Chef BJ Dennis delves into his people's Gullah Geechee past to inspire his future 

Bringing it Back

For BJ dennis a pot of okra soup is an opportunity to celebrate his culture and his passion for cooking.

Jonathan Boncek

For BJ dennis a pot of okra soup is an opportunity to celebrate his culture and his passion for cooking.

As a kid growing up near West Ashley's historic Maryville neighborhood, BJ Dennis (that is, Benjamin Dennis IV) had no idea there was anything special about the area. He was clueless to the fact that it was a historic place where local blacks established a town in 1886, named after an educator and leader named Mary Mathews Just. Maryville was the first model of black self government in South Carolina.

He didn't know much about Gullah Geechee either, the nation of West Africans that grew a unique culture on American soil. As far as he knew, he was just a regular Charleston kid growing up in a neighborhood that, he says, wasn't ghetto but was definitely hood.

His life revolved around playing with his friends, having fun, and avoiding the drug dealers. That is, until he didn't avoid them anymore. Today, he says it was a lyric in an N.W.A. song that inspired him and his friends to try their hand at dealing: "Don't get high off your own supply." A night in jail at the age of 16 scared him away, but it wasn't until a sojourn living and working on the island of St. Thomas many years later that he got back into the mindset that was ingrained in him by his family.

As a kid, he had the benefit of a two-parent household and a strong extended family, with a grandaddy who told him stories of the old days and pushed him to be a good person: go to church, be there for your family, and do something with yourself.

And doing something with himself is what he's struggling with these days. Just where does a 33-year-old black man in Charleston fit in? It's a generational question too. He's in the same boat as many of his peers, struggling to make a difference, find his place, and do what he loves, despite limited resources and opportunities.

And what he loves to do is cook. He's worked in many fine dining kitchens, and most recently has been hosting pop-up dinners at the Butcher & Bee, where he's been cooking up the local bounty in a way that means something to himself and the people of the Lowcountry, especially the Gullah Geechee community.

"I want to bring it back," he says. "Kids don't understand the culture here at all. They are more worried about the hottest bar of the week."

The Gullah Geechee

The foodways of the Southeastern coast were painstakingly carved out of the land and water by West Africans, who were brought here as slaves generations ago. Many scholars consider their expertise growing rice in Africa to be the reason for its successful cultivation here in the Lowcountry.

The Gullah Geechee Corridor management plan, recently released by the National Park Service, provides a compelling outline of their cultural, culinary, and linguistic influence.

Not only did the West Africans bring their farming techniques with them, primarily tideland rice production, but they also brought West African products that have since become staples of the Southern diet: peanuts, okra, sweet potatoes, greens, sorghum, peas, tomatoes, and watermelon. Once here, they plied the local waters for seafood and were influenced by Native American and Spanish techniques and flavors.

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"Gullah Geechee people applied African cooking methods and seasoning styles to this wide variety of foods and herbs, inventing a form of Creole southern cooking," the report states. "The continuity of these traditional foodways forms an important role in the lives and health ways of Gullah Geechee people today. Some within the culture still believe that rice must be a part of the daily meal, or a good meal has not been eaten."

Dennis grew up eating the food of the Lowcountry without thinking too much about it. Grandma always fried up shark steak because she liked it so much. You could find a lady walking around downtown peddling deviled crabs, and fried shrimp was always his favorite. But he really wasn't much into food as a kid, and only recently has he been sitting down with his 86-year-old granddaddy (Benjamin Dennis II) and digging deeper into his heritage.

His grandfather lives on Clement's Ferry Road in a small brick ranch house on land that's part of the 22 acres his father (Benjamin Dennis I) bought at the turn of the 20th century for 50 cents an acre, according to Michael Dahlman's book Daniel Island (published by Arcadia in 2006).

On a recent morning, the Rev. and Mrs. Dennis had just moved back into their newly renovated home. As they finished up breakfast and she cleaned the morning dishes in the brand new kitchen, they weren't much interested in reminiscing about the old days. Indeed, the reverend spent most of his time chiding his grandson for neglecting to come by and take him for a haircut as promised two weeks earlier.

"Shoot, you don't even have any hair," joked BJ, one of the few grandchildren out of 13, as he pointed out, that regularly makes time for his grandaddy. "You got grands that ain't never call you."

