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Charleston’s Culinary Community Unites to Fundraise for Families

Charleston’s Culinary Community Unites to Fundraise for Families

A Community United will take place from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. on July 9.

On Thursday, July 9, over 50 Charleston restaurants and a dozen beverage purveyors will come together for a massive fundraiser called A Community United. The event is a unified effort to raise funds for the families of those who lost their lives in the Emanuel AME Church massacre that took place June 17.

Organized and hosted by the Belmond Charleston Place, the event is from 6:30 to 9:30 p.m. The Mark Sterbank Group and the Lowcountry Voices gospel choir will provide music featuring Charleston and AME church leaders. There will also be an auction that people can bid online or at the event. The evening will also include food and beverages donated by the 50+ venues and vendors, and 100 percent of the proceeds will be donated directly to the families via the Community United Fund. The organizers are also donating 250 tickets to the Emanuel AME Church to distribute to their members.

Mickey Bakst, a key organizer of the event, said, “Charlestonians are coming together in remarkable ways in the wake of this tragedy. The desire to take part in this is so profound, not a single individual has turned down our invitation to participate. In fact, more want to help than we can accommodate.”

For tickets or to register for the auction, click here.

Charleston’s Culinary Community Unites to Fundraise for Families - Recipes

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These 15 Chefs Are Advocating for Change

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Photo: Ken Goodman Photography

On June 16, fifteen chefs from across the country came together at Glynwood in Cold Spring, New York for the eighteenth JBF Chefs Boot Camp for Policy and Change. As with our previous Boot Camp classes, our latest group hails from restaurants and food businesses from coast to coast, all eager to learn effective advocacy skills and explore their potential power as vehicles for change in their communities. Learn more about our newest cohort of chef-advocates below.

Liz Alpern
The Gefilteria, Queer Soup Night, Brooklyn, NY

Liz Alpern is co-founder of The Gefilteria and co-author of The Gefilte Manifesto: New Recipes for Old World Jewish Foods. She is also the creator of national fundraising party, Queer Soup Night. Alpern holds an MBA from CUNY Baruch College and is a faculty member at the International Culinary Center. She regularly consults with national food justice organization, Fair Food Network, and has been featured on the Cherry Bombe 100, the Forbes&rsquo 30 Under 30, and the Forward 50.

Nettie Colon
Red Hen Gastrolab, Minneapolis

Born in New York City and raised in Puerto Rico, Annette "Nettie" Colón spent her formative years learning traditional cooking methods of the island with her grandmother. Colon moved to Minneapolis in 2000, and was the chef de cuisine at Lucia&rsquos until her departure in October 2010 when she decided to found Red Hen Gastrolab. Colon divides her time between the Lynhall, Red Hen Gastrolab, and the Break Room Minneapolis at the Historic Machine Shop. She spends summers doing Farm Dinners in River Falls, WI, teaching at the Mill City Farmers Market as a Market Chef and holding court as the Camp Chef for Chef Camp Minnesota. She is also a board member of the Northern Clay Center.

Caitlin Corcoran
Ça Va, Kansas City, MO

Caitlin Corcoran has dedicated much of her career to coffee, agave, and Champagne. She became general manager of Ça Va, Kansas City&rsquos first Champagne bar, in 2014, eventually becoming managing partner. She is proud to practice radical intersectional inclusive hospitality, which coincides with her work supporting MOCSA (Metropolitan Organization to Counter Sexual Assault), her role as a board member for Women in Hospitality United, and her op-ed for the James Beard Foundation. Corcoran is 2018 Beard Foundation Women's Entrepreneurial Leadership fellow.

Cassidee Dabney
Blackberry Farm, Walland, TN

Spending summers in the family garden, Cassidee Dabney anchored her palate with the fresh flavors of seasonal ingredients. A graduate of the New England Culinary Institute, Dabney&rsquos résumé includes stints in Germany, Boston, Atlanta, Hawaii, Arkansas, and Wyoming. Dabney came to Blackberry Farm in 2010 as a sous chef. In 2015, Dabney was named the executive chef of the Barn, a nationally recognized restaurant holds James Beard Awards for Outstanding Wine Program and Outstanding Service.

William Dissen
The Market Place Restaurant, Haymaker Restaurant, and Billy D's Fried Chicken, Asheville, NC

Spending time on his grandparents&rsquo farm was a major influence on William Dissen&rsquos style of cooking, as well as his beliefs in sustainable agriculture and local cuisine. A graduate of the CIA in Hyde Park, New York, Dissen&rsquos work includes stints at the Greenbrier Resort in West Virginia, and Magnolia&rsquos Restaurant and Cypress in Charleston, South Carolina. At his restaurants across North Carolina, Dissen works with local farms, artisan producers, and sustainable fishermen to produce acclaimed food for his guests.

Roshni Gurnani
Chef Rosh, Houston

Roshni Gurnani has been featured in the Boston Globe, was named one of the top five Indian chefs in America by India Currents magazine, and has appeared in Hell&rsquos Kitchen, Cutthroat Kitchen, Beat Bobby Flay, and Chopped (where she was crowned champion). In 2018 Gurnani was invited to cook at the James Beard House, where she created a seven-course vegetarian meal reflecting her Sindhi heritage. When she isn&rsquot traveling the world, Gurnani is a culinary professor at the Art Institute of America.

