Dinner in Charleston: A Throwback Special
A true reflection of the various influences that have defined American Southern cuisine over the past three centuries, this soup is a staple of Gullah Geechee cooking. The key ingredient of the soup, okra, is native to West Africa and was brought to the Americas by enslaved Africans, who continued to cultivate it and are responsible for its popularization throughout the South. The other crucial component is tomatoes. Native to South America and cultivated by the Aztecs, it was brought northward by Spanish colonizers in the 16th century. While these two ingredients are essential, the rest of the soup is up to the cook and depends on what's in season or on hand. Our version, inspired by Amethyst Ganaway and her interview with Samin Nosrat for the NYT magazine, makes use of smoked turkey to lend depth and richness to the broth. We’re breaking with Gullah tradition by serving the soup with cornbread as opposed to rice, which is the normal accompaniment to okra soup. So if you’d like to try and stay true to Gullah cuisine, the soup would also pair well with the chicken perloo. Gluten free.
While cornbread today is a staple at BBQ joints and strongly associated with Southern cuisine, its history goes back much further. The Mayans and other Central American cultures were cultivating corn and using it to make foods like tamales and tortillas for centuries before Europeans arrived. It made its way north where it became one of the “three sisters,” staple crops of corn, beans and squash that form the foundation of indigenous North American cuisine. In the South corn was much better suited to the hot and humid climate than wheat, thus making it a more widely available base for breads. The first cornbread was likely an unleavened hot water batter cooked on a griddle or even directly in the ashes of a fire. Overtime, new ingredients were added. The cornbread we’re used to today is a lighter, more airy version of the original, ours uses buttermilk and baking soda as leavening agents. Contains gluten, dairy; vegetarian.
Pulled Pork with Carolina Mustard BBQ Sauce
While it’s not certain where the term barbecue originated, it likely stems from the Spanish barbacoa, the word Spanish colonizers used to describe a style of slow cooking meat used by natives in the Caribbean. This cooking style made its way to the US colonies and by the mid 1800s the technique had been widely popularized throughout the South. Because pigs were cheap and abundant, pork became the preferred meat for BBQ. Today authentic barbecue is often understood to be meat that is slow cooked on indirect heat from a live fire or coals, over the course of many, many hours. While this pulled pork is not true BBQ in the sense that we don’t have access to a smoker or grill, (if not being able to cook fresh shellfish is the most frustrating thing about our business model, then not being able to grill or cook with live fire is a close second) it is true to the spirit of BBQ. We dry rubbed bone in pork shoulder and then roasted it low and slow for several hours. Not fully authentic, definitely still delicious.
As important as the meat itself (some would even argue more important), is the BBQ sauce. Barbecues and BBQ sauces are one of only a handful of American foods where type and preference varies significantly by region, and nowhere is this more true than in South Carolina. Sauce preference is so distinct that the state can be clearly divided into quadrants based on the most popular sauce of the region. Vinegar pepper based sauces are the grandfather of all BBQ sauces, and are popular in the eastern part of the state. Moving westward, we get mustard based vinegar sauces that are more popular in the central and southern coastal regions of the state, including Charleston, which is what we’ve opted for here. There’s no way we can do full justice to how significant regional preference for BBQ sauce is in South Carolina, so instead we’ll defer to the experts and recommend this video of South Carolina native and rocket scientist / BBQ aficionado Dr. Conyers discussing regional sauce preferences with legendary SC pitmaster Rodney Scott (you can scan the QR code for quick access to the digital version of this write up and easy access to the link, along with links to all our resources and recipe inspiration). Contains anchovies (from the Worcestershire in the BBQ sauce); gluten free.