As BJ tried to explain how busy he's been cobbling together freelance gigs and catering jobs ("Trying to pay the rent!"), his granddad was having none of it. "I'm not going to be here much longer. You've got to call me and find out what I need," he said to an eye-rolling but smiling grandson. Despite the Rev. Dennis' reluctance to talk or answer questions from a reporter, our brief visit showed a grandfather with high demands and expectations. "If I wasn't busy and I was sitting here all the time, you'd be saying 'get out my face and go do something with yourself,' " BJ pointed out, as his grandmother chuckled nearby.

In the backyard, stalks of sugar cane were growing tall, and the last of the okra was coming in. His grandaddy has told him stories of how they used to grow rice in the ponds out here on Daniel Island, and how there used to be black cowboys minding herds of cattle. Of course, nowadays, there's not much agriculture, and they can't even access the Wando River because of private development. "We can't just live by the water, like the old ways. It used to be sustainable," says Dennis, somewhat wistfully.

Whether the old days were as romantic as we might like to think they were, there's no doubt for Dennis that we are disconnected from our history, despite our Disneyfied downtown tourist district. "Charleston is progressing, and I love it, but you can't forget where you come from," he says. "Our culture, new people just don't understand it."

For Dennis, his culture goes back generations, all the way back to slavery and before that, to West Africa. His grandmother is a Porcher, a family with deep roots, and his great grandfather ran a boat that ferried folks on and off the island before there were bridges.

In Herb Frazier's book Behind God's Back, a collection of memories from Cainhoy and Daniel Island, among others, there's a picture of the four Dennis generations: BJ with his dad and granddad, who's holding a picture of his own father, the original Benjamin Dennis.

The family history has become tangible to him, and he's eager to learn as much as he can, trying to encourage his grandfather to talk about the coconut trees that used to grow in their backyard on the island and the goats they raised and the food they ate.

Kitchen Culture

Like most young people, Dennis took a while to come around to the importance of his roots. After graduating from Middleton High, he moved downtown to attend the College of Charleston and live in the notorious College Lodge on Calhoun Street. He confesses that he partied way too hard and flunked out after only a year.

From there, he kept on partying and was soon supporting himself by washing dishes at Hyman's. He stayed there and worked his way up, bussing tables, running food, and eventually cooking. Then he went to Trident to get a culinary degree and landed on the line at Hank's Restaurant, where Frank McMahon proved to be a huge influence. By 2003, partying had gotten in his way and he headed to St. Thomas, where he discovered a kindred culture. "They eat just like we eat down here," he says. "It's very authentic and homestyle — dishes like stewed chicken with West African spices and chilies."

Living in the Caribbean opened his eyes to the Gullah Geechee culture back home. "We don't embrace it like we should," he says. "It's almost a stigma."

On one trip home, his buddy took him to a beer dinner at Carolina's and introduced him to Jeremiah Bacon, another chef who, like McMahon, would have a big impact on Dennis' development in the kitchen. "He didn't have a spot for me right then," he says, but they stayed in touch and eventually he moved back to Charleston and was put to work.

"Jeremiah is such a good person," Dennis says. "I learned so much from him. It's like I was able to get the experience of working in the kitchen of Per Se or Le Bernardin through him. He's always there in the kitchen. I got Thomas Keller fine dining training through Jeremiah Bacon. The techniques, the professionalism, things to this day that I carry with me."

The life of a cook is not very glamorous. There are long hours, hot conditions, lots of stress, and low pay. After a stint at the Cocktail Club, managing food for special events and parties, Dennis found himself looking for a new gig. But this time was different. He'd recently started delving into old cookbooks and discovering a possible niche. Most of the chefs he'd worked for weren't from here, and the ones that were definitely didn't have a connection to the Gullah Geechee traditions like he did.

A conversation with Michael Shemtov, the owner of Butcher & Bee, ignited his realization that perhaps he had something special to offer the food community. Maybe, just maybe, he could introduce people to the food he grew up with, the stuff people are eating at home, catching in the nearby waters, and cooking in their kitchens and backyards.

The Food

So he started digging deeper, reading the old receipts books and studying Carolina Rice Kitchen: The African Connection by Karen Hess, a book that tracks Charleston's rice culture all the way back to West Africa.