Ann Kim
Vestalia Hospitality, Minneapolis

A Korean immigrant, Ann Kim credits her culinary palate to helping her mother and grandmother make traditional staples such as fermented bean paste and kimchi. Her college years at New York&rsquos Columbia University laid the foundation for her dream of bringing great pizza to Minnesota, and her years as a freelance actor fostered her value of creativity. Kim is the culinary mind behind Pizzeria Lola, Hello Pizza and Young Joni she was a semifinalist for the James Beard Award for Best Chef: Midwest in 2017, a nominee in 2018, and won the category at the Awards in 2019.

Mike Lata
FIG and The Ordinary, Charleston, SC

Mike Lata worked in kitchens in Boston, New Orleans, Atlanta, and France before landing in Charleston. His outspoken commitment to support local farmers and fishermen has cemented his position as a champion for Charleston&rsquos culinary renaissance. In 2009, Lata received the James Beard Award for Best Chef: Southeast, and in 2018, FIG received the Beard Award for Outstanding Wine Program. Lata has been featured on Food Network&rsquos Iron Chef America, Bravo&rsquos Top Chef, PBS&rsquos Moveable Feast with Fine Cooking, and more.

Joshua Lewin
Juliet + Company, Somerville, MA

In early 2016, after years of producing short-term dining experiences, Joshua Lewin opened Juliet with his partner Katrina Jazayeri. Prior to Juliet, Lewin cooked at some of the best restaurants around Boston, as well as farther afield (Momofuku Noodle Bar, Charlie Trotter's), before working as executive chef at Beacon Hill Bistro. In 2018 Lewin and his company debuted a magazine, of Juliet, and opened their second restaurant, Peregrine, in 2019. Lewin&rsquos writing has appeared in Chefs Feed, Cognoscenti, and more.

Brother Luck
Four by Brother Luck, Colorado Springs, CO

After attending the Art Institute of Phoenix, Brother Luck cooked in kitchens in Japan, Hong Kong, Chicago, New York City, and finally Colorado Springs. In 2016, Brother was awarded scholarships from the Gohan Society and the Joyce Chen and Helen Chen Foundation to expand his culinary knowledge in Japan and China. Since those trips, Luck has opened Four by Brother Luck and Lucky Dumpling. Luck also has appeared on Chopped, Beat Bobby Flay, and on seasons 15 and 16 of Bravo&rsquos Top Chef.

Sean Mendes
Gillie&rsquos Seafood, Charleston, SC

With a father from Portugal and a mother from South Carolina, soulful, authentic, interesting and unique culinary experiences were a regular part of Sean Mendes&rsquos life growing up. In 2012 Mendes opened the popular food truck Gillie&rsquos Seafood in Charleston. A year and a half later, he opened a full-fledged restaurant under the same name. In 2016, Mendes decided to venture into the gourmet burger world, opening Blues Burger&mdashand it has been a go-to for &ldquotop-shelf&rdquo burgers ever since.

Clayton Rollison
Lucky Rooster Kitchen + Barn, Hilton Head Island, SC

Hilton Head native Clayton Rollison is a graduate of the CIA in Hyde Park. Rollison continued his cooking education in kitchens around the country, honing skills at top restaurants including Gramercy Tavern. When the time was right a few years later, Rollison returned to Hilton Head, and in December 2013, opened for his American bistro with Southern soul, Lucky Rooster. Surrounded by island scenery, fine seafood, and regional specialties, Rollison developed a menu of refined comfort foods and adventurous eats.

Mavis-Jay Sanders
The Brownsville Community Culinary Center, Brooklyn, NY

Born into a large Southern family, Mavis-Jay Sanders began mastering Southern cooking before she could even see over the counter. Sanders holds degrees from the Culinary Institute of America and Georgia Southern, and after culinary school worked at Blue Hill Stone Barns and Untitled in New York. She then joined Pico House to create incredible food and make it accessible to everyone. Sanders believes natural ingredients shouldn&rsquot be a luxury and all people have a right to life-sustaining food.

Elle Scott
SheChef Inc., Roslindale, MA

Elle Simone Scott is a highly sought-after freelance food stylist and culinary producer, mostly recently contributing her unique abilities to America&rsquos Test Kitchen as the resident food stylist and on-air talent&mdashthe first African-American woman in that position. As the founder and CEO of SheChef Inc., a professional networking organization for women chefs of color and allies, Scott shares her passion by mentoring, teaching resource building, providing business consultation/development, and most importantly, working to further food social justice.

Saralyn Smith Collingwood
Convivium Urban Farmstead, Dubuque, IA

Saralyn Smith-Collingwood is the kitchen manager at Convivium Urban Farmstead, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to create community around food. Prior to working at Convivium, Smith-Collingwood was the opening pastry chef at The Hotel at Kirkwood Center and the head pastry chef at the University of Iowa. At Convivium, Smith-Collingwood heads the restaurant kitchen as well as all catering operations, and teaches a variety of cooking classes targeted at the most food insecure residents of Dubuque.

Maggie Borden is content manager at the James Beard Foundation. Find her on Instagram and Twitter.

Education & Literacy Organizations

    Book Angels is a non-profit dedicated to children's literacy by promoting regular reading habits among at-risk, low income children in Charleston and Dorchester counties in grades preK-8.

