Aunt Shirley makes some of the best red rice ... ever
It was during Sunday school at the church of my father's youth that I realized I was Geechee. We were in Tennessee visiting Dad's family when it happened. I have a younger brother, and this pair of sisters, Summer and Winter, assumed that we'd come all the way from Charleston to pair up like some type of romantic sitcom — they were all over us. In the middle of their intense interrogation of the Kearney brothers, Winter stopped and said, "Y'all sound like y'all from Jamaica!" I straightened right up in my seat.
As soon as I could, I asked my Mom what that girl meant. Mom explained that, to some people, we do. We have an accent because we are Geechee. She then briefly, and quite casually might I add, explained that part of why we sound the way we do is because of our Caribbean and African ancestry, an ancestry we have because of slavery. Consider my 13-year-old mind-blown.
Fast forward a good 20 years or so and I found myself in a similar state of mental shock recently talking to my Mom. This time, however, instead of a Sunday school class, we were at her house where she was flanked by three of her sisters sharing what it means to be Geechee and black in the city today compared to how things were for them growing up in North Charleston's Howard Heights neighborhood.
"Well," said my Aunt Shirley, "to be honest, we didn't do a whole lot of eating out. Because of segregation, there weren't a lot of places for us to go." Ranging in age from 50 to mid-70, my aunts' experiences cover a span of time from segregation to integration and the great migration of blacks off the peninsula to other areas of the Lowcountry.
"Plus, we were poor!" she said with a smirk. "The money Mama did have, we kept in the house." Her sisters concurred. They pretty much sourced their own food from the land or their neighbors.
"We'd go fishing with Mama around the Redbank Channel around the Cooper River," my mom said. "Or we'd fish right over there near the Cosgrove Bridge where Joe Riley Stadium is now. That water behind Joe Riley was good fishing back then."
Even their fishing trips brought back good culinary memories. They spoke about waking up early in the morning and making a basket full of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, how they'd add a box of stale ginger snaps (apparently that's the way my Grandma liked them), and take those on their fishing trips.
According to my Aunt Benita, fishing was just the beginning of their self-sustaining lifestyle. As one of the youngest siblings, she doesn't have many memories of restaurants but of friends and families helping each other out. "We were all in the same situation so we depended on each other. The community fed themselves. We took care of each other. Everyone had their own garden and grew different things and we'd share with each other. People even had animals, like livestock, in their yards."
Benita said it was nothing for my Grandma to send her to a neighbor for a duck. Really. "I'd walk over to someone's house and wait while they killed the duck or the chicken, then give it to me." Money was never exchanged, instead produce was traded. That, or the ability to come to their house to pick what they needed at a later date ended up being payment enough. Not only was food used to barter among community members, but the preparation of said food ended up being a community event as well. Canning sessions were a big deal back in the day.
"Mary Martin had a pear tree and a big metal basin," my Aunt Jane remembered. "When pears fell off her tree we'd help her put them in the basin. Soon as the basin got full, all the ladies on the street would come over to help her can them or preserve them in mason jars." Everyone that helped got to take some home with them, the sweat off their brow was all that was required to take part of the spoils. A multitude of fruits and vegetables received the canning treatment much to their dismay — self canning was a labor-intensive practice.
And nothing went to waste. My aunts said that growing up they ate pear sandwiches, a simple concoction created with the aforementioned pear preserves placed on bread. They ate mustard sandwiches sprinkled with sugar. They made a giblet prioleau dish made with rice, leftover chicken giblets, and chopped onions. They taught me about "hoe cakes," which were literally cornmeal fried on the flat surface of a garden hoe, and how they used to make candy from the rinds of pumpkins and watermelons. My face recoiled at the thought, but apparently, this was commonplace. My family had ingenuity down to a science.
