Food brings people together from all walks of life,  but the ingredients behind them genuinely tell a story.

One of the most important stories is the connection to our roots and culture.  As a person of Gullah Geechee heritage, I’ve learned firsthand the relationship of food to our cultural roots. These links are not written in mainstream books but are more of a spiritual and emotional connection to places our ancestors came from. Okra, peas, watermelon, and eggplant are just a few ingredients which can take you back to the motherland, mainly West Africa for most of us in the diaspora. Dishes like okra soup, which is our gumbo here in Charleston, made without a traditional roux, just a tomato base with seafood and maybe a little smoked-meat are similar if not exactly like the food you see in countries throughout West Africa.

 

Throw in some corn and butter beans which are gifts from our Native American ancestors, and it’s a new world mashup that’s West African in origin. What we call red rice here is the child of jollof rice. We call dishes like rice and peas Hoppin’ John here in Charleston, but it all has roots back to the Continent.

When we bring back the heirloom varietals seeds of peas and rice, for example, we indeed are intersecting our culinary roots. Seeds that were first brought here unwillingly by our ancestors were vital for our survival. I’ve been on a personal mission to re-discover our heirloom seeds. These seeds are not only beneficial for us health-wise, but they bring us back to our roots and our culture. The West African glaberrima rice was once grown by enslaved and free people here in the south for personal consumption. It is a whole grain, good-for-you type of rice that is a slow-release carbohydrate that people with diabetes should be eating. This particular grain of rice was thought to be extinct in the western hemisphere, but two years ago I found myself in the hills of Trinidad standing in these rice fields.

 

This dish captured the Gullah Geechee and Italian mash up to the fullest last night @lefarfallechs. @ansonmills Nostrale rice which is an heirloom Italian rice once grown here in the lowcountry. It was washed and cooked in the pasta water. On top of that I did my coconut and peanut creamed greens. Cabbage, collards, and kale all grown on Johns island #johnsislandsc by Joseph Fields #josephfieldsfarm. Then Chef Michael Toscano braised dat oxtail so nice. He took that local #wadmalawisland @ambrosefamilyfarm #estrellapumpkin stewed dat with that pulled oxtail and put em on top of dem greens. Wah! Straight #boominandbussin. Photo credit : @lefarfallechs. #geecheeeats #eatlocalchs #chseats #holycityeats #firstbitechs #gullahfood #seaislandcuisine #italiancuisine #chsevents #charlestonsc #explorechs #explorecharleston #chs #chsnews #chsdaily #chucktown #chucktownfoodie #culturethroughfood #mashup.

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Not only was I standing in these rice fields in a village called Moruga, but I was with folks whose descendants came from the low country of South Carolina and Georgia. These descendants of enslaved people got their freedom during the war of 1812. Some settled in the village of Moruga in Trinidad and brought seeds with them. They’re called ‘Merikins,’ and one of these seeds was this rice which has survived generations; close to 200 years in Trinidad, and were brought to the island by those from the states who knew the importance of saving seeds for food. So not only did we reconnect through heritage, but also through foodways that were once thought to be lost. 

The intersecting of food is profound. So much has been lost and still needs to be rediscovered. Not just for foodway’s sake, but heritage and culture. It helps us have a better understanding of who we are and where we come from. To know our past helps us know who we are. This journey of re-discovery through food, as I like to say ‘culture through food, is only the beginning. We still have a long way to go and more re-discovering to do. It’s a journey, but a beautiful and fulfilling one. One that will be a life’s journey for me. I’m ready.


For more insights from Chef Benjamin Dennis
follow him on Instagram @chefbjdennis

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