The Charleston Friends of the Library is a non-profit, organization dedicated to promoting the library as an essential institution of our society. Volunteer members advocate, educate, and raise funds on behalf of the Library, its patrons, and the larger Charleston county community.

Charleston Hope works directly with educators in Title 1 schools to meet the needs of students in and out of the classroom by providing basic necessities to the schools, classroom mentoring to improve math skills, and the holiday season Adopt-A-Classroom program.

Charleston Promise Neighborhood's mission is to ensure residents in Charleston's Neck are engaged in their community and every child is on track to graduate high school with the abilities necessary to succeed in college, the military or the workforce.

The mission of Communities In Schools is to surround students with a community of support, empowering them to stay in school and achieve in life.

The mission of Engaging Creative Minds is to inspire the creative and innovative potential of all students to achieve academically and become imaginative, adaptable, and productive adults resulting in stronger communities and an increasingly competitive South Carolina workforce.

Founded in Charleston, South Carolina in November 2007, this group provides positive outlets for young girls ages 4-14, helping them become well-rounded individuals, and inspiring them to reach their goals in life.

The Liberty Hill Improvement Council created an Education Endowment Fund established with a mission to increase the literacy rate of students reading below their grade level in the Liberty Hill community of North Charleston.

This organization helps children, adolescents and adults identify and overcome a wide variety of learning challenges which include learning disabilities, social/behavioral difficulties, ADHD and dyslexia.

Pattison's Academy improves the quality of life for children with multiple disabilities by providing comprehensive education and rehabilitation programs with a focus on early intervention, education services through PACE Charter School, and a therapeutic summer camp.

Based in North Charleston, Sage Kids provides interactive workshops on fundamental life skills for kids and adults.

Teachers' Supply Closet is a nonprofit organization that provides free school supplies to teachers in the tri-county area who work at schools where 81% of the students are on the free or reduced meals program.

Located in North Charleston, this nonprofit organization increases adult literacy with instruction in reading, writing, mathematics, English as a Second Language, GED preparation, and basic computer use.

The Yo Art! mission is to provide children in the public schools with an opportunity to explore their aptitude in the media arts and other art forms, while discovering their creative potential under the oversight of professionals.


As FoodShare grows, we encounter people from all walks of life with energy and a commitment to improving food access for their fellow neighbors. Requests for volunteer opportunities have increased each month as we’ve watched students deliver food to the elderly, seniors sort produce at the FoodShare center, and everyday folks go above and beyond to ensure their neighbors without transportation receive food boxes.

The problem of transportation keeps coming up. Time and time again folks who wanted to purchase food boxes could do so but lacked reliable transportation. That’s when a school nurse shared an ‘aha’ moment. “Why not partner families who have no transportation with those who do have reliable transportation in order to deliver Fresh Food Boxes!” And NeighborShare was born.

For us, the program is about having meaningful connections with our neighbors, paying attention to the needs of others and growing even deeper relationships within our community. We need people of all personalities and strengths to join us. Even if you don’t consider yourself an extrovert, or you’re not into community service in a major way, come be a quiet volunteer and let your actions speak louder than words.

In other words, come live your passion out loud with us!

NOTE: NeighborShare is currently available only in the Midlands area of South Carolina. As the program builds momentum we will expand to other communities in our state.

How Gullah Cuisine Has Transformed Charleston Dining

There’s no denying the allure of Charleston's dining scene. Declared the "best city in North America" by Travel + Leisure and profiled not once but twice by Anthony Bourdain, first on No Reservations and then again on the most recent season of Parts Unknown, the city has been attracting food-loving visitors in droves, contributing to a multi-billion dollar tourism industry.

But while Charleston restaurants are heaped with praise upon praise, award upon award, there's a deeper story here than just an American city with an outsized food scene. "With the attention given to Mike Lata and Sean Brock, none of the places that people go to first in Charleston are African-American owned," says DC-based culinary historian Michael Twitty. Indeed the rise of the Charleston restaurant scene in the last 20 years has coincided with a gentrification that's brought with it higher residential and commercial rents, and changed the demographics of the city from being over 60 percent black in the ‘80s to being only roughly 30 percent black as of the 2014 census. Amid these changes, there's been a vital constant: the cuisine of the Gullah people, the local descendants of West Africans brought to South Carolina as slaves.

There are some noticeable patterns in and hallmarks of Gullah cooking. It is inextricably tied to the land, the sea, and the seasons. Coming up on spring, ingredients like fresh squash, zucchini, and sweet peas will find their way onto plates. Rice and benne seeds make frequent appearances. Locally available seafood plays a starring role in dishes like crab rice, conch stew (actually northern whelk), okra soup, head-on fried whiting, and purloo, a one-pot meal of rice and any variety of add-ins — vegetables (like the popular okra), shellfish (shrimp, crab, and oysters), and meat or sausage.

Amid these changes, there ’ s been a vital constant: the cuisine of the Gullah people .

While the ingredients reflect the Gullah people's location in South Carolina, the origins of these dishes goes back —€” way back. "One of the things that I've tried to emphasize for academics and American media is that no, these dishes did not start in 1619, with the arrival of enslaved people to North America," Twitty says. "These dishes and this culture go back thousands of years into West African history."

