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How Gullah Cuisine Has Transformed Charleston Dining

Exploring the line between shared history and appropriation

There’s no denying the allure of Charleston's dining scene. Declared the "best city in North America" by Travel + Leisure and profiled not once but twice by Anthony Bourdain, first on No Reservations and then again on the most recent season of Parts Unknown, the city has been attracting food-loving visitors in droves, contributing to a multi-billion dollar tourism industry.

But while Charleston restaurants are heaped with praise upon praise, award upon award, there's a deeper story here than just an American city with an outsized food scene. "With the attention given to Mike Lata and Sean Brock, none of the places that people go to first in Charleston are African-American owned," says DC-based culinary historian Michael Twitty. Indeed the rise of the Charleston restaurant scene in the last 20 years has coincided with a gentrification that's brought with it higher residential and commercial rents, and changed the demographics of the city from being over 60 percent black in the ‘80s to being only roughly 30 percent black as of the 2014 census. Amid these changes, there's been a vital constant: the cuisine of the Gullah people, the local descendants of West Africans brought to South Carolina as slaves.

There are some noticeable patterns in and hallmarks of Gullah cooking. It is inextricably tied to the land, the sea, and the seasons. Coming up on spring, ingredients like fresh squash, zucchini, and sweet peas will find their way onto plates. Rice and benne seeds make frequent appearances. Locally available seafood plays a starring role in dishes like crab rice, conch stew (actually northern whelk), okra soup, head-on fried whiting, and purloo, a one-pot meal of rice and any variety of add-ins — vegetables (like the popular okra), shellfish (shrimp, crab, and oysters), and meat or sausage.

Amid these changes, theres been a vital constant: the cuisine of the Gullah people.

While the ingredients reflect the Gullah people's location in South Carolina, the origins of these dishes goes back —€” way back. "One of the things that I've tried to emphasize for academics and American media is that no, these dishes did not start in 1619, with the arrival of enslaved people to North America," Twitty says. "These dishes and this culture go back thousands of years into West African history."

Gullah cuisine as it lives in the United States today is not so much restaurant-based as it is a cuisine prepared and eaten in the home. But historians point out that Gullah people have been cooking for Charlestonians for centuries, and the city itself is finally starting to give credit where credit is due. Gullah Society founder Dr. Ade A. Ofunniyin describes a revival of Gullah Geechee traditions happening throughout Charleston, its outlying towns, and the Sea Islands where so many Gullah people live. (Geechee is another term for the people and their language, more often used in Georgia and Florida.) "Charleston is just now, over the last 15, 20 years, beginning to respect the presence, the significance, and the importance of Gullah people," Ofunniyin says.

Take, for example, BJ Dennis, a local chef who stepped out of restaurant kitchens to dedicate himself to educating Charleston and its visitors about Gullah cuisine. In recent years, his efforts have taken off, whether through the connections he makes at catered events, cooking for Bourdain on Parts Unknown, or conducting insightful interviews with the Southern Foodways Alliance. "I just always loved my culture," he says of how he became Gullah cuisine's preeminent ambassador. "I started doing pop-ups, and it was almost a renaissance; not just with the food, but the culture and saving the land of the Gullah people." Dennis, like Ofunniyin, is part of a larger movement to make sure the Gullah people's vital and sizable contribution to Charleston culture isn't erased by consumers or creators (or writers).

But for those who have been paying attention, it's clear the menus of prominent chefs and humble mom-and-pop operators in the city alike have been profoundly shaped by this rich culinary tradition. Beyond that, there's reason to believe restaurants owned by Gullah people serving Gullah food may well thrive in the not-too-distant future.

BJ Dennis eats garlic shrimp at Ravenel Seafood in Ravenel, SC, about 20 miles outside of Charleston.

Woven Into the Fabric

At a sold-out Charleston Wine + Food festival event earlier this month, Dennis served a dining room of (mostly white) festival attendees a family-style Gullah lunch. Coconut milk-creamed collards made with peanut butter were Dennis's riff on the peanut stew that was long a staple on the Sea Islands. (Peanut butter nods to the West African technique of using ground peanut paste.) Smoked chicken was served with yellow rice and pepper vinegar barbecue sauce. (While the sauce has influences from West Africa and the Caribbean, the yellow rice reflects Charleston's history as a port: Indian spices that were finding their way into British cooking also made it to Charleston, like the turmeric that gives the rice its color.) There was sweet potato pone (bread), a dish that can be found in different iterations throughout the South. For dessert, Dennis served local strawberries and cream with benne cookies and a bit of sorghum on the side. Benne seeds, "the West African sesame," as he puts it, are a hallmark of Gullah cooking, and now of Charleston cooking more generally.

