What is Southern food to you? Which meals come to mind when you think of traditional food from this region? Maybe it’s crispy fried chicken or macaroni and cheese. Or is it a pot of gumbo or a pan of cornbread? To Benjamin “BJ” Dennis, born and raised in Charleston, South Carolina, traditional Southern food goes far beyond just a delicious meal. It’s fueled by soul, and its history is detailed and storied with many classic dishes tracing back to the Lowcountry. This not-so-hidden gem along the country’s southeastern coast is known for its charming cities and rich cultural heritage—more specifically, the ancestors of today’s Gullah people who lived in South Carolina and parts of northern Georgia.
The importance of the Gullah people’s contribution to modern cuisine in the region is not lost on BJ. As a Charlestonian, he is acutely aware that their unique culture, foods, and language are all an innate part of him and his identity as a Black chef in the South.
“I’ve always had a love for my Gullah culture and its food,” he says. “And I’ve always been attracted to books that talked about it, even though they were very hard to find growing up.”
Part of that difficulty can be summed up by a lack of visibility for his fellow Gullahs from the very beginning, as well as the suffering their enslaved ancestors endured. Ultimately, the Gullah people became some of the most pivotal architects of our region’s diverse foodways.
Not much has changed since those days for their descendants alive today. Even with one conversation with BJ, it’s evident that their unique Geechee language and accent are still alive and strong in the most beautiful way. More than that, the age-old recipes and methods remain as close to the originals as possible, preserving the tastes and techniques for generations to come.
“Our people blended what they held on to from Africa with what was new to them,” BJ says. “It created recipes like rice perloo, oyster perloo, and okra soup. If you’re looking for the dish of the Lowcountry and Charleston, shrimp and grits is popular, but you’re going to know what okra soup is if you’re born and raised here. It’s one of those recipes that’s been passed down.”
And just like fresh okra and locally caught seafood are essential elements of Gullah cooking, so is cast-iron cookware.
“It’s such a staple in our culture, history, and roots,” BJ says. “Almost all the old Gullah recipes are predicated on cast iron cooking. The best way to cook up a hoppin’ John or a chicken bog is in a cast-iron pan or Dutch oven.”
BJ’s love for cooking in cast iron is equally matched with his commitment to continuing his people’s legacy in the South and beyond. Interestingly, his proud determination to do so largely stems from his time spent living on the island of St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands, where he studied the Creole culture for a few years.
“I saw how the culture there was unapologetic,” BJ says. “It wasn’t being hidden or swept under the rug. The people there have a proud love for their heritage, and I was determined to come back home and bring that same kind of awareness.” So, in 2008, he did. But as Charleston’s food scene gained notoriety, he noticed that the authentic foodways of South Carolina—primarily Gullah— were not mentioned or embraced. Instead, he saw stereotypical Southern foods like fried chicken and shrimp and grits getting all the glory. That’s when BJ knew he had to take strides to bring Gullah to the forefront.
“I WANTED PEOPLE TO KNOW WHAT REALLY MADE CHARLESTON A FOOD DESTINATION FOR CUSTOMERS AND CHEFS.”
—Benjamin “BJ” Dennis
“The pop-up scene really started hitting the city in 2012,” he says. “I started doing pop-ups all over that highlighted my kind of cuisine. I wanted to tell this piece of the story that was being forgotten. I wanted people to know what really made Charleston a food destination for customers and chefs.”
BJ’s cooking and expertise in all things Gullah have taken him on a journey, one that he’s still on today.
“I’ve traveled to so many different places to talk about our foodways, from Montreal to New York City to Seattle,” he says. “I’ve been to Trinidad and Tobago, rediscovering the history and rice culture of the descendants of Gullah people there who are called Merikins, and I’ve been to West Africa a few times where many of the original Gullah were taken from.”
It’s safe to say this journey won’t come to a halt anytime soon for BJ. With the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement last summer, he thinks there has never been a better time to be sure his people’s voices are heard and that they receive the recognition they rightfully deserve when it comes to the expansive story of the South.
“For Black Southerners, a lot of us really never had much besides our food,” he says. “But how do we move forward from this and continue the momentum? How do we all move on and remember at the same time? Because if we don’t remember our past, we will never make real progress. So now, it’s about figuring out how we can champion one another.”
One way in which BJ is moving forward is by stepping into the role of culinary director at Lowcountry Fresh Market & Café. Located in the heart of the Lowcountry, Bluffton, South Carolina, BJ is working with local farmers and artisans to offer customers an authentic taste of all things Lowcountry, Gullah cuisine included.
“A little bit of everything will be on the menu and shelves,” he says. “From old-school casserole dishes and perloos to jams and other pantry staples, it’ll encompass everything our piece of the South has to offer, and everyone is sure to find something they enjoy.”
BJ is doing his part to help strengthen the Gullah community. Reconnecting those who have forgotten their Gullah past has quickly become the most rewarding part of his work.
“I get to show them the beauty of this culture,” he says. “They want to learn more and embrace their history. They want to get back to their family’s past, and they want to understand. They don’t want to be separated from this anymore.” Southern chefs like BJ, who amplify their culture and work to preserve sacred traditions through food, are what make the South and its cuisine so remarkable.
Find BJ Dennis’ recipe for Gullah Fried Okra with Shrimp and Smoked Sausage here.