Sitting on a millennial pink trolley parked in front of Martha Lou’s Kitchen, one begins to ponder the meanings of Charleston’s Wine + Food Festival in the year 2020. Namely: How did we get here? Or perhaps a better question: What took us so long?
The Martha Lou’s stop was one of three during Wine + Food’s sold-out Soul Stroll, an “excursion filled with southern cooking prepared by some of the Lowcountry’s original tastemakers.”
Led by local organizer and City Paper writer KJ Kearney, the tour introduced attendees to the city’s native cuisine. Last month, festival communications director Alyssa Maute Smith told Kearney: “We realized that we, as a team and an entity that represents our community, could do a better job of making sure we were an accurate reflection of that community.”
Soul Stroll’s crowd, comprised of a self-described 12th-generation Charlestonian, a group of eight folks from Trinidad, a couple from Philly, a hobbyist photographer from New York, and a handful of other out-of-towners, eagerly consumed the fried chicken, bread pudding, crab rice, and garlic shrimp served up by Martha Lou’s, Hannibal’s, and Nana’s.
Kearney introduced Martha Lou Gadsden and her daughters and granddaughter: “We gotta give women like this their due,” he said. Gadsden’s granddaughter, Melanie Alston, smiled at the crowd: “My grandmother does not realize she’s a big deal. We wanna keep the legacy going.”
The legacy has continued at Hannibal’s, too, where co-owner Safiya Grant and her sisters continue cooking the food they watched their grandmother make. At Nana’s Seafood and Soul, Kenyatta McNeil and his mother, Carolyn, serve up food in honor of Carolyn’s mother, Nana.
These restaurant proprietors all agree that continuing this kind of cooking in Charleston is necessary work. As Grant says, “It picked me, I didn’t choose it.”
Like the Soul Stroll and a sold-out forum at Bertha’s Kitchen, Thursday’s wellness-focused event at Merchant’s Hall, In Good Company, highlighted conversations around food. And while this connection is likely unintentional, it’s hard not to point out that both the Soul Stroll and Good Company event were alcohol free occasions (or as the festival tactfully calls them, “zero-proof.”)
Is it a lot to ask of someone to pay $135, trek through downtown Market Street traffic, and sit at a table with strangers, armed only with kombucha and sparkling water? Depends on who you’re asking. Some confused tablemates regretted not reading the event’s details more closely; they ended up making the most of their alcohol-free sips.
Served family style, guests noshed on food from Amor Healing Kitchen’s chef Justin Booher; Wild Olive and Obstinate Daughter pastry chef Andrea Upchurch; and Philadelphia-based chef Kurt Evans, who works with the nonprofit Drive Change and hosts “End Mass Incarceration” dinners.
While the chefs served up their food, additional “talent,” including chefs, sommeliers, and local wellness gurus, took seats at various tables, starting conversations with their new tablemates. Tahirrah Habibi, named by Ocean Drive magazine as one of the top five sommeliers in South Florida, asked those around her: What’s something that scares you and how do you handle it?
After a quick joke about the stock market, talk of snakes and bugs, and several moments of reflection, the conversation turned into talk of losing loved ones, about learning to exist in spaces where people may not look like you.
The founder of the Hue Society, “an organization committed to the inclusion and education of Women and People of Color in the wine industry,” Habibi knows all too well what it’s like to exist as a woman of color in an industry that is predominantly filled with white men.
Charleston Wine + Food is using their powerful platform to share often-undershared voices. If this year is any indication, more inclusionary, hyper-local spaces will continue to grow in the festival scene. While out-of-towners may not notice the impact locally sourced talent and events may have on the city they’re visiting, locals sure as heck will. Here’s to less booze, more soul food, and even more conversations next year.