Those looking for Gullah influence on Charleston's restaurant culture can just look at the menus themselves. According to Dennis, the spirit of Gullah cooking is in the ingredients: the okra, the rice, the field peas. And it's heirloom varieties of these ingredients that are at the heart of the much-lauded Southern revival. "It's everywhere," says longtime Charleston chef Frank Lee of Gullah cuisine's influence. At his own restaurant Slightly North of Broad, Lee serves dishes like Sea Island red pea soup, topped with a cornbread crumble, as well as a tamale made with sweet potato and oxtail, both common ingredients in Gullah dishes. "You cannot mistake it."

Acclaimed Charleston chef Jeremiah Bacon agrees that Gullah cuisine is "very embedded" into the Charleston dining ecosystem. At his restaurant the Macintosh, Bacon serves up local seafood specialties like triggerfish and tilefish, and cooks with Anson Mills Carolina gold rice grits. "We've all got the same beautiful product," he explains. "It's always in the background, it's always there. I wouldn't say it's been modernized; it's just our interpretation, which is really neat, to see how everyone puts their touch on it. And I think sometimes it's unconscious. It's so woven into a lot of what we do and our technique, as well."

"Gullah Geechee culture is not the community property of Charleston because it’s not 1864."

While these ingredients do represent a centuries-old shared bounty —€” Gullah cooks at home and downtown chefs are grabbing for the same locally available staples —€” it's important to note how they came to be associated with Gullah cooking and increasingly with Charleston restaurant cooking: the enslavement and forced diaspora of West African people, and the continuation of the long-held culinary traditions they brought with them to South Carolina. These traditions carried on during years of slavery, and later migrated as the Gullah people left the area —€” some to other states, others to the Sea Islands off South Carolina's coast, where the Gullah language is still spoken. "There are thousands of Gullah Geechee descendants among black Americans. I'm one of them," explains Twitty. Food, he says, "is a part of our culture that couldn't be beaten out of us." So is the Gullah language. Still, he sees the legacy of slavery playing out even in the way Gullah culture is positioned as a prized local treasure. "That's one of the difficulties I have [with] how Gullah Geechee culture gets put out there. No, it's not the community property of Charleston and Savannah, because it's not 1864 or any year before that."

Local chef and culinary instructor Nathan Thurston notes another thing that puts Gullah cuisine on the menu. "Right now, multiple trends are happening," he says, including "a progression of grandma's food served on grandma's plates, vintage plates." Familiar dishes with Southern ties like country captain chicken and chicken bog have "some name recognition, and some dance on the line of Gullah Geechee and 'soul food.'"

There can be no denying the prominence of soul food in Charleston, but Dennis points out that soul food shouldn't be thought of as the only entry point into Gullah culture. "The soul food restaurants, although they're great places, are only bits and pieces of the culture, bits and pieces of things that my grandfather talked to me about." Although soul food is often interpreted as a modern offshoot of Gullah cooking —€” and though there's overlap with dishes like okra soup, red rice, and fried local fish —€” it is not the same thing. Twitty points out this distinction, and worries that the legacy of Gullah cooking may get subsumed by the "soul food" category. "There's the idea of authentic Gullah soul food cooking," he says, but he also notes that soul food "may or may not be prepared by authentic Gullah hands. I think that it's a really big deal."

A Dirty Word

In spite of the work of Gullah cultural advocates like Dennis and Ofunniyin, there's no denying that when it comes to Charleston cooking, the attention is still largely focused on the work of downtown restaurant chefs; and the buzz surrounding local ingredients is inextricably linked to the fact that award-winning chefs are working with them. Twitty understands that appropriation can be a "dirty word," but he isn't shy about using it. "I've noticed only certain people get pissed off over this appropriation [conversation]," he continues, "and it's usually the people who make money off of the transaction of selling the culture."

When it comes to cuisine, Twitty warns of a pattern he sees of white chefs "projecting ownership and making it about them, not even considering the people who have been marginalized and exploited." Conversations about the subject often focus on the idea of cooking with local, historically "accurate" ingredients as opposed to the fact that slavery was the genesis for said ingredients arriving and thriving in the South.

Dennis advocates for a richer understanding of the stories behind each Gullah recipe,€” regardless of who's doing the cooking or eating. At his own events, he explains a bit of backstory about the dish — how it's typically prepared, when it's typically eaten, and the aspects of the dish that tie it to West African culinary traditions. This educational approach works: During the festival lunch, at least one local woman asked Dennis for his card so she could later book him for a private event.