Gullah cuisine as it lives in the United States today is not so much restaurant-based as it is a cuisine prepared and eaten in the home. But historians point out that Gullah people have been cooking for Charlestonians for centuries, and the city itself is finally starting to give credit where credit is due. Gullah Society founder Dr. Ade A. Ofunniyin describes a revival of Gullah Geechee traditions happening throughout Charleston , its outlying towns, and the Sea Islands where so many Gullah people live. (Geechee is another term for the people and their language, more often used in Georgia and Florida.) "Charleston is just now, over the last 15, 20 years, beginning to respect the presence, the significance, and the importance of Gullah people," Ofunniyin says.

Take, for example, BJ Dennis, a local chef who stepped out of restaurant kitchens to dedicate himself to educating Charleston and its visitors about Gullah cuisine. In recent years, his efforts have taken off, whether through the connections he makes at catered events, cooking for Bourdain on Parts Unknown , or conducting insightful interviews with the Southern Foodways Alliance . "I just always loved my culture," he says of how he became Gullah cuisine's preeminent ambassador. "I started doing pop-ups, and it was almost a renaissance not just with the food, but the culture and saving the land of the Gullah people." Dennis, like Ofunniyin, is part of a larger movement to make sure the Gullah people's vital and sizable contribution to Charleston culture isn't erased by consumers or creators (or writers).

But for those who have been paying attention, it's clear the menus of prominent chefs and humble mom-and-pop operators in the city alike have been profoundly shaped by this rich culinary tradition. Beyond that, there's reason to believe restaurants owned by Gullah people serving Gullah food may well thrive in the not-too-distant future.

BJ Dennis eats garlic shrimp at Ravenel Seafood in Ravenel, SC, about 20 miles outside of Charleston.

Woven Into the Fabric

At a sold-out Charleston Wine + Food festival event earlier this month, Dennis served a dining room of (mostly white) festival attendees a family-style Gullah lunch. Coconut milk-creamed collards made with peanut butter were Dennis's riff on the peanut stew that was long a staple on the Sea Islands. (Peanut butter nods to the West African technique of using ground peanut paste.) Smoked chicken was served with yellow rice and pepper vinegar barbecue sauce. (While the sauce has influences from West Africa and the Caribbean, the yellow rice reflects Charleston's history as a port: Indian spices that were finding their way into British cooking also made it to Charleston, like the turmeric that gives the rice its color.) There was sweet potato pone (bread), a dish that can be found in different iterations throughout the South. For dessert, Dennis served local strawberries and cream with benne cookies and a bit of sorghum on the side. Benne seeds, "the West African sesame," as he puts it, are a hallmark of Gullah cooking, and now of Charleston cooking more generally.

Those looking for Gullah influence on Charleston's restaurant culture can just look at the menus themselves. According to Dennis, the spirit of Gullah cooking is in the ingredients: the okra, the rice, the field peas. And it's heirloom varieties of these ingredients that are at the heart of the much-lauded Southern revival. "It's everywhere," says longtime Charleston chef Frank Lee of Gullah cuisine's influence. At his own restaurant Slightly North of Broad, Lee serves dishes like Sea Island red pea soup, topped with a cornbread crumble, as well as a tamale made with sweet potato and oxtail, both common ingredients in Gullah dishes. "You cannot mistake it."

Acclaimed Charleston chef Jeremiah Bacon agrees that Gullah cuisine is "very embedded" into the Charleston dining ecosystem. At his restaurant the Macintosh, Bacon serves up local seafood specialties like triggerfish and tilefish, and cooks with Anson Mills Carolina gold rice grits. "We've all got the same beautiful product," he explains. "It's always in the background, it's always there. I wouldn't say it's been modernized it's just our interpretation, which is really neat, to see how everyone puts their touch on it. And I think sometimes it's unconscious. It's so woven into a lot of what we do and our technique, as well."

"Gullah Geechee culture is not the community property of Charleston because it’s not 1864."

While these ingredients do represent a centuries-old shared bounty —€” Gullah cooks at home and downtown chefs are grabbing for the same locally available staples —€” it's important to note how they came to be associated with Gullah cooking and increasingly with Charleston restaurant cooking: the enslavement and forced diaspora of West African people, and the continuation of the long-held culinary traditions they brought with them to South Carolina. These traditions carried on during years of slavery, and later migrated as the Gullah people left the area —€” some to other states, others to the Sea Islands off South Carolina's coast, where the Gullah language is still spoken. "There are thousands of Gullah Geechee descendants among black Americans. I'm one of them," explains Twitty. Food, he says, "is a part of our culture that couldn't be beaten out of us." So is the Gullah language. Still, he sees the legacy of slavery playing out even in the way Gullah culture is positioned as a prized local treasure. "That's one of the difficulties I have [with] how Gullah Geechee culture gets put out there. No, it's not the community property of Charleston and Savannah, because it's not 1864 or any year before that."

Local chef and culinary instructor Nathan Thurston notes another thing that puts Gullah cuisine on the menu. "Right now, multiple trends are happening," he says, including "a progression of grandma's food served on grandma's plates, vintage plates." Familiar dishes with Southern ties like country captain chicken and chicken bog have "some name recognition, and some dance on the line of Gullah Geechee and 'soul food.'"

