On a recent trip to Charleston, South Carolina, I met Benjamin “BJ” Dennis at the James Island Sunday Brunch Farmers Market. We pause in front of the Simmons Farm stand to shake sand out of my shoes — we are, after all, on a barrier island. Meanwhile, Dennis grabs a handful of okra, his favorite vegetable and a staple on his menu. Okra soup. Okra caramelized with rice and shrimp. Okra greens. “People tend to forget that okra leaves were a stew eaten a long time ago,” the 37-year-old tells me. Dennis is a classically trained chef, born and raised in Charleston, who does catering gigs around town. Farmer Frank Simmons agrees the man is wild about okra: “He don’t be jiving. He comes and he spends money.”
Many foods eaten here came to the Americas on slave ships from Africa, says Dennis. “Charleston is the epicenter of African-American culture in this country. Forty to 70 percent of all people enslaved were brought to this city. Reconnecting the dots in the Caribbean, eventually in West Africa, and bringing the foodways all back together to Charleston is my end goal.” Dennis has other questions related to the historical, social and cultural constructs of our food: Which waters did your shrimp swim in before they ended up in your bowl of grits? Why does everybody think all we eat south of the Mason-Dixon Line is fried chicken, biscuits and gravy and chow-chow? Why can’t you order authentic Lowcountry food at any of Charleston’s countless restaurants?
As we walk the market, everyone knows Chef BJ. “He always has a goat with his name on it,” says Karen Biddlecom of Wildhaven Ranch. She offers us Krispy Kreme donuts and camouflage camp chairs to sit in while Dennis and I talk. We oblige and Dennis begins by explaining that people call him “The Gullah-Geechee Chef” because he comes from the Gullah people, descendants of slaves brought to the Lowcountry from West Africa to work the rice and cotton fields. “That’s my culture, my roots, so I embrace it 100 percent,” Dennis says.
KCRW “Good Food” supervising producer Abbie Fentress Swanson: What is Gullah-Geechee culture?
Chef BJ Dennis: Gullah culture is one of the more indigenous cultures of New America. [They] brought different enslaved people from different tribal regions of the west coast of Africa and we came together. Charleston, funnily enough, was one of the biggest enslaved cities in the country. That culture dominated in a sense and a lot of us were isolated on the Sea Islands. All these tribal languages from West Africa became this dialect, which we now have as the Gullah dialect. Gullah is the language. Geechee is the dialect. Geechee is the English derivative.
Gullah is very, very seldom spoken. You really don’t hear it. You hear it through our accents, the way we talk, we have a fast tongue. But pure Gullah language, if I heard somebody speak it, I wouldn’t understand. We say different phrases, we still say words in our everyday language that we don’t really realize [are Gullah]. But pure Gullah was a bunch of West African dialects put together because they were all forced to assimilate and they came up with this new language.
AFS: And the food?
BJD: The food is very West African-driven, Caribbean-driven. Unfortunately, these days, you’ve seen it morph into “soul food.” Just through the lens of modernization, we’ve gotten away from a lot of traditional ways, that’s what I’m big about. But if you want to talk about Gullah food: it is very, very vegetable-, seafood-based. We’re on the coast of Charleston, obviously, on the coast of South Carolina, and a lot of us came from the west coast of Africa. Some of us came from the Caribbean through that trade, through that enslavement period.
AFS: What is true Lowcountry cuisine, the way you serve it?
BJD: You would see some okra, caramelized with rice, with some shrimp in it. Some type of greens, even okra greens, people tend to forget that okra leaves were a stew eaten a long time ago. If tomatoes are in season, you’re going to see some type of tomato. You’re going to see shrimp. You’re going to see protein. But you’re not going to see protein in the sense of what you see now in restaurants. If you want to talk about it truthfully, protein was kind of the backburner to the vegetables and the rice and the different grains that used to be eaten, too, like millet and couscous that was grown down here too by families. This time of year in the fall, you’re going to see soup a bunch. We’re on James Island, and ladies on James Island would go to these farms and get all the potatoes, carrots, rutabagas, turnips, greens, hot chile peppers and cook all that into a vegetable soup … You’re going to see eggplant for sure, you’re going to see squash … and we can’t forget peas. They are very important. They just brought back the Sea Island red peas, which people say are the indigenous pea that came from West Africa … white acre peas, rice peas, butter peas, butter beans, crowder peas, so many. You’ll see curries.