"A lot of the chefs just want to cook what's popular right now," Dennis says. "It may be fashionable to say, 'I'm doing Gullah cuisine. I grew up on this food in the house,' but you grew up on some of it. There's so many layers to it. It's deeper than what you may know. It's deeper than what your grandmother does. It's what her grandmother was doing." As for non-Gullah cooks approaching Gullah recipes, Dennis likens it to if he went to Italy or China to study cooking. "I may think I got it, but I'll never be good as that mother who has that soul. That's the same here. You may be able to do it, but somebody who's born into has the soul for it. I think that goes for any cuisine."

"To responsibly borrow and quote from another culture, you have to respect the culture and its people."

To be clear, neither Twitty nor Dennis are saying that white Charleston chefs can't or shouldn't be inspired by Gullah cooking (it's way too late for that, anyway). "Everybody borrows from everybody at some point," Dennis says. "It's all in cooking." But there's a way to "responsibly borrow and quote from another culture," says Twitty. "You have to do two things: You have to respect the tenets of the culture from which you borrow. Respect the people. I don't always see that in the Charleston food scene. I see this acknowledgement of the people, acknowledgement of the story, but I think that the story is often used to upsell the food, upsell the product. That's not quite the same as respecting the people."

What Twitty is questioning is "the idolization of ingredients and materials over meaning, over morals, over human lives," he says, offering a damning example. "You mean to tell me that there's Carolina gold rice that's $12, $15 a bag, [which means] the average black child who lives in North Charleston can't afford to eat Carolina gold rice? It's the same rice their ancestors were brought to Charleston to grow." Dennis has his concerns, too. Oxtails, once the leftover bits for a community not able to partake in the more desirable beef cuts, are showing up on trendy downtown menus and in butcher cases for $7 per pound — up from the $3 price tag Dennis remembers.

Similarly, while there can be no mistaking the Gullah imprint on Charleston's restaurant fare, it's exceedingly rare to see a Gullah-dedicated restaurant — let alone a Gullah head chef —€” in downtown Charleston kitchens. "We have so few African-American chefs in town, and yet so much of the traditional cuisine has been greatly influenced by African-American cooks, chefs, and traditions over the centuries," Lee says. "Yet we don't have any [chefs] I know of who are right up there with Sean [Brock] or Mike [Lata]." Dennis points out that, like himself, there are Gullah cooks in town that have been trained to do fine dining, and there have been for a long time. But Twitty has a theory as to why there aren't more Gullah chefs running their own kitchens, speculating that the professionalization of the kitchen is a big factor in this gap. "Black Americans were the ones who did the cooking for 300-some years," he says, "and then all of a sudden you need a degree to cook."

The Future of Gullah Cuisine

One thing is clear: the Gullah people and their cuisine are not going anywhere; the cultural revival epitomized by Dennis' work shows no signs of slowing. If anything, it's only getting started. "People have really treated [Gullah Geechee culture] as this dying culture: 'It must be preserved or at least must be tasted before it disappears,'" notes Twitty. "Quite frankly, I went to Gullah Geechee Heritage Day this past year. I didn't really see a dying culture. I actually saw churches full of people."

But the economic realities of running restaurants are what they are, and as Dennis points out, Charleston is largely a working-class city with a median household income of approximately $50,000 per year. That's why he doesn't think strictly Gullah food restaurants will outpace soul food restaurants anytime soon. "It's easier to fry food," he says, adding, "I support all the local soul food restaurants out here in Charleston, but it's touchy. White or black, it's a working-class city, so if you're trying to feed people, can you serve peas at $6 a pound? I think you can, but you're so used to what the client wants. There's lima beans every day, fried chicken everyday. That's not what we ate coming up in the [Gullah] households."

Still, those on the ground in the Charleston area have high hopes for the rise of Gullah restaurant cuisine. Thurston has observed in his work as a culinary school teacher that the classroom is getting more and more diverse. He also notes that there's a market opportunity — a Gullah restaurant could appeal to a local dining population that has more than enough options when it comes to "classic Southern" fare.

"Now that Gullah has become popular the way that it has, hopefully in the near future when you come here you'll be able to go into Gullah restaurants that are owned by Gullah people," says Ofunniyin. And while there are certainly challenges to overcome, there's reason to be optimistic. When Dennis was asked whether Charleston diners should expect to see more Gullah cuisine in restaurants, and more Gullah restaurant owners, he answered an unhesitating, resounding "yes."

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