There can be no denying the prominence of soul food in Charleston, but Dennis points out that soul food shouldn't be thought of as the only entry point into Gullah culture. "The soul food restaurants, although they're great places, are only bits and pieces of the culture, bits and pieces of things that my grandfather talked to me about." Although soul food is often interpreted as a modern offshoot of Gullah cooking —€” and though there's overlap with dishes like okra soup, red rice, and fried local fish —€” it is not the same thing. Twitty points out this distinction, and worries that the legacy of Gullah cooking may get subsumed by the "soul food" category. "There's the idea of authentic Gullah soul food cooking," he says, but he also notes that soul food "may or may not be prepared by authentic Gullah hands. I think that it's a really big deal."

A Dirty Word

In spite of the work of Gullah cultural advocates like Dennis and Ofunniyin, there's no denying that when it comes to Charleston cooking, the attention is still largely focused on the work of downtown restaurant chefs and the buzz surrounding local ingredients is inextricably linked to the fact that award-winning chefs are working with them. Twitty understands that appropriation can be a "dirty word," but he isn't shy about using it. "I've noticed only certain people get pissed off over this appropriation [conversation]," he continues, "and it's usually the people who make money off of the transaction of selling the culture."

When it comes to cuisine, Twitty warns of a pattern he sees of white chefs "projecting ownership and making it about them, not even considering the people who have been marginalized and exploited." Conversations about the subject often focus on the idea of cooking with local, historically "accurate" ingredients as opposed to the fact that slavery was the genesis for said ingredients arriving and thriving in the South.

Dennis advocates for a richer understanding of the stories behind each Gullah recipe,€” regardless of who's doing the cooking or eating. At his own events, he explains a bit of backstory about the dish — how it's typically prepared, when it's typically eaten, and the aspects of the dish that tie it to West African culinary traditions. This educational approach works: During the festival lunch, at least one local woman asked Dennis for his card so she could later book him for a private event.

"A lot of the chefs just want to cook what's popular right now," Dennis says. "It may be fashionable to say, 'I'm doing Gullah cuisine. I grew up on this food in the house,' but you grew up on some of it. There's so many layers to it. It's deeper than what you may know. It's deeper than what your grandmother does. It's what her grandmother was doing." As for non-Gullah cooks approaching Gullah recipes, Dennis likens it to if he went to Italy or China to study cooking. "I may think I got it, but I'll never be good as that mother who has that soul. That's the same here. You may be able to do it, but somebody who's born into has the soul for it. I think that goes for any cuisine."

"To responsibly borrow and quote from another culture, you have to respect the culture and its people."

To be clear, neither Twitty nor Dennis are saying that white Charleston chefs can't or shouldn't be inspired by Gullah cooking (it's way too late for that, anyway). "Everybody borrows from everybody at some point," Dennis says. "It's all in cooking." But there's a way to "responsibly borrow and quote from another culture," says Twitty. "You have to do two things: You have to respect the tenets of the culture from which you borrow. Respect the people. I don't always see that in the Charleston food scene. I see this acknowledgement of the people, acknowledgement of the story, but I think that the story is often used to upsell the food, upsell the product. That's not quite the same as respecting the people."

What Twitty is questioning is "the idolization of ingredients and materials over meaning, over morals, over human lives," he says, offering a damning example. "You mean to tell me that there's Carolina gold rice that's $12, $15 a bag, [which means] the average black child who lives in North Charleston can't afford to eat Carolina gold rice? It's the same rice their ancestors were brought to Charleston to grow." Dennis has his concerns, too. Oxtails, once the leftover bits for a community not able to partake in the more desirable beef cuts, are showing up on trendy downtown menus and in butcher cases for $7 per pound — up from the $3 price tag Dennis remembers.

Similarly, while there can be no mistaking the Gullah imprint on Charleston's restaurant fare, it's exceedingly rare to see a Gullah-dedicated restaurant — let alone a Gullah head chef —€” in downtown Charleston kitchens. "We have so few African-American chefs in town, and yet so much of the traditional cuisine has been greatly influenced by African-American cooks, chefs, and traditions over the centuries," Lee says. "Yet we don't have any [chefs] I know of who are right up there with Sean [Brock] or Mike [Lata]." Dennis points out that, like himself, there are Gullah cooks in town that have been trained to do fine dining, and there have been for a long time. But Twitty has a theory as to why there aren't more Gullah chefs running their own kitchens, speculating that the professionalization of the kitchen is a big factor in this gap. "Black Americans were the ones who did the cooking for 300-some years," he says, "and then all of a sudden you need a degree to cook."

The Future of Gullah Cuisine

One thing is clear: the Gullah people and their cuisine are not going anywhere the cultural revival epitomized by Dennis' work shows no signs of slowing. If anything, it's only getting started. "People have really treated [Gullah Geechee culture] as this dying culture: 'It must be preserved or at least must be tasted before it disappears,'" notes Twitty. "Quite frankly, I went to Gullah Geechee Heritage Day this past year. I didn't really see a dying culture. I actually saw churches full of people."

But the economic realities of running restaurants are what they are, and as Dennis points out, Charleston is largely a working-class city with a median household income of approximately $50,000 per year. That's why he doesn't think strictly Gullah food restaurants will outpace soul food restaurants anytime soon. "It's easier to fry food," he says, adding, "I support all the local soul food restaurants out here in Charleston, but it's touchy. White or black, it's a working-class city, so if you're trying to feed people, can you serve peas at $6 a pound? I think you can, but you're so used to what the client wants. There's lima beans every day, fried chicken everyday. That's not what we ate coming up in the [Gullah] households."

