Coming up for air
By D.R.E. James
I thought this is what I wanted, what I’d worked so hard for, getting paid (handsomely) to write about food, something I’d gladly do for free.
I feel like the biggest asshole right now.Robert Mossis a swell guy and one of the most distinguished food writers I know. He’s launching a digital magazine calledThe Southeastern Dispatchand reached out to me asking if I’d contribute to the inaugural issue. So right now, I’m supposed to be finishing up my first draft aboutThai Peppers,a restaurant in my itty-bitty hometown of Southport, North Carolina, where the entire town is stained with cocktail sauce from the last shrimperoo, everything is stuffed with crab, and the salty breeze carries the aroma of a never-ending fish fry. I’m supposed to be writing about how when Thai Pepper opened in 1992, it ushered in a brand of exotica where seeing Pad Kee Mao might as well have been hieroglyphics to locals, and how it forever changed my palate.
I thought this is what I wanted, what I’d worked so hard for, getting paid (handsomely) to write about food, something I’d gladly do for free. This is why I moved to Charleston in the spring of 2017. I’d been hearing about this pudgy genius that emerged from the podunk coalfields of Wise County, Virginia who was doing mythical shit in Charleston like spinning country ham into cotton candy, teaching the locals how to properly pronounce “Oaxaca” (it’s waa-haa-kuh), and giving the city a piggyback ride onto the culinary pantheon of international big shots like Paris and Tokyo. I had to be there, I just didn’t know how I'd finagle my way into Chucktown until one day in the lobby of theRead House Hotelin Chattanooga, Tennessee I found out restauranteurMichael Shemtovwas opening his “majordomo,” the city’s first “exploratory” food hall. So, I moved there to help him openWorkshop.It was like a vocational pilgrimage of sorts.
I’ve been blessed with the curse of having a front-row seat to the intense dichotomy between Charleston’s White upper crust and Black underbelly and I can’t un-witness it.
During that Spring and Summer,Sean Brockwas bigger thanBill MurrayorDarius Rucker.Shit, evenMayor Tecklenburg,and I’d be lying if I denied basking in the warmth he exuded and taking full advantage of his glow. His impact was so intense that five years later, if youGoogle“Charleston Chef,” he’s still the first thing that pops up. Between chiffonading never-ending bundles of scallions forPink Bellies’mise en place, plundering through piles of scotch bonnet peppers to make jerk sauce, and scrapping ricotta gnocchi residue from pans atFIG,I hustled my way into writing gigs.Charleston City Papergave me the nod for my first cover story about sommelier duoFemi Oyediran and Miles Whiterescuing me from bottles ofBanana Red “Mad Dog” 20/20and becoming a legit oenophile. Now I know what it means when somebody describes aDonnafugataas “full-bodied.” My second cover story was with the Black (and now defunct)Charleston Chronicle,where I declaredMartha Lou Gadsdena graceful powerhouse and the undisputed doyenne of Lowcountry cuisine.
I created a Q&A column, named it SOUTHERNGRUBALYSTICFRIEDBANTER and yapped with all the bad ass chefs in town:David Schuttenberg,Rodney Scott,Robert Stehling,Cynthia Wong,Jacques Larsonabout everything from the origins of chimichangas, sacred banana pudding recipes, red eye versus sawmill gravy, hog head cheese verses mortadella, and drunken nights at theFlora-bama Lounge.I wrote an epic feature about my odyssey of connecting jollof rice I’d had in Harlem with my cousin, Janiya, and her daughter, Nyae, to the red rice I’d been introduced to during my first week in Charleston atHannibal’s Kitchen— ignorantly referring to it as “bootleg jambalaya” — and my heart still flutters knowing thatToni Tipton Martinwas swooning over how well it was written.
Where should my journalistic duties and energy be channeled?
I was even getting paid hundreds upon hundreds of dollars byEATERto write listicles about why you should eat charcuterie in Chattanooga, or a Monte Cristo if you’re ever in Myrtle Beach nursing a hangover. I had a byline in a Pulitzer Award-winning newspaper,The Post and Courier,(even if it was about a greasy spoon, mom-and-pop diner on Ocean Boulevard). I hobnobbed and took shots of slivovitz with my mentor, their former food critic,Hanna Raskin,at her Hanukkah party. We also ate boquerones atRenzowith her and my homie, Sam, and I’m still mesmerized at how anchovies and grapefruit were the backbone of one of the most memorable dining experiences I’d ever had. Speaking of that night at Renzo, the late greatErmias Asghedomhas a quote from a song called“Victory Lap”that’s fitting for this entire essay: “Find your purpose or you’re wasting air,” and that night I thought I’d found my purpose, hunkered down in a booth, being able to tell my father, my nephew, Malachi, the lady sitting beside me at the Japanese steakhouse — I write about food professionally.
