Benne Seeds – Is There a Conspiracy? | Cupcake Project

Benne Seeds – Is There a Conspiracy?

While traveling around Charleston, South Carolina in search of a Charleston-themed cupcake recipe to bake in my HomeAway vacation rental home (get the back story in my initial Charleston post), I noticed that the tourist markets all carried benne seed wafers.  “Now, there’s a unique product.  I must use benne seeds in my Charleston cupcakes!”

One vendor was offering free benne seed wafer samples (I NEVER turn down a free sample). As I inhaled the benne seed wafer sample, I asked the obvious question:

What are Benne Seeds?


The benne seed wafer vendor at the tourist market informed me that benne seeds are seeds “very similar to sesame seeds.”  “Interesting,” I thought.  Not to say that I’ve heard of everything, but I was surprised that I’d never heard of benne seeds before.

Later that same day, Jonathan and I went to Husk for lunch.  If you are ever in Charleston, I highly recommend both Husk and McCrady’s (one of the best meals that I’ve ever eaten!).  Lunch service was fairly slow at Husk so our server had time to chat.  “Can you tell me anything about these benne seeds that I’m seeing everywhere?” I asked.  He was happy to explain that benne seeds were popular in Africa and brought to the United States by slaves.  “That’s how they came to be so common in Charleston. It’s also the reason that we use benne seeds on our lunch rolls.”  I had no idea that I had just eaten benne seed rolls!  Neat!  I thought that they were plain, old sesame seed rolls.  I renewed my resolve to use benne seeds in my cupcakes!

I knew that I would be going to the Marion Square Farmers’ Market in a couple of days and I was sure that someone there could tell me where to buy benne seeds – maybe there was a vendor there who sold them.  I wondered if perhaps in Charleston, benne seeds could be found in your everyday grocery store.  The guys at the Charleston Spice Company were friendly and full of information, so I decided to ask them.

“Where can I buy benne seeds?”  “Benne seeds are just sesame seeds,” they told me with confidence.  It couldn’t be!

Why didn’t anyone else tell me that benne seeds are sesame seeds?  Not that I didn’t trust them, but I checked with my friend, Google, to make sure.  The Wikipedia page about sesame seeds says the following: “In the southern US and the Caribbean, where the sesame seed was introduced by African slaves, it is known mostly by an African name, benne.”

Conspiracy?

After finding out that benne seeds are sesame seeds, two opposing theories crossed my mind:

  1. Using the term benne seeds is a Charlestonian conspiracy to get tourists to buy sesame seed wafers that they otherwise wouldn’t purchase – genius marketing at work.
  2. The term “benne seed” is something that I should have known about.  It’s just a regional difference like saying “pop” vs. “soda” that everyone is aware of.

As you might guess, I prefer theory one. What’s your take?

Did I Use Benne Seeds In My Charleston-Themed Cupcakes?

You bet I did!  Look for the cupcake post soon!

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18 Responses to Benne Seeds – Is There a Conspiracy?

  1. (lia) June 23, 2011 at 6:48 pm #

    Absolutely a conspiracy (and a brilliant one at that).

    • Betsy October 18, 2013 at 8:58 am #

      FYI. Benne is Nigerian for Sesame Seed

  2. Stefani June 23, 2011 at 7:56 pm #

    As an anthropologist I have to say I love this and see no conspiracy in it.

    The US, especially the east, had a serial founders effect which you can see in the dialects. Although we all speak the same language there are still local words: y’all instead of you all, tony to mean rich, and the most tasteless (and horrible) one, jimmies to mean chocolate sprinkles (called thus because of Jim Crow laws. Yup).

    Benne seeds is just atavistic to a heritage that the rest of the country has forgotten. Hooray Charleston for keeping your language going!

    No conspiracy, just anthropological history.

  3. Lane June 24, 2011 at 7:20 am #

    I’d never heard of these before your post. Thanks for the exploration. I’ll have to seek them out myself.

  4. Cake Betch June 24, 2011 at 11:50 am #

    Do the locals call them Benne seeds? If they just call them sesame seeds I would say it’s conspiracy. I’ve never heard of a benne seed before.
    I also haaaaaaaate the word soda. It’s POP! POP you cretins!

