African slaves introduced new ingredients to the American South, shaping cuisine in areas such as South Carolina’s Lowcountry. The popular sweet snack known as benne wafers are an enduring result of their culinary influence on this coastal region.
Benne (pronounced “benny”) means “sesame seed” in Bantu, a language spoken in sub-Saharan Africa. Slaves brought sesame seeds to South Carolina in the 1700s and planted them for use as cooking oil. Plantation owners in colonial Charleston explored the potential cash crop as an alternative to olive oil, but sesame-based substitutes remained a limited field throughout the 19th century. Instead, home bakers put the nutritious plants to use. They mixed savory, nutty seeds with brown sugar, butter, and small amounts of flour to create a thin, crispy wafer.
Today, the cookies are sold as a souvenir in Charleston. The sweet-and-salty snack remains a favorite among visitors and locals alike, but few know that their treat’s origins trace back to the tragic period of slavery in the United States.
Where to Try It
Byrd's Famous Cookies139 Market Street, Charleston, South Carolina, 29401, United States
This company, which also has outposts in Georgia, sells benne wafers amidst a myriad of cookie flavors.