Eater’s Gullah feature paints a false picture of modern Charleston

Hot takes and headaches

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Garlic crabs from Charlie Brown Seafood - JONATHAN BONCEK FILE PHOTO
  • Jonathan Boncek file photo
  • Garlic crabs from Charlie Brown Seafood
My husband is a high school history teacher and each year he tasks each US History student to write a how-to guide to next year's students. Now, don't get me wrong, these epistles are generally tongue-in-cheek warnings to naive incoming juniors: "Beware the great Lord Gidick. If you even think about looking at your phone during class, he'll drop it from his second story window" or "Dear Sucker, Just drop this class now or else prepare to watch your GPA plummet." They're entertaining bits of dramatic teenage silliness, but buried in the middle of them there's almost always a serious note, a list of key phrases every student will have to know to pass the class. Words like:

Railroads
Containment
Consumerism
And always, always: The answer is always slavery.

The reason? It is. If there's anything 11th graders need to understand when it comes to American history, especially the cause of the Civil War, it's the centrality of slavery as it relates to the social, political, and economic sectionalism that ripped this nation apart. It's a lesson my husband drills home with photos, firsthand accounts of slaves, videos like Ken Burns' Civil War, and more. And judging by the end-of-year letters, his students seem to be getting the message. Of course, that's not the case in every classroom.

It certainly wasn't for me. I'll admit when I moved to Charleston from Washington state to attend CofC in 2002, I didn't get it. When you're raised 3,000 miles away from the epicenter of the Civil War, it can all feel a little abstract.

What I did know was that I, as a Northwesterner, was on the right side of history when it came to slavery — Washingtonians never owned them. White Southerners, meanwhile, still clung to their racist past like a batty old dowager wearing furs on a hot July day. Or at least that's what I presumed.

Little did I know the Charleston I had arrived in, a city so adept at examining the sins of its forefathers it bordered on penance. From politics to preservation, theater to visual art, today's Holy City citizens have been looking at what it means to inherit a city whose beauty, wealth, and tourist-magnetism was built on the backs of slaves for years. Just consider the fact that we're the only city in the United States that has a museum dedicated to the domestic slave trade — the Old Slave Mart Museum. And then there's the forthcoming International African American Museum, the first of its kind in the nation.

But nowhere has the act of studying the past been more apparent than with Charleston's food. From the resurrection of heirloom staples like Carolina Gold rice and Jimmy Red corn to the preservation of recipes to detailed research of local food pioneers, huge efforts to honor Charleston's culinary traditions — of both blacks and whites — can be seen at every turn.

Which is why I was disappointed to read Eater's recent feature, "How Gullah Cuisine Has Transformed Charleston: Exploring the line between shared history and appropriation."
For the story, Eater Senior Reports Editor Hillary Dixler visited Charleston during the Wine + Food festival in order to try to understand the city's connection and relationship with Gullah cuisine, a worthy endeavor and one near and dear to our hearts here at the City Paper and around the city. Let me just say, thank you, Eater. Your willingness to send a writer to take a closer look at this important subject is admirable and appreciated. That said, I think you were misled.
EATER.COM SCREENSHOT
  • Eater.com screenshot
In her piece, Dixler starts off strong. She does a great job of explaining the difference between Gullah and soul food — a difference we've covered here and here. She nails the fact that the Gullah tradition is now mostly seen in homes, not restaurants, also true, and partially due to the fact that nearly half a dozen Gullah restaurants closed last year (something we examined here). Dixler meets Gullah Chef BJ Dennis and the Gullah Society's Dr. Ade Ofunniyin, who we agree are two of Charleston's leading authorities on Gullah culture. She also talks to two high profile white chefs — SNOB's Frank Lee, who grew up learning recipes from a Gullah woman who worked for his aunt, and The Macintosh's Jeremiah Bacon who grew up on Kiawah Island. On paper, that's a great list.
Unfortunately Dixler takes her thesis cues from African-American foodways blogger Michael Twitty and it's his agenda that largely and inaccurately frames her story. In her piece, Twitty suggests that Charleston's most well known white chefs have taken ownership of Gullah cuisine and made it all about them.

Dixler writes:
"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.'"
Twitty specifically names Sean Brock and Mike Lata which is all the more baffling. Say what you will about the James Beard winners, but few have done more to further the discussion of Charleston's culinary history and the people who got us here. Consider that it was Brock who helped cast a national spotlight on Martha Lou's Kitchen when her business was on the brink. We know because City Paper's office is across the street from the soul food spot and her parking lot used to sit nearly empty until he praised Martha Lou Gadsden's incredible comfort food. Brock's also been a vocal supporter of African-American farmer Joseph Fields and his USDA-certified organic farm on Johns Island. That doesn't begin to touch on the work Brock has done with heirloom crops which has also helped further tell this city's slave history. As for Lata, a founder of the Charleston Slow Food movement, he has been a huge supporter of Lowcountry seafood and a proponent for mom-and-pop fleets and fishermen, many of the whom are African American.

But there's no accounting for that in Eater's piece. Once again, Twitty is to blame:

"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."
And that's where I take issue with this story. While plenty of other cities in the South (and let's be honest, beyond) shamelessly appropriate minority and immigrant cuisines and don't give credit, the leaders of Charleston F&B scene are different. If anything, Charleston's approach to its food heritage should be considered a model to other cities of how to examine and celebrate minority contributions to local cuisine.

