How Gullah Cuisine Has Transformed Charleston Dining
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.
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).
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