It’s not a fried, greasy cuisine. You see fried food a lot at soul food spots because that’s when you’re going out to eat, it’s a celebration-type thing. When you come to somebody’s household, fried food might be a once-a-month thing. Granted, things become accessible now because of modernization. Obviously frying something is quick and easy. It should be very vegetable-forward. People need to realize that the real Southern food diet is just as great as the California diet. They call it the “Agricultural South” for a reason. We are rediscovering vegetables that were almost lost. What happened was “people from the outside of the South” fell in love with the fried chicken, the mac ‘n’ cheese, the biscuits, the gravy. But you come to the South and you see somebody’s household, and it’s a different story. Very different. I mean we like gravy and biscuits, but not every other day.
AFS: How did you become a professional chef?
BJD: I started working in kitchens as a dishwasher. I went to the local trade school, Trident Tech, which is now the Culinary Institute of Charleston, and I just started working. Dishwasher, busboy, food runner, you name it, I did it in the kitchen and then just worked my way up to fry cook. I started getting into some of the more high-end kitchens, just continued to push it to find out it was my passion … I lived in the Virgin Islands for four years from 2004 to 2008, which pretty much got me understanding the importance of my culture. I came back and worked with some great chefs in Charleston. I worked with Jeremiah Bacon. I worked with Frank McMahon. I worked with Jeremy Holst from Anson’s. I worked with Kevin Johnson from The Grocery. Jeremiah and Frank probably had the biggest influence.
I worked with some great local black cooks who were just cooks. They didn’t care about wanting to be the head chef. They were nine times out of ten better than the head chef. But they were content on just getting that check. Those are the guys who really inspired me, and one guy in particular, Nigel Drayton, who owns two restaurants now in Charleston — Nigel’s Good Food 1 and 2 out in north Charleston and in Ladson — he was one of the first cooks that I really looked up to, and he ran some kitchens in Charleston. A lot of those guys too, who looked like me, who talked like me, who had the same kind of tongue and slang, those guys really made an impression outside of the “professional chefs.” I got a good mix.
AFS: Now Southern food is popping up all over the country. What do you think about Southern food and Charleston becoming hip?
BJD: It’s a blessing and a curse. Because now you have a lot of people coming down South who don’t understand the nuances of the Southern foodways. I’m tired of seeing chow-chow being put on every … damn thing you ever wanted to put chow-chow on. It’s really ridiculous. It’s a blessing because for years, we were looked down on, the South. Black and white people. “Oh you’re southern, you’re southern.” But the South has, outside of Native American food, I personally think, all the indigenous foodways … of New America. The South has all those foodways: Creole, Gullah, even if you want to talk about TexMex. I think sometimes ingredients need to be respected, and a lot of chefs try to overwork things and do too much. Realize that this ingredient gives you five or six different flavors if you just do it simply, you will taste the different nuances.
You can’t come to Charleston and say that you can get Charleston food. I’m sorry! This is coming from somebody born and raised in Charleston. You can ask most locals from Charleston about Charleston food and they say, ‘There’s nowhere in any restaurant in Charleston you can really get true Lowcountry cuisine.” You can’t get the French Huguenot side of it. You can’t really get the true Gullah-Geechee side of it. And you can’t get that whole mashup of everything together … You make me a mean pot of red rice that’s perfectly cooked, you’re a hellfire cook. It’s not an easy dish to make. People think it’s simple: I’m talking about doing it the right way. You’re not seeing crab soup on the menu. You’re not seeing okra soup. You’re seeing shrimp and grits trying to be fancied in a million different ways. But take the six and eight different things on the shrimp and grits dish, take them off: it’s shrimp and grits. And it’s deeper than the shrimp and grits. It’s about the shrimp coming from this water. It’s supposed to shine. We have great restaurants. But you’re also seeing the fact that Charleston has become hip. It has become saturated. But the one thing that is never going to go away is true Lowcountry food. It will always be here in the households and it will be back in the restaurants. Believe it.