BJ Dennis is a man of his word. Back in 2012, the chef told us that his biggest challenge was turning diners on to Gullah-Geechee cuisine. He wanted to bring it back. “Kids don’t understand the culture here at all,” he told City Paper. “They’re more worried about the hottest bar of the week.”
Since then, Dennis has been hard at work to change that mindset. From assisting in the recent Nat Fuller Dinner to a guest stint at Labo Culinaire Foodlab in Montreal to getting a mention in the Wall Street Journal, Dennis has been spreading his love and knowledge of his culinary heritage across the Lowcountry and beyond. At home, he’s had numerous consulting gigs — most recently at Republic Lounge and Palace Hotel — and pop-up dinners around Charleston.
That’s where I first met him, at a Gullah-Geechee pop-up at Butcher & Bee. Impressed, I wanted to learn more. But since Gullah-Geechee cuisine is historically food eaten at home, I invited Dennis to my house to teach me how to prepare a true GullahGeechee feast.
When he arrives, Dennis is loaded with bags of local produce and seafood. “I got these from a guy on Rivers Avenue,” he says pulling out a bag of fresh shrimp “What about the crabs?” I ask, watching them shuffle around in the bag. “I get them from Seafood Alley on Spring Street.”
Seafood has always been an important part of the Gullah-Geechee cuisine, likewise with vegetables, particularly okra, chili peppers, squash, and leafy greens. “Meat was always a luxury,” he says pulling out some oxtail. According to Dennis, things like chicken and pork were rarities, only enjoyed on special occasions. Thus the oxtail — a discarded cut of meat that was cheap and easily accessible. Dennis quickly gets to work uncovering a plate of chopped, cooked conch — a mollusk or sea snail — one ingredient commonly found in crab traps, but rarely used by anyone outside the Gullah Geechee community. “There are a lot of recipes that use conch in old Charleston cookbooks,” Dennis says. “You can find prepared conch at really local places like Charlie Brown’s on Rivers Avenue. You can boil it, but the best way to get it tender is to pressure cook it.”
Taking over my kitchen, Dennis adds the conch to the oxtail stew and guests begin to arrive. Plates full of spicy garlic crabs make their way to the dining room table. Up until then, it had been fairly quiet, but as soon as the crabs appear, Desmond Brown, the former owner of Geechee Island food truck, looks up and asks, “Where’s the newspaper?” I scramble to find yesterday’s news, lining the table with an array of ads and comics. “This is how we do it. This is how we eat crabs,” he says.
Giovanni Richardson, co-founder of Taste of Gullah, a company that creates Gullah events, picks up a crab, breaks it in half, and starts tearing off the legs. “This is how you break it down,” she explains, though no one at this table needs a lesson. Richardson’s daughter, Zuri-N’tombi, looks like she’s been cracking crabs for years.
Conversations start flowing. There’s talk of public schools, where to find the best garlic crabs, the origin of she-crab soup, and the joys of everyday parenting. “We all have multiple hustles,” Drisana McDaniel, a long time friend of Dennis’, says when I mention how nice it is to sit down for a casual meal and get a break from work.
But the feast isn’t over. In the kitchen, Dennis drops some head-on fresh whiting dusted with Old Bay, garlic, onion powder, and cornmeal into hot oil in a cast iron pan. “Porgy and whiting have always been the preferred Gullah fish, specifically porgy,” he explains. “Fried eel was big in this area as well.” As the crust on the fish turns golden brown, I ask him how he knows when it’s done. “Sound,” he answers.
Always the concerned chef, Dennis delivers the platters of fried fish and asks, “How was the crab?” Our mouths full, satisfied nods give him his answer.
Over on the range, there’s a pot of rice browning. “It’s an old technique where you add water and leave the rice uncovered, but you don’t stir. Once the rice is al dente, you add some oil and butter to the pot to brown it. I haven’t mastered it yet, but I’m getting there,” says Dennis. The toasted brown rice adds a welcome addition to a table now stocked with an array of stews and soups — okra with local crab and shrimp, eggplant and tomato, and the hearty oxtail and conch stew.
It’s a casual, communal feast. Bowls are filled and passed around the table and the cheerful conversations continue.
But that isn’t all. Dennis has one more dish to deliver. Earlier during prep he’d asked me to whip up some biscuit dough and now I know why. Hot blackberries and peaches with fresh buttermilk dumplings arrive at the table. He’s cooked the fruit in a cast iron skillet, adding the dumplings at the end and covering the pan to let them cook. It’s simple yet delicious.
The food is great, but the magical part of the dinner is the camaraderie around the table. Though each guest has a connection to Dennis, most everyone had just met for the first time. By the end of the meal though, it feels like a group of long-time friends saying goodbye, a testament to Dennis’ skill at bringing food and people together.
If this is only the beginning, I can’t wait to see what future holds. A chef very much in demand, Dennis is beginning to work on an idea for his own restaurant. I certainly hope it happens. As for now, I’ll use the recipes he left behind and be sure to have some friends over to keep the conversations flowing. BJ, got any plans next weekend?