The Gullah Chef
The flavors of childhood bring Gullah Geechee Chef BJ Dennis full circle, back to his home in the Lowcountry
It has been said by many that you can’t go home again; that once the city limits sign is in your rear-view mirror, home can never be recaptured. For some, once left behind, it is reduced to only a tiny sliver, rather than the entirety of a much bigger world. For others, when laid up against the selective remembrances of childhood, its colors fade so that it is rendered unrecognizable. But there are others, who, like BJ Dennis, must leave home to truly find it.
The sun shines brightly on the well-kept lawn of the brick home in Maryville—the West Ashley community where Dennis spent his childhood. Though it would be easy to assume this neighborhood to be much the same as any other in suburbia, the neatly kept yards of these houses sit upon soil rich with history. Once known as the Town of Maryville, and once part of an “experimental plantation” for the early colony of South Carolina, the land was sold in the late 1880s to African-Americans who worked in the nearby phosphate mines or as day laborers on local farms. Named for community leader Mary Matthews Just, the area was also home to the first industrial school for African-Americans in South Carolina.
Those who grow up amidst the Lowcountry’s wealth of historical riches often take the least note of what is around them. Dennis knew about the Gullah Geechee culture in the Lowcountry, but did not fully appreciate his heritage or the significance of the place he was born and raised. The little he learned of it in school did not seem relevant to his life
In the historic Maryville neighborhood, Dennis was brought up by parents with fierce faith and a code of ethics centered on hard work, high values and love of family, and in school, he learned the standard history and geography. But nothing that gave him a sense of his place as a young African-American man coming of age in the Lowcountry.
The middle child, with sisters like bookends on either side, he didn’t grow up cooking. But, like most growing boys, he had a great appreciation for the flavorful food prepared by his family. “I dabbled a bit with food,” he says. “When my cousins and I would gather around a campfire, I was always the one to add lemon juice to my hotdog or some crazy little thing that made everyone else shake their heads,” he remembers. “My mother tells me I was always curious about what went into the dishes she cooked.” But it never occurred to him that each plate prepared using gifts fresh from the garden and nearby waterways was an homage to a the Gullah Geechee people of the Low Country and Sea Islands of South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, and North Carolina.
Like many teenagers, he chafed at the bit, pulling hard against the constraints of his parents’ discipline. A night in jail at age 16 taught him the hard way that this behavior would not reward him. After graduating from Middleton High School, he spent an unfulfilling year as a self-described party animal before flunking out at the College of Charleston and then transferring to Trident Technical College.
“You’re not going to live here for free,” his parents told him. Though they did not know it at the time, these very words set into motion a chain of events that would send a young man on a journey to discover himself, his heritage and his home.
In order to pay his parents for his tuition, room and board, he started working in the kitchens of some of Charleston’s finest restaurants- as a dishwasher, busboy, and food runner, before working his way up to fry cook. Gradually, his academic career began to turn from his initial interest in business management, to follow a course that would lead him to an Associate Degree in Hospitality/Tourism Management and Culinary Arts, from Charleston Culinary Institute at Trident Technical College.
Still, he searched for his place in the world. A connection with Caribbean neighbors across the street from his parents’ home took him to the Virgin Islands. Hearing the patois of his home from the lips of those who had never set foot on Lowcountry soil sparked remembrance of a culture he had taken for granted most of his life; awakening memories of flavors, sounds and colors he had long forgotten. In the voices of those he worked with in the kitchens of restaurants in St. Thomas and St. Kitts, he heard echoes of his grandfather’s stories. Told from the porch of his Clements Ferry Road home, situated on land bought for a half-dollar per acre at the turn of the 20th century, they were stories of ferrymen and black cowboys and always working the land.
Rice and fresh seafood, seasonal vegetables from the garden were the backbone of the food culture brought by West Africans to this region and to what has come to be recognized by a 2006 Act of Congress as The Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor, an area stretching roughly thirty miles inland from the Sea Islands off the coast Jacksonville, FL, to Hampstead, NC. These were the flavors of his childhood, and they became a recurring theme in his mind.
“But why,” wondered author Thomas Wolfe in his iconic novel, You Can’t Go Home Again, “had he always felt so strongly the magnetic pull of home, why had he thought so much about it and remembered it with such blazing accuracy, if it did not matter?”
A similar question struck Dennis when he returned to Charleston four years later. He realized just how much his home did matter and how the flavors of his childhood were a part of a culture and way of life he had almost let slip away in his youthful search for himself.
Determined not to let his generation be the last to understand the legacy they inherited, he began mining the depths of Gullah Geechee cuisine, recreating dishes from his grandfather’s memory of the staples found in his mother’s pantry. Okra and rice, kitchen garden vegetables such as peas, collards and sweet potatoes, and the ever changing bounty from local waters set the menu for the seasons of life in the Gullah Geechee kitchen for generations; the unique combinations created by what people had on hand.
“Most people don’t give thought to the dependency people once had on food from small kitchen gardens, and what they could catch in the creeks and rivers,” Dennis says, looking out over the garden of his parents’ Maryville home, where the corn is winding down, but peas and okra are still abundant.
“And, there is still a misconception that Gullah Geechee cuisine is unhealthy. People think that a lot of things are fried, or cooked with a lot of fat, but that isn’t true. Frying food would have been a luxury back then, saved for special occasions. It’s actually very healthy.”
Dennis’ simple, flavorful food has brought him local and national attention, and made him a much sought-after personal chef and caterer.
In addition to having traveled to Brooklyn with the CNN Original Series, Anthony Bourdain Parts Unknown, where he spent three days cooking an authentic Charleston feast with Chef Oliver Palazzo, among his accomplishments, Dennis has created small plate menus for The Cocktail Club, served as consulting chef at Palace Hotel, and is frequently featured at Butcher & Bee’s Sunday pop-up dinners.
Dennis has been on his own for three years and, though it isn’t a glamorous life and offers him little personal time, he hopes that infusing the flavors of his home into the food he creates will continue to bring new interest to the ever-expanding Southern home plate.
He hopes to eventually open his own restaurant, but until then, wants what he does to serve the greater good of keeping the culture alive; helping to give the next generation the sense of self that can only be gained by knowing who you are, appreciating where you came from, and remembering that as Thomas Wolfe reminded us, “the years flow by like water, and one day men come home again.”
To learn more about the Gullah Geechee culture visit gullahgeechee.org, and keep up with Chef BJ Dennis at chefbenjamindennis.com.