Gullah chef Benjamin Dennis takes over for the Chicago Tribune Food Bowl!

Big Jones is thrilled to be hosting Gullah cuisine authority Benjamin Dennis for a residency August 13-20. It’s part of the Chicago Tribune Food Bowl. Please check out the Chicago Tribune writeup of Chef Dennis’ visit, in which they name it one of seven Food Bowl events not to be missed! Chef Dennis will makeover our menus in the Gullah-Geechie image, sharing a rare glimpse into one of America’s most unique, and compelling, local foodways.

The Gullah-Geechie nation has a unique history seldom heard outside the coastal Southeast. Descendants of African peoples enslaved on coastal plantations growing rice, indigo, and a host of other crops, they spent almost all of their history prior to the War On Poverty and Great Society Programs of the mid-196o’s in almost total isolation on the sea islands off the coast of the Southeast from Cape Fear, NC to Jacksonville, Florida.

Even during Colonial and Antebellum times, plantation elites spent much of the year in Charleston or Savannah, and summer homes in the upcountry. Following emancipation of the islands by Union troops in 1863, the formerly enslaved stayed on the sea islands, and continued to evolve their own language, arts culture, and cuisine. Few whites had desire to visit the islands until air conditioning became widely available, and development began to encroach. Up until the 1960’s, the only way back and forth between most of the islands and the coast was by boat, and trips were rare for essential provisions. In this microcosm, a truly rich culture flourished.

A couple aspects of this story are particularly relevant to the story of Southern cuisine – one, as the enslaved, and later servants, of plantation and merchant society, their minds and their hands created what is often called Lowcountry cuisine, and two, because their social centers remained isolated from white society, the cuisine they cooked at home retained very strong ties to African and Caribbean cuisines. Many of the early enslaved of the Lowcountry were traded in from plantations already operating in the Caribbean, so there are many kin among the Gullah-Geechie nation and black Caribbean nations such as Trinidad and Barbados.

As Southern cuisine has gentrified, including a cuisine many are calling “Lowcountry” as a catch-all term, the stories and identity of the people who created this cuisine gets lost in the shuffle as modern merchants package narratives to be commidified and sold. When I first became aware of Benjamin Dennis and later met him to begin the conversation that continues with this residency, I immediately felt I had met a kindred soul as what drives Chef Dennis is a commitment to culture, his culture and that of his people. Big Jones has always sought the same – to cultivate connections of purpose and meaning beyond commerce. Mark, the crew, and I are honored to bring this conversation, through delicious food, to your table this week.
Benjamin Dennis and the Big Jones crew will work round the clock to turn Big Jones into a popup of Gullah and Geechie cuisine, with menus launching Wednesday, August 15 for dinner, and continuing though Monday, August 20. Join us for a special Gullah Family Dinner Sunday evening, during which Chef Benjamin Dennis will hold court, answer your questions, tell stories, and ponder the future.

Special dishes will populate the menus at lunch, brunch, and dinner. The menus will be finalized Wednesday morning and posted, but here’s some highlights so far:

Oyster Pancakes

Fried green tomatoes with crab salad

Crispy rice waffle with smothered duck and pickled peaches

Limpin’ Susan – okra with shrimp and Carolina Gold rice

Calallo with coconut, ginger, and corn mush

Awendaw with oyster gravy

Cornbread with Crackling

Long-fried catfish in tomato gravy

Blackberry dumplings with ice cream

Groundnut Vendor’s plate (candies) – Groundnut cakes, kuli-kuli, monkey meat, benne balls

A half-dozen more dishes to come, stay tuned…