Still, those on the ground in the Charleston area have high hopes for the rise of Gullah restaurant cuisine. Thurston has observed in his work as a culinary school teacher that the classroom is getting more and more diverse. He also notes that there's a market opportunity — a Gullah restaurant could appeal to a local dining population that has more than enough options when it comes to "classic Southern" fare.

"Now that Gullah has become popular the way that it has, hopefully in the near future when you come here you'll be able to go into Gullah restaurants that are owned by Gullah people," says Ofunniyin. And while there are certainly challenges to overcome, there's reason to be optimistic. When Dennis was asked whether Charleston diners should expect to see more Gullah cuisine in restaurants, and more Gullah restaurant owners, he answered an unhesitating, resounding "yes."

5. Note Any Changes—and Add New Recipes

As tastes have changed throughout the years, it’s possible that your family recipes did, too. Tweaks may have been made to substitute for ingredients that became more (or less) available, or to account for advancements in cooking technology. Recipes may have also been adjusted to make them healthier or in response to a family member’s dietary restrictions. If you pick up on a change throughout the decades—or if you’re the one making the change yourself!—document that along with the recipe, too.

In addition, don’t be afraid to add new recipes to your family’s archive—we are just as much a part of our family history as the people who came before us. Don’t forget to document your generation’s favorite dishes, as well as those of younger generations as they grow older.

Where to try Gullah dishes in Charleston

Hannibal’s Kitchen: Though its name may not immediately conjure warm and fuzzy feelings, that’s precisely what those who seek out the Southern-food staple go for. This finery-free, family owned restaurant says it’s been “feeding the soul of the city” for more than 40 years. As anyone will tell you, go there for the crab rice.

Bertha’s Kitchen: Having forgone frills to focus on good homestyle Southern cooking, Bertha’s Kitchen calls many both inside and out of the Gullah-Geechee community to sample its favored food. It has been named named an American Classic by the James Beard Foundation, and the fried fish and red rice are must tastes.

Martha Lou’s: A favorite for its fried chicken for those looking for another Southern cuisine staple, this eatery still holds a place with those in the Gullah-Geechee community. Here, guests will find okra soup and giblet rice, two dishes passed down from the community’s African roots.

Tie-Dye Party

Tie-dye has come back in style and is a great activity for the whole family. T-shirts that promote your cause are a classic fundraising incentive, but you can take this nonprofit fundraising idea a step further and host a “create your own T-shirt” get-together. Charge an entrance fee, offer to tie-dye personal items for a donation, or enlist local artists to create custom pieces to sell.

Keep costs low by offering white T-shirts and tie-dye materials so that participants can create their own masterpiece on a budget. Since making T-shirts isn’t a time-consuming activity prepare some other family-friendly games, crafts, or activities for the event.

Easy Fundraising Ideas

Michael Twitty, Black Jewish Foodie, Talks 'Culinary Justice'

(Haaretz) — “Only as a Jew [wearing a skullcap], white women offer me rides wherever I am going. I’m like, ‘White woman, you know I am black, right?’” With that sarcasm-laced remark, Michael Twitty won the hearts of the dozens of students who had gathered on a cold Thursday afternoon in November to hear the historian of Southern food talk about his unusual life. The host was the Jewish studies program of Harlem-based City College, a campus of the City University of New York.

Twitty, 37, grew up in Washington, D.C. A cook and culinary historian, he is African-American, openly gay and a skullcap-wearing Jew. At present he is in Israel where he will be giving a master class in cooking on Sunday as part of the annual Jewish Film Festival at the Jerusalem Cinematheque (one of its themes this year is culinary theater).

Twitty is currently at work on a book he has titled “The Cooking Gene,” a historical survey of the cuisine of the American South. He’s been teaching in Hebrew schools for 12 years, preparing boys and girls for their bar or bat mitzvah in Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and Reconstructionist synagogues. (He switches skullcaps to meet the head-covering style of each stream of Judaism.) Twitty also takes part as an actor in historical reenactments at Southern plantations, dressed in slaves’ clothing and cooking like his ancestors did.

Confused about his identity? He will do little to put you at ease, because this is who he is if you can’t handle it, you don’t interest him. “Recently, when I was in the process of selling my book – HarperCollins bought it – another publisher, who shall remain nameless, they loved the idea of me talking about food and cultural roots and introducing my family tree and culinary justice,” Twitty tells the City College students. (In the college’s Jewish studies program there are many Arabs, blacks and Latinos – in fact, 95 percent of the students are not Jewish.)

“But the editor who made the final decision on whether the book will be published or not – she basically said, ‘Okay, what about this Jewish part? Can we just get rid of that?’ And she basically told my agent: We will give him a fabulous book deal if he just won’t wear his kippah in public, or talk about it in any radio interviews. And I said, I hope you told them to … And she said: Yes, I told them you won’t go for that. I said you’re damn right.”

He adds, without a trace of rancor: “Black guy, heritage, food justice, ghetto people, eat broccoli – that was cool, but me being complicated and Jewish and all that other stuff was not cool, not marketable, I was, quote, ‘muddying the waters.’ This is America, the water has been done muddy. And [the publisher] said something on the phone, with a nervous laugh: I don’t think America is ready for someone like you. F–k you, I am America. It infuriated me, because this woman was Jewish and she said, ‘Jews don’t read our books. Jews don’t buy our books.’ It’s this box again, I will put you in this box – if you complicate it I don’t know what to do with you.

