You can’t talk about Southern food — specifically, Lowcountry cuisine — without acknowledging its roots, deeply planted, gnarled with turmoil and neglect and misconception.
“The Old South is a forgotten Little Africa but nobody speaks of it that way,” writes chef and author Michael Twitty in his James Beard award-winning book The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South. “Everything black folks gave to the aristocracy and plain folks became spun gold in the hands of others — from banjos to barbecue to Elvis to rice and cotton know-how.”
Tues. April 9 at 7:30 p.m. the College of Charleston Yaschik/Arnold Jewish Studies Program and CofC’s Pearlstine/Lipov Center for Southern Jewish Culture present “My Food is My Flag” at the Simons Center Recital Hall featuring guest speakers Twitty and UNC professor Marcie Cohen Ferris. The lecture is free and open to the public.
Twitty and Ferris are renowned food historians (Ferris has also earned a James Beard nod for her writing), exploring the intersection of Jewish, African American, and Southern foodways. They also happen to be good friends. Shari Rabin, assistant professor of Jewish Studies and director of the Pearlstine/Lipov Center for Southern Jewish Culture, says she hopes the talk will feel like a conversation.
The “My Food is My Flag” event is Rabin’s “brainchild,” says Mark Swick, community liaison for CofC’s Jewish Studies Program. The annual presentation by the center, which was founded in 2014, brings in renowned speakers from around the country to discuss a variety of topics. This year, the conversation is centered on “thinking about Jews and African Americans and how both communities have impacted the food in the region,” says Rabin.
“[Cuisine] is such an important window to culture, such an important moving beyond the hat tip to history,” says Rabin. “Both Michael and Marcie have written about Charleston and South Carolina, [they’ll be] putting that into the conversation especially.”
It was Charleston, in fact, where Ferris took her first research trip in 2001 while working on her book Matzoh Ball Gumbo: Culinary Tales of the Jewish South. “It was the week of 9/11, it was a really transformative moment of reckoning with what was happening in the country, and it was really powerful to be in Charleston,” says Ferris.
[image-2] Since that trip, Ferris says she’s been drawn back to the city time and again. “The chefs and food makers in Charleston are beyond compare.”
Ferris is a Slow Food Alliance founder, an American Studies professor, an author — it goes without saying that she spearheads discussions all day, and knows her subject like the back of her hand. She’s earnest as a nubile scholar, though, ready to continue the conversation, to evolve it and send into unexplored territory.
“It’s a really complex and powerful conversation,” says Ferris. “I’m thankful we’re all having it.”
In her work Ferris delves into the branding of Southern foodways and the narrative of a place. Charleston, in particular, has its own mythologized history, written by and for its white winners. In reality, Ferris says, “17th and 18th century [Charleston] was a place of many dialects, enslaved people, free people of color, many voices, Jewish merchants.”
In the 21st century, as Southern food historians and chefs and purveyors come to terms with the origin of what they’re hawking to hungry tourists, untold stories will finally be told. Because they have to.
The racial components of the capitalism on which Charleston was built must be acknowledged, and as Ferris points out, this era of “heightened food celebrity and foodie-ism and very powerful moment of excellence in the local food movement,” allows hard truths to surface.
“I think it’s just a moment of reckoning in the American narrative,” says Ferris. “As we try to move toward a reconciliation, we’re opening up all those difficult closets, bringing out those monsters, and telling the truth of love and hate and blood and gore, life and family.”
We touch on the subject of white faces in the kitchen — a fact that is hard to ignore when you line up the chefs at some of Charleston’s critically acclaimed or popular restaurants. After all the important conversations are had and the books are written, “the bottom line is you have to hire people of color, and hire women,” says Ferris.
The College of Charleston talk on Tuesday will probably only run a couple of hours. You can’t keep people in a recital hall forever. But further exploration of the intersection of Jewish, African American, and Southern foodways takes place after the lecture ends. Or, like for Twitty and Ferris, it could take your whole life.
There will be a continuation of the conversation (registration has now closed) starting at the end of May with the Jewish Summer Institute. Ferris says chefs Kevin Mitchell and Trey Dutton will create a couple of special dinners for the participants, and Ferris and the Post and Courier’s Hanna Raskin will moderate the program’s closing dinner. “It will speak to a lot of what Michael and I will touch on, too,” says Ferris.
“The intersection of African Americans and Jewish people that often took place in places of labor … Kevin has done so many important historical grapplings. I think it will be very powerful.”
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City Paper has been bringing the best news, food, arts, music and event coverage to the Holy City since 1997. Support our continued efforts to highlight the best of Charleston with a one-time donation or become a member of the City Paper Club.