One of the first trips I ever took as an adult was in my mid-twenties: a three-day weekend in South Carolina with my then boyfriend. I have a stack of photos dated June 26, 2001, from it, which I store in a gray rectangular box. In one image, my bygone partner is smiling into the camera and wearing a burnt-orange linen shirt and khakis pulled together with a brown leather belt. In another, a group of preteen girls dance in billowing red, yellow, and green dresses, their moves almost identical to a choreographed number in Solange Knowles’s 2016 “Cranes in the Sky” video. The soulful portraits are from the Original Gullah Festival in Beaufort, South Carolina, about 70 miles south of Charleston, on the Henry C. Chambers Waterfront Park.
I was shooting film and had limited exposures at my disposal, so while I have no photos of the small, white, air-conditioned tour bus that we rode in, everything about that day is still fresh in my mind. Alphonso Brown, the owner and operator of Gullah Tours, narrated historical details (many in his book A Gullah Guide to Charleston: Walking Through Black History) over an intercom as we drove through the city. “Mistuh Fullup Simmons, bawn June nyn’t nineteen twel’b, dud one ob’ ’Merica oldis libbin’ blacksmith fuh obbuh sebbinty-fo yea’,” he told us. “‘E lib yuh on Blake Street.” His voice bounced off the glass windows, switching back and forth from the Queen’s English to the distinct dialect of the Gullah Geechee. The African American vernacular is spoken with a quick cadence in tight-knit South Carolina, North Carolina, Florida, and Georgia coastal communities with direct roots to West Africa.
Brown was down-to-earth and had a warm exchange with every person on the tour. We stopped at the workshop studio of Philip Simmons, the (now late) master blacksmith whose achievements have been acknowledged by London’s Design Museum and the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Simmons had a can of beer on his workbench, but he rose from his break to give us an iron demonstration on the spot.
This was my introduction to the Holy City. Since then, I’ve made many visits to Charleston, including one every year over the past half decade, and I’ve seen it grow into the beloved American resort town it is known to be today. It’s a foodie haven, revered by the James Beard Foundation, where the luxury hotels bring together that perfect blend of genteel and cool. The city has crafted a reputation for itself as being the Southern city where visitors can shop on-trend local designers on Upper King and rub elbows with the latest culinary stars at the annual Wine + Food festival—and still get a heavy dose of history and architecture. It’s a combination that brought in more than $8 billion in tourism dollars to the city in 2019.
The majestic oak trees draping Middleton Place and the carriages clanking down North Market Street are only the outer layers of a destination that is still amid a metamorphosis. As one of the oldest municipalities in the United States (established more than 100 years before the Constitution was written), the city tells an untidy story of power: Nearly everything that still draws tourists today, from the Lowcountry cuisine to the wrought-iron fences guarding landmarked mansions, was built by enslaved and free Africans. Their grit and ingenuity deserve more than a footnote at the end of white-tablecloth dinners and plantation weddings. And Charleston is beginning to tell those stories more fully, to make room for both the beautiful and the uncomfortable, because separating them isn’t necessary.
Last September, when I came back to Charleston, the U.S. was in the midst of a national reckoning: The 2020 election was looming, COVID-19 was raging, and systemic racial injustice was in the spotlight. The city’s Marion Square had been in the news earlier that summer for the removal of an enormous bronze figure of the Confederate politician John C. Calhoun. Plantation weddings, and the appropriateness of celebrating in places of sorrow and resistance, were being hotly debated.
I could also see that a new Charleston experience was emerging, thanks to a growing collective of businesses led by a diverse group of South Carolinians. At his bar Graft Wine Shop, cofounder Femi Oyediran had become the talk of sommelier circles for bringing a progressive perspective to the elite (and very white) world of wine. At the City Market, Corey Alston—a young artisan who is keeping the Gullah weaving tradition alive with his sweetgrass baskets—had joined the arts-and-crafts lineup. Historian Joseph McGill was helping to reshape the narrative around plantations with his Slave Dwelling Project tours, which take visitors to colonial landmarks to tell the history of those who were enslaved there. And beloved chefs of traditional Gullah cuisine, like Lorraine Smalls of My Three Sons, were at last getting the recognition they deserved.
The new Charleston vacation is like a playlist, where you mix the hottest new tracks with some of the classics. It means digging in to fried apple hand pies at Handy & Hot before heading to the East Side to take in an installation by David Hammons (famous for his African American Flag). It means encountering new voices at the annual Spoleto Festival, which this summer will return with the premiere of Omar, folk artist Rhiannon Giddens’s opera based on the autobiography of Omar Ibn Said, an enslaved Muslim forced from West Africa to South Carolina in 1807. And it all points to a shifting community consciousness in which the two different narratives of Charleston, some well told and others overlooked, are blending together for the first time.