I even learned that red rice, now a Charleston delicacy, was created by necessity. "You had rice. You had leftover tomatoes. You made red rice. Wasn't nothing fancy to us. We were just experts at using what we had," said my Aunt Shirley who, by the way, makes some of the best red rice I've ever had the pleasure of tasting. Oh, and while we're on the subject of delicacies, I found out that my great, great, great uncle William Deas, created Charleston's famous she-crab soup. Deas was a butler and a cook to R. Goodwyn Rhett, mayor of Charleston in the early 1900s. No wonder it's one of my favorite dishes, I'm genetically predisposed to like it. This also means that every restaurant in the city that makes she-crab soup should let me taste it to see if it meets my family's standards. Just saying.
Eventually, we started talking about restaurants. As time marched on, policy changes cut down on the need for extreme self-sufficiency. But make no mistake, my aunts still depended on themselves and on the community for the majority of their substance. "The church was everything to us," my Mom said. Because of the racial climate in the 1960s, it was just safer to stick with your own people and in your own neighborhoods, with the church being that focal point of communication. "We did everything at church," Mom recalled." You got christened, married, and buried at church. We had teas, potlucks, dessert socials, all kinds of events at church. Food was a big part of those gatherings." But according to my aunts, around the 1960s and 1970s they remember seeing a lot more black-owned food spots opening up. "Mostly out of the back of people's houses," said Aunt Jane.
Downtown Charleston was a hot bed for these establishments, as the peninsula was predominantly made up of African Americans. When they were coming up, 70 percent of Charleston's population was black, compared to 50 percent in the 1980s and 20 percent at last check according to census data. Aunt Jane spoke fondly of places like the Ladson House on President Street — the first post-Jim Crow black-owned sit down restaurant — and Dee Dex Snack Bar on the corner of Spring and Rutledge. Martha Lou Gadsden, of her eponymous Morrison Drive restaurant, worked at both restaurants before opening her own in 1983. They also spoke of the Ashley Grill, also on Spring, and they told me about the Patio at 41 Bogard St., which sold shrimp dinners that had 25 pieces of fried shrimp. Today it's Chef Ken Vedrinski's Trattoria Lucca. And there was Brooks, which was a black-owned restaurant and hotel. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. stayed there in June 1963. It was demolished in 2000.
I asked if they had any favorite diners, and they answered with laughs. When they were growing up, black people didn't have access to places like Waffle House like we do now. Because of this, the popularity of black-owned nightclubs started to rise. Places like Eubanki off of Jacksonville Road and Peter Miller in Red Top, to name a few, weren't just nighttime joints; in many cases they catered to the entire family. Some of these clubs, like the ones on Mosquito Beach on James Island, would have daytime entertainment so everyone would have a place to have fun when the sun was out. And at night, they'd serve food along with booze to help club-goers sober up and because there weren't any late-night dining options for them. Like the church, clubs supplied various services for their respective constituents. This totally explains my satisfaction with eating chicken wings at night-time establishments.
I asked my aunts if blacks had all of these options back in the day, why don't we have them now? And do you think we'll ever see a "Black Wall Street" situation — an area completely controlled by black business owners — in the city of Charleston again? Frankly, they don't think so. At this point, they believe that it's less about racism and more about economic development and opportunity. For decades blacks have been pushed out of their homes and neighborhoods so property that was once owned by blacks is now owned by whites. Aunt Shirley added, "If you don't own any property, it's hard to create those situations. And the black people that do have money don't seemed to be interested in owning commercial buildings or being on the front-end of investment opportunities like creating a Mixson or revitalizing Chicora."
Aunt Benita offered a counterpoint, however. "It could happen," she said. "Koreans have Koreatowns, Chinese people have their areas. Same for Jewish people and Italians. No reason we couldn't do the same. It's just going to take us coming together to make it happen."
I agreed. Yes, there are systemic reasons why blacks in Charleston have lost property and lack economic opportunities. And yes, our culture has been lost through time and our cuisine has been appropriated by the establishments that popped up in place of those old black landmarks. But as my aunts suggested, we have history on our side and now is the time to pair that history with ambition. Through food, we can tell the varied story of our past and direct the narrative of our future. Who knows, maybe this article is a step in that direction.
I'll figure it out, right after I finish this big bowl of she-crab soup.