Michael W. Twitty, the author and culinary historian, has been following Dennis from the start. “He is it,” Twitty says. “But the thing about it is, he’s not trying to be it. He’s trying to raise a whole generation of people to pick this mantle up. We don’t want to be icons; we want to be griots.”
Griot is a word I have to look up, but when I do, it all makes sense: “a West African historian, storyteller, praise singer, poet, or musician…sometimes called a bard.”
Edisto Island is just an hour from Charleston, separated from the mainland by a few slender waterways, but crossing over to it feels like stepping back in time. A man sells melons out of a truck parked beside the road. Mossy oaks hang low, forming living tunnels of green and gray. “Most of the Sea Islands look like this,” Dennis says. “Funny enough, this is how West Africa looks too. When [enslaved people] stepped off here, they thought it was a cruel joke.”
We’re driving through the heart of the 425-mile Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor on a mission, or rather, two distinct but parallel missions: mine, to write a profile of BJ Dennis. His, to turn my profile into something else entirely. Which is why asking him questions about himself falls on the difficulty scale somewhere close to herding cats.
As he says, this isn’t about him. It’s about Gullah culture. People have said it’s disappearing, but that’s just because they don’t know where to look: the no-frills roadside restaurants, the home kitchens, the family farms that dot the Low Country’s sun-soaked archipelago. To understand what it means to be Gullah (which is, of course, tantamount to understanding Dennis himself), we must leave Charleston altogether, go to Edisto and St. Helena in South Carolina, and St. Simons Island, Savannah, and Brunswick in Georgia. We must meet the people who live this culture every day, taste the pots of gumbo and greens their families have been cooking in obscurity for generations.
“Too many chefs act like they’re the first to do X, Y, Z,” Dennis says, “but everything comes from a place. People were doing it before it was glamorous.”
Ms. Emily Meggett is one such person, and her little yellow house is one of the first stops on our trip. At 86, she’s Edisto Island’s grand matriarch, which is to say everybody’s grandma, though she has 10 children, 23 grandchildren, 35 great-grandchildren, and three great-great-grandchildren (not to mention 21 cats) of her own. She still cooks for 100-person weddings and funerals, grows okra in her backyard, and never lets anybody leave without something to eat. On her back porch a plastic jug of homemade blueberry wine has been fermenting for nearly a year. “Grab a pillowcase, BJ,” she says, “let’s strain it.” We watch her tip sugar into the bucket of deep purple liquid as she reminisces about the old days, when things were slower, less crowded, more connected. She sets out plastic cups of the sweet but kicky wine alongside crackers with cream cheese and homemade pepper jelly the color of Christmas. “People don’t treat you warm like this anymore,” she says.
It takes an hour and a half to zigzag from Edisto to St. Helena, though the two islands are technically less than 20 miles apart. “If we had a boat it’d be faster,” says Dennis, whose great-grandfather was a ferry driver, “but that life is over now.” Today most of the docks are private, the vessels recreational. It’s a different world, but St. Helena still feels like an enclave. Home to one of the country’s first schools for the formerly enslaved, today an African American cultural institution called the Penn Center, the island was a safe haven from the KKK during the civil rights era. Here is where Martin Luther King Jr. worked on “I Have a Dream.”