BBQ Baked Beans
Baked beans may actually be the most American food at an American BBQ. If you happened to order our Dinner in Ann Arbor menu focusing on Native American cuisine, you may recall that there are numerous bean varieties indigenous to North America, including several species of white bean that form the foundation of this dish. Native American tribes on the east coast used to bake navy beans with maple syrup and animal fat from wild game. Puritans took this recipe and swapped out maple syrup for molasses and wild game for pork to create what eventually become Boston Baked Beans. Sweet and savory baked beans have since spread around the globe (shout out to the UK, which consumes more cans of baked beans than anywhere else in the world). What's less clear is how they became a staple of Southern barbecue. However it happened, we’re glad it did, as this sweet, spicy, smoky, bacon infused baked bean dish tastes as good as it alliterates. We made ours with great white northern beans, smoked slab bacon and a homemade brown sugar molasses bbq sauce. Gluten free.
Rodney Scott’s Collard Greens
In response to a Whole Foods inspired Twitter controversy in early 2016 (ah, simpler times), food historian Michael Twitty provided a great background on collard greens on his blog, Afroculinaria. He writes,
“Collards (Brassica oleracea acephala) are not African, they are temperate and Eurasian in origin... Many culinary historians agree that the green craze in the South is supported by tastes for spring greens among Celtic and Germanic Southerners but was really spearheaded by people of African descent. In tropical West Africa, greens were available year round in gardens and markets and figured prominently in regular meals... Coleworts were “sprout” greens, eaten while tender and non-heading, and as the descendant of kale and cabbage, the collard could be raised into the mild Southern winter where it sweetened under successive frosts and provided greens despite the season. It is highly possible that the first Africans in Virginia, being Afri-Creoles from Portuguese Angola (where peanuts are in everything) (nguba=goobers) would have known the colewort and appreciated it’s cultivation by their 17th century English captors. The collard was in gardens both high and low, but their popularity was certainly encouraged by the presence of greens-loving cooks of African descent.”
Our recipe is inspired by Pitmaster Rodney Scott and the collards are cooked in pork drippings along with bacon, onions, garlic and finished with a touch of our homemade Carolina mustard bbq sauce. Contains anchovies (from the Worcestershire in the BBQ sauce); gluten free.
Chicken Peanut Perloo
Perloo, purloo, pilaf, pilau; this one pot rice dish has as many variations as it does names. While every culture that cultivates rice has a version (i.e. Biryani, Paella, Jambalaya, etc.), Perloo is unique to the Gullah people and traces its roots back to West Africa. Rice is particularly important in Gullah Geechee cuisine; enslaved people were brought from West Africa to the lowcountry specifically for their knowledge of rice cultivation. While the dish is most commonly made with seafood such as shrimp or oysters, we’ve opted for a combination of chicken and peanuts as an homage to the chicken and peanut stews common throughout West African cuisine, and because of the prevalence of peanuts in South Carolina. In one of those odd circuitous trips, peanuts, which are indigenous to South America, made their way to Europe via the Spanish, then to Africa via the Portuguese. Goobers, derived from nguba in Kongo and Kimbundu, were finally brought to North America in the 18th century by enslaved Africans, who often boiled the legumes. Boiled peanuts are now so popular that they are the official state snack of South Carolina. Contains peanuts; gluten free.
Brown Sugar-Pecan Charleston Chewies
Not to be confused with the old-timey candy Charleston Chews, which are named after the popular 1920s dance, this dessert comes from food network host and Charleston native, Kardea Brown. Buttery, decadent and oh so delicious, they’re the perfect way to round out Dinner in Charleston. Contains dairy, pecans, eggs, gluten; vegetarian.
Easton, Zinfandel 2015 - $20
Available at Arbor Farms
Suffice to say that wine is not a traditional drink in South Carolina. That said, there is nothing better to complement the richness of this meal than a big, bold, and full-bodied California Zin. Not all zinfandels are created equal, and this bottle by Bill Easton is made in the high elevation of the Sierra Nevada foothills in Amador County, east of Sacramento. The elevation gives the wine a balancing acidity along with traditional zinfandel notes of zesty raspberry, smoked pepper and anise. Carolina mustard BBQ + Zinfandel = perfection.