“I have a struggle with people who are trying to put me in a box, with people who are trying to break me down according to what makes sense to them. ‘Are you Ethiopian?’ From black people: ‘Are you a Hebrew Israelite brother?’ ‘No, I’m Jewish.’ ‘How are you Jewish?’ ‘You know, three men took me into a little room, and I got dipped in the water, this is how I’m Jewish.’”

The conversion was in 2002, when Twitty was 24.

Kugel with peaches

From an early age, Twitty recalls, when he visited friends’ homes, he wanted to talk to their grandmothers and see how they cooked. Over time, he became a walking historian of Southern cooking. Later, he started to interview Jewish grandmothers and find out what happened to Jewish cooking when it arrived in the American South.

“I do go to Jewish houses all over and collect knowledge about food recipes,” he relates with unabashed pride. “I am the walking memory. A lot of the kids I teach don’t connect with their grandparents. Growing up, I would go to someone’s house and I wanted to meet the grandmamma, to ask questions and see how she cooks. I learned to ask the proper questions.

“Always watch the hand. Don’t look at the face. Don’t look at the mouth. Watch the hand. All the grandmothers cut with their hands. The tomatoes – [if] you and I will do it we will lose a hand, they just cut. A lot of times I found myself being the culinary memory of a family. I asked a friend one time, what do you put in a matzo ball, and he said cinnamon, and meat. So I said, ‘Oh, your people were from Lithuania.’ He said, ‘How do you know?’ I said, ‘You tell me [how you prepare] the kneidlach soup, I tell you where you’re from.’”

In New Orleans, Twitty met the Miriam Covert, co-author of the “Kosher Cajun Cookbook,” he tells me as we sit in an Ethiopian restaurant in Harlem, partaking of fresh injera, a sourdough flatbread that the Ethiopian kitchen serves with every meal.

“[Covert told me that] her mother tried to eat a banana whole, because she had never seen a banana. She didn’t trust tomatoes because she thought they were vegetables made of blood. She said to me, ‘With ideas like that, who do you think we learned to cook American from? The black ladies were our neighbors in New Orleans. All of the Jewish households, either a black person worked there, or they were your next-door neighbor. And that’s how we learned how to cook Southern, that’s how we learned to cook American. We didn’t know that the food that we were eating was anything else but American, we though this is how Americans eat.’ They thought okra and gumbo and jambalaya and black-eyed peas was what everyone’s eating, they didn’t know they were eating a West African-influenced diet.”

Twitty goes on to explain that, in the next stage, “among these Jewish households in the South that had black cooks or were influenced by the black presence, they started mixing things up. So they don’t eat shrimp and grits, they eat herring and grits. When it comes to Passover time, they are rolling fried chicken in matzo meal they are making chicken gumbo and kosher sausage beef gumbo. Nowadays you can easily find kosher shrimp gumbo, the red rice, the okra soup. The kneidlach, for example, tends to have cayenne pepper and green onions and is served with rice.”

In his own kitchen in Washington, Twitty likes to fuse the two cooking traditions that define his identity. “I use old Jewish recipes, and I would read about them and think about ingredients, and how can I get the best schmaltz to make this, how can I get the best olive oil. And people eat it and they say, ‘Oh it tastes very familiar.’ I mix it all together. When I make kugel, I use peaches – peach kugel. Because my grandma made peach cake and all that stuff. So I make the kugel with peaches. It’s just a way of making sense of yourself.”

The idea of writing a history of Southern food came to him after he heard about a book of recipes created at the Theresienstadt concentration camp, written by women imprisoned there who wanted to preserve their cultural heritage for future generations.

“I thought, why don’t we have a cookbook that speaks to the legacy of enslaved people? So, being exposed to Jewish culinary history gave me the tools and the vision to go back and look at African and African-American and Afro-Brazilian or Afro-Cuban or Afro-Latin cuisine and cultures. It really gave me the keys to know that this is our heritage. I can go between the two backgrounds in my head, because each one informed the other, and so I am able to create something new from two very old patterns. And it helps me spiritually and mentally. I feel like I have more than one toolbox to work with. If one set of keys won’t be able to open the door, another will.”

His childhood was actually quite ordinary from the culinary perspective. “When I was a little boy, I didn’t like soul food, I couldn’t stand it,” he recalls. “Because we didn’t grow up earthy: We grew up on pizza and fried chicken and Big Macs. Those foods were perfect – easy, convenient, tasty, salty, fatty – so I didn’t like country food. Took me a long time to like collard greens, a long time to like the rest of that food.”

Twitty relates that when he was six or seven, his father took him to visit his grandfather in South Carolina for the first time. “I was so disappointed by the food. My grandfather had hopping john on the plate – black-eyed peas and rice, put together – and I never saw it before. I cried and asked Daddy if we could go to the grocery store to get canned chicken soup.”

Cultural bridge

Michael Twitty is a flesh-and-blood bridge between cultures, though his approach to serving as a bridge is not based on finding the broadest common denominator, still less on compromise. On the contrary: His motto is that everything is political, food included. There is nothing apologetic about his politics, and does not aspire to false conciliation.