As the writer and culinary historian Michael Twitty put it to me, “when more cultural spaces move Black people from the peripheral to the center, we get close to more meaningful conversations.” Twitty, who wrote the The Cooking Gene, a James Beard Award–winning book about African American influences on Southern cuisine, believes in preserving all of Charleston’s past—both its “triumphs and traumas,” he says. “It is perfectly fine to go to Charleston for history but, also, one must experience Black joy.”
For me—a writer and cookbook author who splits her time between New York City and Georgia and is astute on Black American foodways—that joy comes through most clearly in Charleston’s cooking. Which is why one of my first stops last September was to see chef Benjamin “B.J.” Dennis IV.
“The old, outdated message about this city is no longer valid,” Dennis told me when I visited him on the East Side. Around the corner from his apartment are the historic Shaw Memorial School and an old church with rainbow-colored stained-glass windows. But Dennis’s neighborhood is changing, and with that comes a need for him to hold tighter to his “true Charleston only” manifesto. I call him the King of Charleston because, in addition to being a personal chef, he’s considered by many to be the city’s unofficial cultural ambassador. He’s building on what was created by legends like Charlotte Jenkins, a modern pioneer in Gullah cuisine, and Nat Fuller, who became the city’s most celebrated restaurateur after being freed in the 1860s.
Dennis picks up where Brown left off for me. At every restaurant he took me to, people bowed down. He has been on TV with Padma Lakshmi, Anthony Bourdain, and Sara Moulton, showing the world the beauty of Black Lowcountry food. Bon Appétit, New York magazine, and the New York Times have all profiled him. Still, his demeanor remains salt-of-the-earth.
“B.J., you gotta start charging people you take around town. You spend a lot of time telling people about the true gems,” I told him after he picked me up from my solo outdoor snack at FIG, the James Beard Award–winning restaurant known for its fresh local seafood and vegetable dishes. “Did you get the sticky sorghum cake?” he asked by way of response.
Next was My Three Sons, a steam-table restaurant with poor signage that serves signature Gullah Geechee dishes. My entire order was to-go: piping-hot okra soup, red rice, and deviled crab. The soup was full-bodied, with bits of the green pod poking out (no slimy masses), penny-sized butter beans swimming about, and a tad of smokiness from the meat. Cookbook author and food columnist Samin Nosrat wrote in the New York Times Magazine that okra soup “refers to our nation’s history and acknowledges even the ugliest parts—the genocide, the enslavement, the colonization—and still manages to nourish.” The Lowcountry dish is a symbolic parallel to American apple pie. I’ve tasted uncountable variations of it, and know well that perfect balance of acid, texture, and smoke. My Three Sons’ okra soup did exactly what it was supposed to do.
“I’m going to take you by a few more spots,” Dennis said, back in his car, as I wedged the rest of my soup under my legs to avoid spillage. This declaration had become my favorite line from my host, because I knew that each stop would bring more unique dishes to sample. Next was Vivian Howard’s Handy & Hot, where biscuits were stuffed with all manner of deliciousness, like air-dried sausage with grape mustard. I washed it all down with an oat milk, bay-leaf, and rosemary iced latte.
A few years back, when Sean Brock dominated the Charleston scene, his restaurants Husk, McCrady’s, and Minero were the magnum opuses of dining. His ethos was all about sourcing only Southern ingredients, and at the height of his career, that was me sitting in McCrady’s, intoxicated by oysters, tater tots with caviar, and Lady Baltimore cake. After Brock left for Nashville, the city’s celebrity-chef seat remained vacant until Howard announced her plans to take up some space. A TV personality and cookbook author, she is arguably Charleston’s only big-time chef with the power to put butts in seats and banquettes. She’s now working on a new restaurant, Lenoir, which is focused on eastern North Carolina ingredients. “There is a lot of excitement about my restaurants opening in this particular part of downtown Charleston,” Howard told me. “I’m not trying to re-create what Gullah cooks have been doing for centuries, but we are using local ingredients like pork from Peculiar Pig Farm, which is Black-owned. In some ways that is supporting the Gullah Geechee history and the Charleston community.” Lenoir’s opening will also be a signal that downtown has bounced back after an unforgettably bad year. I want to see it succeed.