Basil Hayden’s Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey
While not from South Carolina, bourbon is as Southern as Southern gets, and Basil Hayden’s straight bourbon is one of our personal favorites. To qualify as a bourbon, the whiskey must be distilled from at least 51% corn and aged in charred new oak barrels. That oak and spice comes through in Basil Hayden’s, which has a sweet aroma and a spicy finish. It’s a great way to end a great meal.
Charleston, South Carolina
We first cooked this menu to kick off our observance of Black History month back in February. We’ve left the original write up as is below, but wanted to add a brief preface highlighting some great new resources that are relevant to this menu. Specifically, Netflix just released an awesome new docuseries “High on the Hog” hosted by the acclaimed culinary activist, entrepreneur, and sommelier Stephen Satterfield. In the docuseries, he traces the impact enslaved and Black chefs had on American cuisine, from Benin to Charleston, New York, Philadelphia, and to Galveston. Specifically, check out the second episode for more information on Charleston cuisine and the Gullah Geechee. There’s also a lot of great information in our additional resources section for this one, so we’d encourage you to check out the links to all the articles, books and cooks that informed / inspired this menu. The rest of the original write up is below!
We’re going to do things a little differently over the course of our next five menus. In observance of Black History month, we’ll be exploring the contributions of black cooks and African Americans to global cuisine. Not just in the United States, but more broadly throughout the African diaspora in the Western Hemisphere. These write ups will still take the familiar form of diving into the origin of each dish, but we want to pay special attention to the role Black people from across countries and continents have played in how and what we eat today. The sequence of menus will also be a bit more intentional - instead of our usual globe hopping, we’ll be focusing on five cities with strong African / African American influences and examining how much of the food is interconnected.
We’re starting in Charleston, South Carolina. At one point a major hub of the slave trade in the United States, it’s now a blossoming culinary hotspot and booming tourist destination. After that we’ll be focusing on the cuisine of a West African nation that has had an outsized impact on how we eat in the States, before heading to an iconic Caribbean nation. We’ll be ending with two cities renowned for their Pre-Lenten celebrations. As with everything we do, we’re not the first to have done it, nor will we be the best. Our hope is to create a greater understanding of how classic cuisines came to be while paying homage to those who first cooked and created them. With that, we’re off to Charleston, South Carolina!
It would be impossible to write about (or cook food from) Charleston without first recognizing the influence of the Gullah Geechee people. Direct descendants of enslaved peoples from West Africa, the Gullah Geechee are one of the few African American communities who have been able to preserve cultural ties to their West African roots. The ancestors of the Gullah Geechee people were brought to the lowcountry specifically for their expertise in farming rice, a difficult crop that white colonists didn’t know how to farm. The enslaved Africans from the “rice coast” of Africa (modern-day Senegal to Liberia) brought with them not only their knowledge of rice farming, but also centuries of culinary traditions. After emancipation, their descendants were able to purchase land in the relatively insulated coastline and islands of South Carolina and Georgia, thus maintaining a strong sense of community. Today Gullah cuisine has had an undeniable impact on the cuisine of Charleston (and the South in general). According to Gullah Chef and Charleston native BJ Dennis, “Gullah cuisine is seasonal, and is pulled from the land and the sea at a very specific time of year.”
With this in mind, if you happen to find yourself in Charleston, we would encourage you to do two things; eat seasonally, and eat seafood! Perhaps the most challenging thing about our business model is that it severely limits our ability to cook cuisines that depend on fresh, local seafood (we would have loved to serve some fresh blue crab with garlic!). Pre-Covid, Charleston was a top destination for domestic tourism and that is in large part due to the burgeoning food scene. In 2017 Rodney Scott moved his BBQ empire from Hemingway, SC, to Charleston. Sean Brock’s first restaurant, Husk, is still one of the best examples of elevated southern food in town, the restored Victorian building dishing out heirloom ingredients from local farmers. And then there’s the old-school lowcountry Gullah restaurants such as Bertha’s and Hannibal’s serving up okra soup, pork neck bones, and crab rice. We certainly hope to visit again once traveling is safe, and encourage you to as well!