Consider the recent Nat Fuller dinner held this past spring. After years of research, Dr. David Shields, a white English professor at University of South Carolina, uncovered the histories of dozens of 19th century black chefs. Chief among them was recently freed former slave Nat Fuller. Considered Charleston's most talented restaurateur of the era — he owned the Bachelor's Retreat at 77 Church St. under a "self hire" system wherein he agreed to pay his master a percentage of his earnings in exchange for living outside the home. And there Fuller's renown as a chef grew. Shields writes, "he was the first to insinuate vernacular and African-American influences into high-style cuisine." Fuller further blew our collective minds when Dr. Shields revealed that in 1865, the chef hosted an integrated dinner celebrating the end of the Civil War. Just think about that for a second. Nat Fuller was so universally respected, that he was able to bring white and black people to the same table in Charleston — site of the first shot that began the bloodiest war in our nation's history. It's an impossible thing to imagine. Shields' story of Fuller first ran in Charleston magazine in December 2013. I know because I helped edit it. And it could have just stayed that. A nice historical footnote to read while enjoying a glass of wine. But it didn't. Instead, the story came to life in a recreated reconciliation dinner to mark the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War at McCrady's restaurant last year. A dinner where Gullah chef BJ Dennis and in some ways his counterpart chef Sean Brock helped recreate a menu to reflect the same dishes Fuller would have served at the time. I'm sure Twitty recalls the meal as he sat next to City Paper writer Robert Moss at the dinner.

But just as Moss wrote in his piece on the meal that took place just weeks after the police shooting of Walter Scott, "It was a recreation of a very special and unusual event that had occurred 150 years before, and the central theme — reconciliation between two long-divided communities — seemed all too relevant." 

Now some could argue, that the Nat Fuller event was too recent, that we all should have been looking at the history of Charleston's Gullah food and culture long before that.
We have.

2015 Dish The Gullah Geechee Issue
2015 Nat Fuller Rests in Peace 
2015 The Nat Fuller feast opens a new chapter in Charleston's forgotten culinary history 
2015 The Gentrification of Geechee 
2015 Garden & Gun's cookbook offers a white-washed look at Southern foodways
2014 Alice Warren is back in business 
2014 Mt. Pleasant Gullah Cuisine closed
2013 The millions lost during the Middle Passage are memorialized at a Charleston ceremony 
2013 What if there had been no West African influence on Southern cooking? 
2013 A Brief History of the Boiled Peanut 
2013 The Heart of Sol Legare 
2013 Cannonborough-Elliotborough has transformed whether you like it or not 
2013 Artist Jonathan Green launches an important forum on local culture 
2012 Colin Quashie's pointed response to the world around him 
2012 Chef BJ Dennis delves into his people's Gullah Geechee past to inspire his future
2012 Gullah Geechee Corridor takes a big step forward
2012 Photojournalist Pete Marovich tells the Gullah/Geechee story in pictures
2011 The Old Slave Mart is one of the few museums to expose America's shameful past 
2011 Life Filled with Gullah Traditions 
2011 Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor: Writer, actor, cook looks at her many-sided life 
2011 The Southern Foodways Alliance shares the stories of the South at the Potlikker Film Festival
2011 Slavery in Charleston: A chronicle of human bondage in the Holy City 
2011 How to make shrimp purloo 
2011 Slavery the pivotal issue for Charleston's Mercury 
2011 Twenty years later, Julie Dash's film Daughters of the Dust continues to inspire 
2010 Lady Soul 
2008 Alluette's Cafe review
2008 Special Dining Experience Awaits at Alluette's 
2007 RESTAURANT REVIEW: Hannibal's Kitchen, Ernie's Restaurant, Mr. Lee's Place, & Dave's Carryout
2007 A 200-year anniversary brings Charleston's slave-trading past into the light 
2006 Oh, Oh, Oh, It's Okra 
2006 The Plight of the Farmer 
1999 Gullah history comes to life Sea Island influences still strong
1999 College of Charleston Archaeology students unearth fragments of history at Stono Plantation 
1998 Pilgrims follow in footsteps of history 
1998 Island tour blends tea and Gullah play 

Those are just a few of the features from Post & Courier and City Paper that I had time to put together during the course of my son's hour-long nap on Sunday — 30+ pieces that focus on the Gullah food experience. It's a small snippet of what I believe has been written and doesn't even begin to touch on the personal research chefs, distillers, farmers, and others have done to further the understanding of this city's Gullah and slave heritage. Is it enough? Of course not. I firmly believe that it's the duty of Charleston's writers and reporters to continue to tell these stories. No word count will be enough to fully recognize this culture, its ugly start in bondage, and its beautiful impact on our Lowcountry. But for Twitty to suggest people aren't respecting Gullah cuisine or the people who make it, well that's just factually incorrect.

What is true is the need to write more about what's happening now with Gullah cuisine.
Gullah restaurants are vanishing. Rising rents and gentrification have already wiped out at least five place in the past year — Huger's Place Gullah Food & Entertainment, Gullah Cuisine, Ernie's Restaurant, Ike's Hot Chicken & Fish, and Ellen Bright Hall. That's why we decided to dedicate our entire fall 2015 Dish issue to Gullah-Geechee cuisine. In fact, in my initial notes I had considered including a timeline history of the Gullah people, but nixed it due to the fact that I felt Charlestonians didn't need another history lesson, they needed to know what was happening now.

Sadly, all of this was lost on the Eater feature and what we got instead was an article that sounded like what I might have written back when I first moved here: a misguided hot take.

That's too bad. As Hanna Raskin stated in her comment on the Eater feature, that I co-signed, "From a Northern perspective, this story probably makes sense: It conforms to a long-standing notion that Southerners are backward on matters of race. But the real story is so much more interesting, and perhaps inspiring: In a city that owes its existence to slavery, chefs, activists and writers are inching toward racial reconciliation by openly discussing food and its origins."

You see, Eater, in Charleston, whether we're talking about architecture, race relations, or food, we know the answer is always slavery. The question now is, how do we continue the momentum of this discussion to make sure it includes how we can support and invest in the descendants of slaves in Charleston today?


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