June 22, 2024


Than a Food Fitter

Lowcountry SC food appears prominently in ‘The Underground Railroad’ and ‘High on the Hog’ | Food

3 min read

Two food scholars with ties to South Carolina helped bring historical Lowcountry cooking to a pair of critically acclaimed programs airing on streaming services this May. 

BJ Dennis, a chef born and raised in Charleston whose locally sourced cooking pays homage to his Gullah Geechee heritage, concocted the food for a feast scene in “The Underground Railroad.”

The Amazon Prime series that debuted May 14 is based on the novel of the same name by Pulitzer Prize winner Colson Whitehead. The fictional story with factual elements is about people attempting to escape slavery in the South during the early 1800s.

The show’s production team invited Dennis to contribute to two scenes, but the rain date for shooting one of them conflicted with his schedule. He ended up cooking for a hog feast scene set in Indiana, but filmed in Savannah. 

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Dennis said he had to make sure everything was relevant to the time and place, from cooking the pig on wood saplings to featuring vegetables which would have been used during that time of year. 

“It does show the influences of the Lowcountry that spread” across the country, he said. “Particularly rice came about in this region because of marooned and escaped enslaved people who brought (it) with them.” 

Dennis said he spent five days on set, each with a 5:30 a.m. roll call. In addition to cooking the food on-site, he advised actors on how to interact with that food on camera.

“Scenes were stopped for myself and my team to hop in and brush up dishes,” he said. “I learned so much about food styling and props. It was truly amazing being on a big budget movie set.”

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Dennis said it’s an experience he hopes to have again one day. 

African American writer, culinary historian and educator Michael Twitty — creator of the Southern Discomfort Tour that pieced together Southern enslaved people’s food traditions and culinary heritage — will be featured on “High on the Hog: How African American Cuisine Transformed America.” 

michael twitty.jpg

Michael Twitty’s okra soup, made at Magnolia Plantation, is featured on new Netflix docuseries “High on the Hog.” Johnathan M. Lewis/Provided

The Netflix docuseries that premiered May 26 is hosted by chef and writer Stephen Satterfield and traces Black food from Africa to Texas. Twitty’s okra soup, prepared at Magnolia Plantation, is featured on the show. 

Twitty describes the dish as “the elemental holy trinity of okra, tomatoes and onions, with a little of this and that.” He said it ultimately draws on the okra stews traditional to Senegal, Ghana and Nigeria but refracted through the lens and limitations of South Carolina rice plantations. 

“It’s one of those dishes whose origins are unmistakable and apparent yet flexible to the possibilities of different parts of the Americas like the Lowcountry,” said Twitty. 

Twitty said he hopes the program not only reveals the diversity and breadth of African American foodways but also how many young tradition bearers are embracing and keeping alive their culinary heritage. 

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Reach Kalyn Oyer at 843-371-4469. Follow her on Twitter @sound_wavves.

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