Charleston, SC Itinerary: A Weekend of Things to Do

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Coming to Charleston, I knew I wanted to experience the Gullah Geechee community – descendants of enslaved Africans on the rice, indigo and cotton plantations of Sea Island – so I emailed BJ Dennis, a Charleston-based chef who is part of the Gullah Community. He is always mentioned in association with the South Carolina food scene, and he appeared in the Netflix documentary High on the pork, which traces the origins of African-American cuisine. We have mutual friends, so I emailed him a month before my visit and told him I was coming to town with a girlfriend. We told him we’d love to go to St. Helen’s Island, about an hour and a half from Charleston and where the Penn Center is, and asked for recommendations. He gave us some and agreed to meet us. (He does formal events with the Gullah Geechee community, but it was much more informal.) He also recommended some typical southern spots we should visit, and one of those spots was Fuel Zone (5981 Savannah Highway.) – an inconspicuous gas station en route to the island. Gas station having good food is a southern thing. In New Orleans, some of the best fried chicken I’ve eaten was at the gas station. Chef BJ recommended Fuel Zone to us as it has a good quick breakfast. He recommended fish and grits and South Carolina pudding, a local specialty similar to blood sausage. We took the fish and grits and ate it out the tailgate of the car.

On the way to St. Helena, we stopped near the Combahee River, where Harriet Tubman helped slaves cross. If you’re not careful, you can kind of miss it; it’s like a billboard in the street. We stopped and parked the car. There is a small bridge that goes half way into the water and stops. That’s really nice. There is an energy there. I had a similar feeling when I went to the National Museum of African American History and Culture in DC I like to sit in that silence and pay homage and imagine what it might have been like.

We arrived at the Penn Center (16 Penn Center Cir. E), which was the first school for newly freed slaves in the United States. When you drive there you notice it’s a bit separate from things. It was one of the few safe places in the South at that time. It is now a cultural center, and there is a shop where many artisans from the Gullah Geechee community sell their work. The Penn Center has a photo museum that showcases the school’s history as well as artifacts, tools, and objects from when the Gullah Geechee people occupied the space.

BJ met us there and he brought a variety of dishes from his home made with Gullah Geechee ingredients. It was mostly plant based, but some dishes included shrimp and turkey, as it was right after Thanksgiving. There was perloo, which is rice mixed with these ingredients. He brought us kumquats, which were in season, okra, and benne seeds, which look like a sesame seed but with a stronger flavor. We ate from paper plates outside. It was so delicious. If we hadn’t had lunch with BJ, we would have gone to one of BJ’s recommendations: Gullah Grub (877 Sea Island Drive.), owned by another Gullah Geechee leader, Bill Green. People come from all over to eat his food.

BJ showed us around the island. We saw these little structures called Houses of Praise, where newly liberated people would gather. They are smaller than a one-room schoolhouse. You could fit maybe six rows of pews in the space. I read that it was done on purpose because they didn’t want the masters to think they were trying to plan big events or moves. It was a comfort and a refuge. People did not call the police or the authorities; they fixed and solved their problems accordingly within the community. We went to two Houses of Praise, which had no walkways or unspoiled landscapes. Anyone can visit, but you can’t go inside because they’re unoccupied. We just tracked BJ, but if you wanted to find one for yourself, you can go to a website called Explore Beaufort. He has addresses for two of them: Coffin Point Community Praise House (57 Coffin Point Rd.) and Mary Jenkins Community Praise House
(355 Eddings Point Rd.).

Because of the Nickelodeon show Gullah Gullah Island, we also went to a small local fish shop, Bradley’s Seafood (1452 Sea Island Drive.), which featured on the show. BJ wanted to show us how the people of Gullah Geechee have owned businesses from generation to generation. They are still very active in the fishing community. You can get fresh shark and fresh fish and all that. BJ recommended we stop at a major black-owned seafood store, Ravenel’s (5925 Savannah Highway.), on our return to Charleston. It’s in Ravenel, halfway to the hotel. It was honestly the best seafood I have ever had. I have soft shell crab, garlic prawns and garlic crab. It’s counter service so we ordered and then ate outside on the benches.

On our way back to Charleston proper, I went to visit my friend Femi who went to college in Charleston and now owns a wine bar called Graft (700b King Street.). He was in the music industry before, and when you walk in you see paraphernalia from his past life, like record covers in the bathroom and all along the walls.

You can take wine from the cooler and there is a nice bar where you can drink any of the wines you buy. Elisa has an orange wine and I have champagne. Graft also hosts weekly pop-ups in its outdoor parking lot with various businesses. It’s every Monday, and there’s pizza. It’s almost like a block party.

Femi recommended us to check out Bar Mash (701 E Bay St.) for live music. It reminded me of a feel good bar in a small college town. It was almost sepia. Lots of friends wearing flannel together. The band on stage was a motley and diverse crew playing a mix of soul and rock and roll. It was dope, and their voices were great.

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