TESTIMONY: CHEF BENJAMIN “BJ” DENNIS
Chef Benjamin “BJ” Dennis is a personal chef and caterer, born and raised in Charleston, South Carolina. BJ infuses the flavors and culture of the Lowcountry into his Gullah-Geechie cuisine. He has been awarded the BB&T Wine + Food Festival, Cook It Raw, and Meatopia awards. His goal is to bring Gullah cuisine to the mainstream in the Charleston scene. BJ is a community chef and advocate for better food in low-income areas, as well as a professional personal chef and caterer. As an indigenous chef, he is committed to educating the community through events, workshops and cooking.
Real Black Grandmothers got to talk to Chef BJ Dennis in a different capacity. We talked to him about how his grandmothers have greatly influenced his journey in general and as a chef. His maternal grandmother, Virginia Owens lived in Allendale, South Carolina (1925-2008). His paternal grandmother Mary Porcher Dennis (1927-) lives in Cainhoy, South Carolina. Her children call her “Babe” and her grandchildren call her “Grandmama.” This interview focuses on Grandmama Mary.
Above all else, BJ is thankful to have his grandmother still here. “I love the fact that I can hear her voice and hear that laugh. And go over there, like I can go work on her for a little while. I appreciate the fact that she is still here, still here on her terms, not hurting, not bedridden, still lives in the house by herself, still go gets her mail, still cooks her food.” Although she is 90-years-old, the first word that comes to mind when he thinks of her is “young soul.” “When I’m around her I tend to forget that she is 90-years-old. You just feel like she’s going to keep going and going, and going and going. But young soul, big heart and she has a beautiful voice. Her accent I call it a singsongy voice, like it sounds like she sings when she speaks. The way she enunciates words and her Gullah tones.” That’s right, Gullah tones. BJ’s family is Gullah Geechee reigning from South Carolina. He hears the Gullah Geechee culture in his grandmother’s speak. He conveyed, “That tone whenever she speaks, the way she stretch them words, you know, like them elders on them islands, they way they stress them words, we roll our tongue, our tongue faster.” Gullah tones live in him too. He shared what happened on a recent trip to St. Helena, “they knew I was from Charleston. You roll your tongue. You roll your tongue when you talk.”
When he was asked by RBGM Sara Daise to use his five senses to think about his grandmother, he said the following about sound: “The way she say gggguueerrrrrre…. There is just something about the way she say it man. She be speaking and she talking about something, get her amped. But the way she sing and she stretch and that singsong-y tone, she stretch that guerre.” Guerre means “Somebody done done something stupid, guerre you know….To hear her say it man when she be talking. We be laughing at our own language. You know when we are talking with each other we laugh at each other sometimes because we know we say shit funny….I love our culture so much, I love it so much.” We love it so much too BJ! It’s such a rich and important culture and a critical part of understanding the Black experience in America.
Gullah not only has a tone, it also has a flavor. A flavor that BJ has taken out of his grandmother and mother’s kitchen to share with the world. BJ shares, “I don’t think she taught me on purpose, but I remember her okra soup more than my own mother, and my mother would make a nice okra soup. It was something about granny and I think there was a connection between—everything was coming from out there yard, even the shrimp that was in there. My granddaddy, her husband, my late grandfather used to go. He was a cast net man. He cast net in the creek and get those nice small tiny creek shrimp you can’t get out no store. She used to make her okra soup, and funny enough she don’t like it. My grandfather was a fanatic of okra soup and I think any elder, especially back in those days when a lot of the women were still… in the kitchen, like if you are a Gullah woman even though you didn’t like okra you had to know how to make okra soup….I don’t even think about it being having a man who would like to eat okra soup just in general you had to learn to make okra soup even if you didn’t like it, that’s our thing.”
BJ describes his fondest grandmamma memories, “She used to throw down on holidays, eating her apple dumpling, her dessert, and seeing her fry them little shrimp in that little black skillet. Being a youngster with her in church in old school churches where it was small. You might even have no more than 20, 30 members you know what I’m saying, and like, seeing them catch that spirit. You know, they are like, seeing her clap and shout. My grandmother was a quiet lady, but her catch that rhythm in church—those are some of the main memories, yeah.”
When he thinks about the traditional grandmother, what comes to mind is “ She raised family. She ran house. She ran house. I mean, she was what made everything tick. Traditional grandmother was to me a healer, a chef, a manager, a lover if she had a man in her life, I think I’ve said a nourisher, a business partner. I mean they encompass a whole lot, like so much. You name it, you name it. I would say the main thing was a caretaker, a nourisher, you know, a voice, do it all, superwoman.” According to BJ, grandmamma Mary was that. “She did everything, she made sure that we weren’t feeling well. I can’t remember too much time when I was sick and you know I had my mother in the house but—she helped raise six outstanding kids, one including my father.”
BJ reflects on how his grandmother lives through him. How she is present in his work and the way he lives his life: “I think I’m striving to be as happy as her on a everyday basis. I know I’ve only known her for about a little over maybe about 60% of her life…I’m not always around my grandmother but she exudes this energy, like a positive-ness. Like I’m always, like it’s good, we are good. Even when something was going on. Even when my granddaddy fell and hit his head and had to go to the hospital, which was the beginning of his transition. She is always in a good place. Even when my uncle was on his last with cancer she was—even when you know the situation was—even when you knew she was sad, it was still a happy vibe, you know what I’m saying? I think I take that from her and I’m striving to get to be like that, like how she is. Even though the situation is stress… let’s remember happiness is there. So yeah, I’m striving to get to like her place of happiness.”
Using his senses, BJ most associates the following with his grandmother: Sight: I want to say happiness because she is always a happy person. It’s happiness. I don’t know if you can see, see, happiness is a spiritual thing, you know what I’m saying? Smell: Flowers. The smell of flowers, because she love her flowers. You pull up, especially when you pull up around spring, summer, fall, you smell those flowers….She grows her own. Taste: Okra soup. Touch: Hugs.