A moment in the Black Food Culture Renaissance: Sunday's BBQ Supper
Since Sunday, June 3, 2018 I have been trying to process what happened at Sunday’s BBQ Dinner hosted by BJ Dennis and me on Joseph Fields Family Farm in Charleston, SC. I have looked at countless pictures, videos, and talked to a few people following the event to relive the day. The day is still a blur but seeing The LaRue Group video and hearing of the expressions of the energy in the space, the inspiration the event provided, I finally think I know what happened. What I saw was a family reunion of people who are pivotal in black food culture, from elder farmers to several James Beard Awardees all present on the Historic Joseph Fields Family Farm deep in the Gullah Geechee community which has owned land since the 1850s. The family reunion style event which provided Gullah Geechee foods and old school pit bbq was significant when you think about the idea that 40-60% of the enslaved Africans brought in the US, came in through Charleston. Therefore, it is illogical to think that black food culture in the south can’t have a lot in common. The event in my mind with the people who came on their own to support us signals to me a “Black Food Culture Renaissance” going on in the country and we are extremely thankful for those who came to the event.
Sunday’s BBQ Dinner started out in simply wanting to cook with my brother BJ Dennis on a black owned farm in Charleston and just highlight the great South Carolina food that we commit ourselves too, even though in actuality it is your food too. Our intent was to cook for about 30 people and let them witness something special, in hopes that people saw a glimpse into the past. Most of the food cooked was either grown on the farm, or sourced locally from two farmers. Little did we know that culinary leaders in the country would come out to support our endeavor by purchasing tickets. We are very appreciated because it was open to the public and we did not send out any special invitations outside of Social Media shares. This says a lot to the resources we have at our disposal within the community, now and going forward. Should we do another event again, hopefully more people will come but this experience as always, will be about the culture. I am working on an event in New Orleans involving a whole cow roast, pitcooked like our ancestors have described in historical records but in an above ground pit Oct. 20, 2018.
Cooking of a lamb and Ossabaw Island Pig in an earth dug pit in South Carolina was something I wanted to do for a while, since I believe in my home community in Clarendon County it has not been done since the 1970s. I wanted to do it in the way that my father told me he did it last, using materials off of the farm in the 1970s to build the pit instead of a fancy pit of today. I recounted on the first episode of Nourish(www.YouTube.com/PBSNourish), a new PBS Digital Studios show I am hosting, a sketch of the pit he used with metal pipes. For the earth dug pit in Charleston, I just followed those instructions, in using old pipes, axles from a disk, pieces of metal tin, fence wire, and some type of concrete blocks all found on the farm. In addition, I did not use a burn barrel made from a 55 gallon drum to get coals, I made a device with materials on the farm to show how an old-timer would have done it. This was the way that countless old black bbq cooks and their families have told me they’ve seen bbq done in my home community and I wanted to share this with others after doing a fancy version in Shreveport and on the Cooking Channel last year. This week when I read another article about the Jones Bar-B-Q-Diner in Marianna, Arkansas about how the Owner’s Mr. James Jones open the restaurant in 1910 with just a “a hole in the ground, some iron pipes and a piece of fence wire and two pieces of tin” it just keeps confirming why the work is important. I don’t know what is the right course to take in this work but I take a direction in which I am inspired to make sure the people who came before work is acknowledge, and not me.
Why did I say this event was the signifying of a Black Food Culture Renaissance? In my mind it has similarities in objectives and outcomes to the Harlem Renaissance. There are key differences into the significance of the Harlem Renaissance and the Black Food Culture Renaissance. The Harlem Renaissance involved black people moving from the Deep South to the North during the Great Migration. The Harlem Renaissance was an explosion of black culture, particularly in the creative arts in Harlem. The Black Food Culture Renaissance is undergoing an explosion as Black Food culture is spreading in various parts of the country and elements of the cuisine is being recognized by the likes of the James Beard Awards or Eater. Black people whose families migrated to the North are trying to move back south today. Since my immediate family did not leave the south, I see the south as a very special place along with the connectivity to people who created this black food culture. As an aside, I should not have to label black food when one talks about American Food because it should go without saying, honestly. When you look at food in the South, the largest contributors to the food culture are enslaved Africans and Native Americans, but they are the most omitted as contributors today. However, one thing that was consistent during the great migration and now is the importance of black food culture. Ms. Sylvia Woods from my neighboring county took SC food from Hemingway, SC to build an institution in Harlem, NY. The true experts of our foodways were the countless sharecroppers and farmers in the south who are getting older. The work of BJ Dennis and myself focuses on the authenticity of culture and we really like to talk with the people who know it best, the elders. For those who was present at Sunday’s BBQ Dinner, you were able to interact with a Pitmaster I can’t even cook to his ability in my father and it is my honor and pleasure everytime I get to cook alongside him to show my growth and respect of the tradition. Like the Harlem Renaissance, there have been a number of southern food scholars who have written and provided a sounder understanding of food in the south. I admit that I may not know the subject like they do as an academic, but when I heard oral stories passed down while doing farm activities, they correlated almost 95% in what is in the historical writings, and there is immense value there. I am comforted that the oral knowledge transfer is invaluable especially as I execute it at special events. On many occasions I was able to witness black food culture in church homecomings, family reunions, funerals, Christmas Dinner, 4th of July, etc. Comments and things said by the future leaders of food in the country to me, is how I came to the conclusion of a Black Food Culture Renaissance. To me food is one of the easiest ways to understand the connection to the motherland. One chef said to all of us, take this moment in because you guys(BJ and Howard) don’t know you what did. I agree, I still don’t fully know what we did but for me I just hope that the famous celebrated chefs and pitmasters have a better understanding of the roots of the food that they cook. If they got that, then I am satisfied. Another chef said to me that, if the people present can’t change the conversations on Black Food culture in America, then there is no one that can. I acknowledge there have been work done by people Vertemae Smart-Grosvenor, Edna Lewis, Toni Tipton Martin, Jessica Harris, Adrian Miller, Lolis Eric Elie and others that we must acknowledge. There have been culinary leaders like Ms. Sylvia Woods, Ms. Leah Chase, Ms. Mildred Council, and many others. Also, the greatest trajedy is the wealth of information contained by many unheralded people who live the life where the culture resided. However, like anything else it, the next generation of leaders have to carry the banner forward. I don’t know all the people who was at the event but I look forward to getting to know you. In addition, some people I wish was there but hey I understand life happens.