But more than the rice, to him, Lowcountry cuisine is the seafood. Local conch, mullet ("It's not trash, it's eatin' "), crabs, eels, shark, oysters, and shrimp, particularly the little shrimp you can catch by net up in the creeks. In his neighborhood, soft shell crabs are cheap and plentiful, not a $30-a-plate delicacy like at a fine dining restaurant.

On a recent weekday morning, we met at Hannibal's Kitchen on the East Side. We were there for what Dennis considers the best breakfast in town: a styrofoam plate of sautéed crab and grits. The picked blue crab is scattered on the flat top and smothered in onions and green peppers and served with grits, the inexpensive store-bought variety, not the artisanal stone-ground ones that cost $5 a bag. They were good, too. Creamy, salty, and the perfect foil to the savory crab. A filling deal at $8.

A week later, we headed to H&R Sweet Shop in the Old Village of Mt. Pleasant. It's been there since 1945, and today it's run by Raliegh Johnson Jr., the son of the original owner. "My daddy owns it," he told us. "He may be dead, but he still owns it."

While perusing the menu board, I told him I'd never had shark. "How you writing about Gullah food and you don't know shark?" He quickly rectified the error of my ways with a classic plate of fried shark steak, a big side of rice, and a savory stew of okras and tomatoes with plenty of ham hocks for rich flavor. It's not fancy, but the food of poverty rarely is. It's starchy and filling and uses humble ingredients. One downtown chef scoffed at the idea of eating shark: "They don't have urinary tracts and they can taste like pee if you don't soak them in milk." That might be too much trouble when it comes to food selling for $30 a plate, but when it's fried up just right, it's pretty good. This isn't fancy fare. It's down home and it sticks to your ribs.

Over on James Island, Dennis and his friend and business partner Desmond Brown, who runs the Geechee Island Food Truck, have discovered the Workmen's Cafe on Grimball Road. There, Angie Bellinger serves up a buffet of lima beans (made with plenty of smoky neck bones), collard greens, fried chicken, macaroni and cheese, and the like. Dennis and Brown are hoping they can figure how to help Miss Angie in a way that will be beneficial to all of them. She serves lunch five days a week and breakfast on Saturday mornings. They are trying to work out an arrangement to use the space to serve dinner on the weekends. It'll bring her more business and provide them with a set space to spread the gospel of Gullah food.

In the meantime, he's been working on strengthening his connections to the crab trappers and fishermen. He knows where to go for freshly shucked quarts of local oysters. He likes to stop in at the Wando Shrimp Company on Shem Creek and see what the fresh catch is. He can still sometimes get trigger for $1.50 a pound. These are connections that the white chefs from off are unlikely to make.

He's reached out to the Gullah Geechee nation, hosting a benefit last Sunday at the Workmen's Cafe for the Angel Network to help raise funds for a meeting center in Cross, S.C.

At his Sunday pop-up dinners at the Butcher & Bee he's found an eager audience for his purloos and okra soup, including food critic Jeffrey Steingarten, who gave him a mention in his big Vogue story on Sean Brock. "He called my food 'exceedingly savory'," says Dennis, obviously stunned and thrilled by the unexpected attention. Right now, he says, "I'm just riding the wave to see where it takes me."

Ultimately, he thinks his future is turning diners on to the true Lowcountry cuisine that people, particularly the Gullah Geechee, eat at home. "That's my biggest challenge," he says, "bringing it back."


Where to Find the Soul of Lowcountry Food

Hannibal's Kitchen

Downtown. 16 Blake St. (843) 722-2256

The menu has plenty to choose from, but the specialty of the house is the sautéed crab and shrimp with grits. Or you could get fried fish and grits. Either way, you'll be starting your day right.

H&R Sweet Shop

Mt. Pleasant. 102 Royall Ave. (843) 884-2118

You could go for the classic cheeseburger on the menu, but we'd recommend the daily plates for a taste of Gullah Geechee fare. Tuesday is okra soup.

Workmen's Cafe

James Island. 1837 North Grimball Road. (843) 406-0120

Ms. Angie says her meatloaf is really popular, and we'd recommend pairing it with a side of lima beans and rice. On Saturday, she serves up fish and grits for breakfast.

Bertha's Kitchen

Downtown. 2332 Meeting Street Road. (843) 554-6519

All the food here is good, but it's the okra soup that proves to be the shining example of a classic Lowcountry dish.

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