There’s also a lot of great information in our additional resources section for this one, so we’d encourage you to check out the links to all the articles, books and cooks that informed / inspired this menu.
Featured Recipe: Oven Roasted Pulled Pork
5 lbs boneless Boston butt roast / pork shoulder
1 cup apple juice
1/4 cup apple cider vinegar
4 cloves garlic, coarsely chopped
For the spice rub:
¼ cup Kosher salt
2 tbsp ground black pepper
2 tbsp paprika
2 tbsp chili powder
2 tbsp brown sugar, packed
1 tablespoons garlic powder
1 tablespoons onion powder
Thoroughly rub the pork with spice rub and let marinate for a few hours or up to a day
Preheat your oven to 450F
Roast the pork uncovered for 1 hour at 450F, flipping once to ensure an even brown (if you have a large enough skillet at home, you can brown the pork on the stovetop, about 5-10 minutes per side)
Remove the pork from the oven and reduce the temperature to 325F
Pour the apple juice and vinegar over the pork and spread the garlic around the pan. Cover tightly with foil and return to the oven
Bake for 2.5 hours or more, until fork tender and shreddable. This will depend on your oven, the size of the pork roast, etc. It’s done when you can rip a piece apart with a fork. Test near the bone as that part will take the longest to cook
Pair with the Carolina Mustard sauce below or your favorite BBQ sauce
Carolina Mustard BBQ Sauce
Makes about 1.5 cups
¾ cup yellow mustard
½ cup honey
¼ cup brown sugar
½ cup apple cider vinegar
2 tbsp ketchup
2 teaspoons Worcestershire sauce
1 teaspoon garlic powder
¼ tsp chili powder
½ teaspoon salt
¼ tsp hickory liquid smoke
¼ tsp tabasco hot sauce
Whisk all of the ingredients together in a large bowl.
Add to a small pot and simmer for 10 minutes, stirring frequently. Cool.
Recipes Inspired By:
Jubilee: Recipes from Two Centuries of African American Cooking by Toni Tipton-Martin
The Taste of Country Cooking by Edna Lewis, beautifully written, it reads as much as a fairytale as it does a cookbook
The man, the myth, the legendary pitmaster, Chef Rodney Scott
Gullah chef and Food Network host, Kardea Brown
A Dish That Reflects Our Nation: Okra Soup, an interview with Amethyst Ganaway by Samin Nosrat for the NYT magazine
The real history of soul food
How traditional Gullah cuisine has shaped the food culture in Charleston
An interesting read on the background of regional American bbq from the Smithsonian
The history of the goober from NPR
An excellent piece on the role of food in protest in Black communities by Amethyst Ganaway
Afroculinaria, a great blog from food writer and historian Michael W. Twitty
A brief documentary from Vice on the history of the Gullah people and the threats they face from developers
It wouldn’t be WPK without at least one Bourdain reference each week—Parts Unknown, Season 6 Episode 8
Padma Lakshmi’s new show, Taste the Nation, has a good episode on Gullah Geechee cuisine (episode 4)
A great profile of Charleston native and Gullah chef BJ Dennis
A decent thought piece from the Atlantic about the Whole Foods inspired Twitter controversy mentioned above. Tl;dr—appropriation is real, do your research, “Black culture” is not monolithic, eat what you like, the Internet is a terrible place
Netflix has released an awesome new docuseries “High on the Hog” with the acclaimed culinary activist, entrepreneur, and sommelier Stephen Satterfield. Specifically, check out the second episode for more information on Charleston and the Gullah Geechee.