Ben Dennis: “That right there, that’s Africa” | Cookup

When US chef Ben Dennis arrived in Tobago, he was astonished to find traditional recipes that recall those of his Gullah ancestors. He talks history and heritage with Franka Philip

  • Photo by Jonathan Boncek

Isn’t it cool when you visit another country and see familiar ingredients being used in ways you’re used to? This was the big thrill for US chef Ben Dennis, when he visited Trinidad and Tobago and discovered that local candies like toolum and nutcake were similar to those once made by his ancestors, the Gullah Geechees of South Carolina. The Gullah are descendants of formerly enslaved people from various Central and West African ethnic groups settled in South Carolina and Georgia. They developed a distinct Creole culture that has preserved their African heritage.

Dennis has visited T&T twice, and explored possible links between the Gullah people and Trinidad’s Merikins — descendants of African-American soldiers who were given land in south Trinidad as a reward for fighting for the British in the War of 1812. Dennis is one of a group of contemporary culinarians shedding light on historic foodways in the American South and across the African diaspora. When he was in Trinidad in November 2017, we spoke about his blossoming relationship with the Caribbean.

How did you make a connection to Trinidad and Tobago?

One of the more renowned herbalists in your country, Francis Morean, he was in Charleston and met an elder who might have told him about me. But he knew the connection with the Merikins. I never knew the story in my life. They don’t teach us our history. But there’s something here [in Trinidad] called hill rice, and it was grown in the Low Country in South Carolina. I don’t know if the Merikins brought the hill rice here or if it was already here, but the Merikins came from my area and the low country of Georgia, Virginia, and I think as far as Louisana. They settled in Moruga.

Francis hit me on Facebook, he wanted to do this rice symposium. We connected, and he’s like family to me now. So we did the rice symposium and we were up in the mountains with this rice. Before I came to Trinidad, Slow Food [an international organisation devoted to food heritage] had this top ten list of foods that were missing, and number one was this rice. I get into the fields in Moruga and I’m looking at this rice — African glaberrima, the scientific name — and I’m thinking, this is it, still growing here.

I just came back from Haiti, where I connected with a farmer who I gave some seeds from back home, and he told me he hadn’t seen it since he was a kid. So that means it was in Haiti too! I also saw it in a Puerto Rican cookbook, so it might have been there as well. What we know for sure is that it’s still growing in Trinidad.

I read that you found our bene (sesame seed) balls and that was a revelation for you.

That was a huge connection! I got off the plane in Tobago and saw what you all call toolum, which is the coconut and molasses. A professor, Dr David Shields, he always sends out stuff about old things that are missing. The Gullah street candy used to be done by old Gullah ladies — they were the bene seed balls and the coconut molasses candy, which we call monkey meat. So I look at this candy, the coconut and molasses, and I had a picture of an old Gullah lady with a tray of candies. One of them was the peanut candy [nutcake] and the other was the coconut molasses candy. I was like, wow, this is amazing! That made my heart sing. We still see the bene candies — we call them bene cookies — but the other old candies, we don’t see them.

Did you get the recipes from here to take back?

Yes, I learned the basics of how to make it from Trinidad. I heard they do it in West Africa, too. This is a candy that is traditional, you know, New World traditional. To see the similarities of how we do those candies was fascinating.

Were you always this passionate about your roots, or is this something that came up as you got older?

I had the roots set into me, but it wasn’t something that was really talked about. I was always into history, and particularly black history. You’re born into it, but it took people from the outside to make me realise what we had. When I got to St Thomas in 2004, that was when it really hit me. St Thomas is full of people from Haiti, Jamaica, and St Kitts, and I realised that a lot of people there knew about our culture.

What are some of the similarities between Caribbean food and what you are used to in South Carolina?

The one-pot cooking, the slow cooking of meats, the barbecuing and smoking of meats, the seafood, the love for fish, the greens and the okra — that right there, that’s Africa.

It seems that okra is the common thread among black people, isn’t it?

I would say that’s our mother plant. We love okra, its part of our heritage and part of our culture. To me, that’s one of the connectors.

I once saw on television where Andrew Zimmern on his programme Bizarre Foods went into a Gullah community and they were eating squirrels. Is that something that happens still?

Back home, sometimes you see them skinning a big deer, you go to what we call the Sea Islands and you will still see the deer being skinned and squirrels being prepared. Even in the city, in some of the old black communities, you see it. It’s still part of the culture, but it’s dying. The younger generation doesn’t want that, they want it easy.

What about your media side? Are you going to be doing shows on the food channels?

I have appeared on Top Chef [on cable channel Bravo], but as a guest talking about the culture of food. TV is not my big thing, unless I can spread the word of culture, unless I can share with other black chefs who are passionate about the diaspora. TV can sometimes put you in a bad light — sometimes the way they edit you can show you in a light that makes you look ignorant. I would do TV again, but it has to be about culture and food.

Is it important for more black chefs to come forward throughout the diaspora and tell these stories?

Coming up as chefs, we only saw one side. People have been doing “soul food” — I don’t like that term. We have to do African diaspora food, “culture food.” When you learn about the culture ways and get these old recipes and old ingredients, it inspires you. It would be great to see more chefs dig into this culture — don’t be ashamed!

We call it brown food, because it’s brown stews and gravies, but you can sexy it up . . . We have to get out of this mindset of what white chefs are doing. You know what they’re going to do? They’re going to take our food and make it seem like they discovered something. We have to reclaim our foodways, reclaim our culture.

Recipe: toolum, also known as monkey meat

Ben Dennis writes: “There was a street candy called monkey meat here in Charleston, sold by Gullah Geechee ladies during the colonial period and up until the early 1960s. It’s not seen much anymore, unlike in T&T, where toolum is still common. The addition of lemon peel is the only difference I’ve noticed in the recipes, but I’m sure each cook adds different small different touches to their recipe.”

1 cup finely grated coconut
4 tbs molasses
2 tsp grated or finely chopped ginger
¼ tsp dried orange peel, chopped or grated
¼ tsp dried lemon peel
2/3 cup brown sugar

Place sugar in a small pot and let it liquefy over low heat. Then add grated coconut and molasses. Mix thoroughly, then add the ginger and orange peel. Stir over a low fire until the mixture leaves the side of the pot — make sure it doesn’t burn. Drop spoonsful of the mixture onto a greased dish or pan. Let it cool just a little, and form into balls. Let it harden and chill just a bit.