those meals always had to include rice.
Rice is a lifestyle in the Gullah community and a part of any meal; from red rice to seafood rice to collard greens with rice — not cornbread! Admittedly that has been a point of contention with my husband whose family is from Pensacola, Florida; I know cornbread is more traditional, but in the Lowcountry we eat greens and pretty much everything with rice so I am willing to fall on this sword. No matter what the celebration, rice was on the menu at church — and it takes center stage on Watch Night, which we celebrate at the new year.
The tradition of Watch Night started in 1862 when enslaved Africans in South Carolina prayed and stayed awake to enjoy their first day of freedom – January 1, 1863, or Freedom’s Eve. Church service usually starts around dinner time and lasts into the New Year with guests going home and continuing celebrations with other family and church members.
Watch Night and New Year’s Eve meals are just as important as Thanksgiving in my family. I have such fond memories of setting the table at my home (and my grandfather's home) in honor of Watch Night services. From a formal dinner setting to an island full of buffet-style soul food and Gullah staples, these dinners were shopped days ahead and prepared all day. When we had our dinners at home, we always set them in the formal dining room with our holiday china, which guests would then help put away as they went on their way to Watch Night at their family church. We always have to-go boxes for guests to take extras of the food staples to enjoy and ensure their good luck for the New Year.
For me, celebrating is always about the food. At Watch Night, we always had to have Hoppin’ Johns (my family likes it only with the field peas, though), collard greens with ham hocks, ham, pork roast, baked macaroni and cheese, fried fish, fried chicken, pound cake and bread pudding. But my must-have rice dish for Watch Night has always been Gizzard Perloo. I am obsessed with fried gizzards throughout the year and will stop at any gas station in the South to try them out, but during the holiday season and especially New Year’s Eve, I have my gizzards as a perloo. Perloos are a staple in the Gullah community and this one is a specialty of my family and the Berkeley County, SC community, which is a more inland part of the Lowcountry. I pair my gizzard perloo with collard greens and also eat a second bowl on its own on New Year’s Day.
Gizzard perloo is a simple dish but the taste and texture are distinct; it always reminds me that the holiday season is here. The last bite of it on Watch Night signifies that the holidays are coming to a close, and a new year is upon us. Most of all, the dish reminds me of celebrating with family — including those no longer with us, or not able to make it. It reminds me of chasing my cousins at church and hiding in the pews when service went a little long, while also trying to sneak a few slices of cake from the reception hall or a strawberry candy from the candy jars. My memories of starting the year and ending the holidays are intertwined with my growing up in the AME Church, continuing food traditions, and gathering with family to reminisce about it all. I am excited to continue this tradition with my family in my Grandfather’s home and family church this year — make my recipe if you’d like to try this tradition as well.