Here is a list of people, programs, and restaurants in the black food culture that you should support and encourage if given the opportunity as they were present on this day. We have to be unselfish and support good people for the work they are doing, as not one person can do it all alone. It takes a team. We can cook the food and we can also tell our own narrative, and we have people who are skilled at this using various media. I look forward personally to supporting these people and eating their food, while paying for whatever products or services they provide.
BJ Dennis – Gullah Geechee Chef - Charleston, SC
Zella Palmer – Author, Educator, and Preservationist – New Orleans, LA
Bryan Furman – Pitmaster- Savannah and Atlanta, GA
Keith Rhodes – Chef - Wilmington, NC
Mashama Bailey – Chef - Savannah, GA
Nicole Taylor – Author and Writer, Brooklyn, NY
Kevin Mitchell – Chef and Scholar, Charleston, SC
Alexander Smalls – Restauranteur, Author, Opera Singer- New York, NY
Rodney Scott - Pitmaster - Charleston, SC
Edouardo Jordan – Chef - Seattle, WA
Omar Tate – Chef - NY
Kirk Wardy – Film and Media - Charlotte, NC
Gabrielle Eitienne – Chef and Writer - Apex NC
Joseph Fields – Farmer, Charleston, SC
To those in the Culinary field, I may not have not worked with you yet but maybe the day will come. Until that time keep representing with excellence with the work you are doing as the ancestors are proud, and you have a fan in New Orleans by way of South Carolina. The possibility to finding a new family member in Eduardo Jordan who has some Conyers Blood in South Carolina, shows that we are really connected and as BJ says, “this Gullah Geechee culture is yours too.” This is what family reunions in the South are all about, reconnecting to make sure bonds are not lost and the banner can be carried forward in the Black Food Culture Renaissance.
In conclusion, I just try to curate and engineer different ways to look at the food culture as an outsider, per se that are unique to my vision of what they should encompass. To collaborate with BJ on Sunday’s BBQ Dinner was great because I wanted to highlight South Carolina cuisine in an authentic way in South Carolina. Sunday’s BBQ Dinner is a continuation of other events I have curated and created in the past with some support from Dillard University Ray Charles African American Material Culture Program and the Southern Food and Beverage Musuem. The first food culture event I did outside of BBQ, I invited BJ down to New Orleans. However, if you look at www.fromthelowcountrytothebayou.com you will see other curated events that I have brought black food culture to life, in hopefully an authentic way. I like the idea I get to own my culture as I respect, honor it, and share it. I personally don’t think of myself as a chef in this food world but more I am a guardian of a traditions that were passed down to me either by bbq, working on the farm where we grew old sweet potatoes, or simply agricultural practices from the past. This is not where I am educated but it is work that I enjoy doing and I have been studying all of my life outside of a textbook or in archives. It has been since I moved to New Orleans that I see what role I have in the food culture aspect, from farm to table, in addition to the stories that lies behind the food going into people bellies itself. If 20 years from now, somebody said Sunday’s BBQ Dinner in Charleston added an item to the Black food culture renaissance occurring, that would be great but not necessary. If not that is okay too, because to cook with BJ is all I wanted to do in Charleston. The real treat for me to cook with the best chef in the country in my mind, BJ Dennis, I have worked with and to fellowship with fellow people in the food world and my family was icing on the cake.
Thank you all who supported and attended this event. I am sure BJ and I can figure out how to keep it going and as an engineer, there maybe some project management philosophies that I can bring to equation to make it possible to keep it alive. The next event I am planning involves a pitcooked whole cow in New Orleans, October 20, 2018. Details are being worked will be posted to www.FromTheLowCountryToTheBayou.com as they are finalized.
BJ Dennis works on the years focused strongly over Gullah Geechee Foodways and connecting the diaspora. My work in food culture on pitcooked bbq and farm practices from the sharecropper era.