  5. sweet berry June 24, 2011 at 6:18 pm #

    I’m sure you’re not the first to ask that question, and surely unless a person is from the Lowcountry, they wouldn’t know. Many words and phrases common to the Gullah language are used down here, and if you spend any time on the barrier islands of South Carolina, you will find many people who still speak this mixture of African, Caribbean, and English languages. Benne seeds are believed to bring you good luck, and benne seed wafers are a common wedding favor. The thin wafers are wonderful, and I’m looking forward to trying your benne seed cupcake recipe. I hope you enjoyed your visit to the Lowcountry.

  6. Anonymous June 27, 2011 at 9:15 pm #

    The jimmies = Jim Crow thing is simply not true. Search on Snopes if you don’t believe me. Absolutely nothing racist about the term!

  7. Fairly Odd Mother June 28, 2011 at 8:43 am #

    The Lemon Ice-Box Pie/Cupcakes look AMAZING! Stunning photography!!! Congrats on a superb job!

  8. Caroline July 7, 2011 at 7:18 am #

    Here’s a weird truth: I grew up in Charleston and ate Benne seed wafers and all the rest of lowcountry cooking. Thing is, benne wafers taste sweet, so I thought the benne was a sweet seed and the sesame was a crunchy, savory one. Only today, reading your post, did I learn that Benne and sesame the same thing!

  9. Anonymous September 3, 2011 at 5:31 am #

    Not a conspiracy at all and while benne and sesame might come from the same plant, the ones called benne are unhulled. You will note that sesame seeds are sort of a creamy light color and benne is a dark beige. The hull imparts a very different, and I think delicious, flavor.

    Benne has been very hard to find lately.

  10. Sara October 28, 2011 at 4:45 pm #

    Benne is in fact a variant breed of sesame seed that originated in West Africa. The seed is being grown and used again by chef Sean Brock of Husk and McCrady’s, per article in the October 31 2011 New Yorker magazine. My only question: where can I get some?

  11. Anonymous November 1, 2012 at 10:33 am #

    I’m from Charleston and yes “benne” seeds are just plain ol’ sesame seeds. I do think down town Charleston use the word “benne” to make them more marketable to tourist. Regardless though, benne wafers/cookies are definitely a Charleston food. :)

  12. Anonymous February 16, 2013 at 7:49 am #

    Like Jerusalem artichokes, benne seeds are unique and traditional in the Low Country. Benne is unhulled sesame seed. I am in Charleston SC and would like to know where to buy the benne. Help!

  13. Misty April 27, 2013 at 5:55 pm #

    I live in Charleston, and you can buy bags of Benne seeds at the market downtown. :)

  14. Nancy July 24, 2013 at 2:38 am #

    I’m also from Charleston, and have been investigating the history and uses of benne seeds since starting work in the F&B industry here. The benne seed is widely used in Charleston cuisine, and they do make a distinction between benne and sesame; I just haven’t been able to put my finger on the difference. I found this website helpful: http://ansonmills.com/grain_notes/19

    • Houstonian September 27, 2014 at 9:14 am #

      The very article you posted says benne became sesame. Here in Texas they are one and the same. The author is 100 percent right its a choice in verbage. For example. Many people order coffee. I ask them black they say yes? I hand it to them-then they order milk and sugar. Others order coffee white. What does that mean? In Texas people order coffee with exactly what they want milk two sugars etc. Its all in the verbage is my point. I know when people order Pop they are from the midwest. When someone orders a dr. Pepper usually the south..When someone orders a Canada Dry-the east Coast. What is Canada Dry? tonic or Ginger Ale? They ordered the brand not the drink. My point its the same thing but its all in the asking. I thank you for you post.

  15. Jasmine September 29, 2013 at 9:13 am #

    Actually, there is a difference between true Benne Seeds (If you can find them) and modern sesame seeds. Benne seeds have 30% oil and 70% protein. As benne oil was very popular in the days before crisco, people started breeding the plant for higher oil content and the modern sesame seed has the opposite ratio (70% oil and 30% protein). So there you have it — like heirloom varieties and modern varieties, the flavor differs.

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