You cannot tell the full story of Charleston, South Carolina without mentioning the people who, quite literally, built the foundation on which this hub of hospitality and tourism sits. Whether you're talking about 1670 or 1970, we were here.
The free Africans who were enslaved and brought to the Port of Charleston by way of Barbados used a kind of alchemy to create a shared culture that now lies at the core of the Charleston brand, an attraction that Travel + Leisure, Conde Nast Traveler, Bon Appetit, and others routinely list as a top destination in the world.
Just last summer, T + L editor Jacqueline Gifford spoke glowingly about the Holy City during an appearance on NBC's Today. "It's been exciting to watch the evolution of this uniquely American city, beloved by our readers for its welcoming spirit, nourishing, inventive food, and world-class cultural events."
This week's Charleston Wine + Food Festival is one of the biggest cultural draws of the year. Established in 2006, the event has grown to the point of hosting over 120 events during the festival's five-day run. That breadth of programming has situated Charleston as one of the nation's top food festivals and has proven to be a boon for the city. Last year, the festival had an $18.6 million economic impact in Charleston, a figure that is likely to increase.
But that "nourishing, inventive food" and welcoming spirit? You can credit that to the Gullah Geechee people — direct descendants of enslaved Africans who populate coastal areas from Jacksonville, Fla. to Wilmington, N.C. Flavors of West African cooking turn up in dishes all over Charleston from simple beans and peas to crispy corn fritters.
For this year's festival on March 5, Wine + Food will host its first Soul Stroll, a sold out, 21+ excursion that highlights three of the area's most popular black-owned soul food restaurants: Martha Lou's Kitchen, Nana's Seafood & Soul, and Hannibal's Kitchen. At each stop, attendees will get a meal and learn the history of each restaurant, directly from the proprietors.
"The impetus for Soul Stroll began long before the event concept was created and a name was given," says Alyssa Maute Smith, the festival's communications director. According to Smith, almost as soon as they wrapped up last year's festival, themed "Experience our Story," the team went to work.
They spent time asking, "What is our story?" and "What do we want our story to be?" In the end, the festival wanted to be sure programming was inclusive of all the cultures that make Charleston's culinary scene what it is. "We realized that we, as a team and an entity that represents our community, could do a better job of making sure we were an accurate reflection of that community."
Last summer, they set out to explore well-established local restaurants that were under-represented on Wine + Food schedules. On their journey, they visited staples such as Nana's, Martha Lou's Kitchen, Bertha's Kitchen, Dave's Seafood Carry-Out, Hannibal's Kitchen, Nigel's Good Food, and ChuckTown Mobile Seafood & Cafe, eating their fair share of crab rice, garlic crab, fried chicken, and sweet potatoes along the way. Outside of the delicious offerings, Smith said they realized something. "What we discovered from these conversations and the delicious eats, was that we had an opportunity to showcase more than just one version of Charleston's food story."
With the blessing of Nana's owner Kenyatta McNeil, who has been conducting soul food tours for years, plans for the Soul Stroll began to materialize.
"So, we went back to Nana's to sit down and chat with Kenyatta," Smith says. "He told us that he had to put his culinary tours on a permanent hiatus due to the opening of Nana's second, North Charleston location."
Along with his mother Carolyn McNeil, Kenyatta runs Nana's in downtown's Westside, just north of the Crosstown Expressway. On any given day regulars will walk in to find garlic crabs, more-traditional fried seafood, wings, and other unique sandwiches up for grabs, but no set menu. The family opened a second location on Dorchester Road in North Charleston last year.
The pink restaurant that bears the name and smiling face of Martha Lou Gadsden on Morrison Drive has also seen Charleston's upper peninsula grow up around it. Having hosted the likes of Anthony Bourdain and City Paper staffers who shuffled in from their old office across the street, you'll still find a crowd when people come in from out of town to get a taste of Gadsden's fried chicken, butter beans, and other soul food standards.
Safiya Grant, the co-owner of Hannibal's Kitchen in downtown's Eastside neighborhood, has partnered with the festival in the past, sometimes as a backdrop for events hosted by Gullah chef BJ Dennis. So when the opportunity came for them to be a featured participant, Grant thought it'd be a good idea.
"Now that it's focused on us, I just plan on giving the history of Hannibal's," says Grant. "Hannibal's has been around since 1985, for three generations. Me and my sister, Felicity Huger, run the restaurant now."
She sees this as an opportunity to showcase the restaurant to Charleston's ever-expanding population: "The area is changing. I like to say that we got a lot of 'new neighbors.' A lot of people who lived [downtown] have moved to Summerville, Goose Creek, North Charleston."
And it's not just new residents that Grant says she wants to get in front of. "Tourists come year round now ... It's no longer just people visiting in the summer," she says. "And with social media, we aren't just known to the people around the block."
For Grant, as the city changes around Hannibal's, the historic restaurant will continue its work. "We ain't going nowhere," she says confidently. For her, it's about proving to the younger generation that Hannibal's Kitchen is more than just a restaurant; it's an institution. "As our children grow, we teach the value of owning their own and the legacy of Hannibal's, to be that staple item in the community."