“It’s important to challenge people in a direct way, but not to be rude about it,” he tells the students during his talk at City College. “Not to embarrass them publicly – which would be against Jewish religious law – not to make them afraid to ask better questions. I don’t care that you want to know how I got here. I do care that you don’t think that I am legitimate. People think that it is great on a spiritual, religious level [that I am a Jew], but that I can’t culturally or intellectually understand, especially about the Ashkenazim, what it’s like to be really Jewish. And I am like, ‘Kiss my ass.’ Being black was a great preparation. I talk with my hands, I eat chicken, I complain, I survived my oppression. What else you need to know? It’s like saying someone is not American enough.”

He doesn’t feel that “so-called race relations” in America have improved, he tells me in the Ethiopian restaurant. “People who grew up in Jim Crow segregation in the South were closer to black people than [upwardly mobile white youngsters] are to us,” he says, adding, “In America, Jews have been the only white people to really engage with me. If it wasn’t for my Jewish identity, I would live a very segregated, bubbled life.”

Twitty is particularly incensed by privileged young whites who make cultural capital out of the black heritage. “These people are trying to ape or appropriate the culture, and it’s very bizarre. We are good enough to be culturally robbed, but we are not good enough to be your neighbor, your friends?” he says. “They can take our words, our songs, our food, and run rampant with it all, yet have no meaningful relationship, have no political or socio-cultural connection to us.”

He is referring to a recent Facebook furor that erupted when the identity of the authors of a vegan cooking blog and book, “Thug Kitchen,” was revealed. Michelle Davis and Matt Holloway, two young white people from Hollywood, achieved celebrity status in the realm of vegan cooking thanks to their hyperactive use of street lingo and juicy profanity identified with young blacks in America’s urban ghettos. But when their identity became known, the social networks in the United States were flooded with angry statuses, tweets, opinion pieces and manifestos about cultural theft and inequality.

“There is a fine line between appropriation and respect,” Twitty observes. “I think that you can definitely borrow with respect and keep things in balance. But there is also mockery, a joke, and they are rewarded for it. How were they planning to keep up the masquerade? How long were they planning to keep up the joke? It boggles the mind.”

In a post on his own blog in October about the same subject, Twitty wrote: “It’s not just about aping and appropriation, it’s about privilege … ‘Thug Kitchen’ is written by two pretty ass white kids from West Hollywood. These pretty Anglo-Saxons not only have sex, they cook together, too — and when they cook they morph into ‘thugs,’ brandishing cross hatching butcher knives to encourage people to eat like they ‘give a fu#k’… ‘Thug Kitchen’ is built on the privilege that two pretty white kids from West Hollywood can be ‘thugs,’ but I cannot…

“We’re not supposed to be thugs because of the culture of respectability and yet we are not supposed to be complex and richly layered because that defeats stereotypes that Black authenticity is boxable, marketable only through specific lenses of comfort, cool, country, city, and coonishly quaint.”

He added in the blog: “It’s painful that the double standard has been ignored in this debate around ‘Thug Kitchen.’ Black people struggle to self-express and sell our unique visions while others ape and appropriate the cultures we have created and when they package it right – become outrageously wealthy and established.”

Elaborating further on this subject in our conversation, Twitty puts forward another of his themes: “culinary justice.”

“I saw people using the food culture in ways that were inappropriate. Taking everything but the burden everything but the part of the story that deals with complex issues, [saying,] ‘This is ours.’ No, it’s not yours to take and to do whatever you want with it. The Italians have control over their cheeses and meat, the French have control over their wines, what do we have control over? Nothing. The people in Peru, saying, ‘We want our potatoes back, we want our quinoa back.’ What do we [blacks] have? Nothing. So we have to really begin to look at marketing a people’s heritage and what that means. When Sean Brock [a successful white Southern restaurateur] runs around saying he discovered the African roots of Southern cuisine, like nobody before him, that’s wrong.”

After we polish off the injera with veggies and meat, and finish our meal with a cup of sweet tea, I ask Twitty to explain how the food he studies connects with his African American identity.

“It symbolizes our rural roots, and older people [in the African-American community] are very proud of that, because their parents could feed them,” he replies. “And they could feel healthy, they ate healthy, from the garden, your food was fresh, you know where it came from, it couldn’t help but be organic. But the tables got turned and we became ashamed of our roots in the South. We told ourselves we want to be urban people. We lost land, we lost money, we started to get sick and stressed out and we started to lose the connection to nature. What is West African dance about? The connection of the body to earth, to the universe. You can’t have it if you’re not on the land or connected. For me the food part is very touching.

“When Elijah Muhammad founded the Nation of Islam, he told his followers, ‘Don’t touch potatoes and greens, it’s slave-master food. It’s not healthy for you, don’t eat black- eyed peas.’ Actually it was healthy for us and it was part of our heritage from Africa. But the whole thing about the food being imperialist and colonialist was wrong. Not just don’t eat pork. He [said he] wanted people to eat bread that had been baked twice over, and white beans. Eating to live, not living to eat.

“I advocate eating and being in balance. You are not going to give up fried chicken, you’re not. You are going to have it once, twice a month. But if you’re going to do it, don’t do it from a box or from a fast-food place. Make it the way your grandmother made it.”