Unfortunately, by the timeBoston University’s Gastronomy Programinvited me to speak at theirJacques Pepin Lectures,I couldn’t ignore the vicious tug of war between my heart and my gut. I could feel the spirit ofJames Baldwinchasing me, chomping at the bit like a crazed thoroughbred ready to trample me if I didn’t use my pen, my voice, my God-given talent to illuminate the perils, the plight of Black people in this country or at least Charleston, South Carolina.
This is my purpose. I’m not wasting air. Anymore.
I’ve been blessed with the curse of having a front-row seat to the intense dichotomy between Charleston’s White upper crust and Black underbelly and I can’t un-witness it. I tried to be swept away by what I refer to as the “pastel, pluff mud and palmetto propaganda” that Charleston has masterfully branded, but sauntering the South of Broad neighborhood, I tried to find beauty in those breezy piazzas. Instead, I only seemed to notice the chevaux de frise, designed to hinder revolting slaves. As somebody who cooks for a living, I wanted to be inspired by the fabled Charleston Receipts cookbook, but I’m always thinking about the recipe titled John C. Calhoun Lobster Newburg. When I hear somebody making mention of the charming cobblestoned streets, I think about Chalmer’s Street where the Old Slave Mart is located and I’m disgusted that it hasn’t been gutted out and turned into an izakaya, or at least aFat Tuesdaysdaiquiri bar, because I’d much rather eat momo yakitori or slurp a Mardi Gras mash than be constantly reminded that my ancestors were slaves.
Where should my journalistic duties and energy be channeled? Brunch atGaulart & Malicletor the city’s gallant displays of white supremacy? Grit cakes atHymansbeing bush league? Or shiesty police and public housing politics? Do I waste time writing aboutMike Lata’sphilosophy on why okra should be sliced lengthwise or about the millions of dollars being spent on plantations? What’s a bigger fish for me to fry? Describing how I’m licking crème fraîche from my cuticles atChubby Fishor the blueprints for tangible reparations?
I’m almost certain that this decision will squander my champagne-soaked fantasies of winning the coveted James Beard Award.
Above all else, I don’t want to be the journalistic version of the rappers I despise. The one whose lyrics gloat about diamond-encrustedRolexes,exotic cannabis, doing donuts inLamborghinis,and hedonist escapades with voluptuous models instead of using their craft for a more righteous higher calling — one that is laden with social consciousness and knowledge. Of course, you can do both.Tupacwrote“Keep Ya Head Up”and“I Get Around,”but I’ll admit I don’t have the right amount of adequate genius to master that duality. So, I have to pick one or the other. I’m almost certain that this decision will squander my champagne-soaked fantasies of winning the covetedJames Beard Award.My mind is constantly drifting off 164 miles down the coast toGadsden Wharf,where theInternational African American Museumis under construction and I’m still weary, skeptical that this is just another way for theCity of Charlestonto exploit Black people. Again. The deadline I gave Robert Moss is looming and since I can’t muster a single paragraph about my infatuation with Tom Kha Talay, I owe him an apology in the form of a proper Eastern North Carolina barbecue lunch fromJackson’s Big Oak BBQand at least a one-and-a-half-ounce pour of 15-year-oldPappy Van Winkle.
I still pinch myself, knowing I can randomly textChef Joshua Walkerto pick his brain about okonomiyaki or nuances of rendang curry. And I'm flattered knowing thatNikko CagalanfromMansueta's Filipino Foodwants to spoil me with sisig and ube ice cream when he finds out I’m in town. Lord willing, one day my daughter can be proud, knowing that her father, ruptured the status quo, being the first Black person in the history of Charleston to write about food on a high level and consistent basis, and I hope she realizes she was right there with me, eating fried chicken wings from Hot Mustard while I jotted first drafts of articles in worn-out composition notebooks. I completed the mission I set out for myself back in Chattanooga in the lobby of theRead House Hotel.I wanted to write about food in Charleston. But none of that remotely compares to the feeling of hanging out in front ofEastSide Soul Foodwith Owner, Brooks, and having a local activist notice me from across the street, dap me up, and let me know my other writing about socially conscious issues plaguing Charleston have inspired him. Or when a grizzled veteran journalist likeBarney Blakeney,with almost 50 years of experiences calls me to remind me that I’m the future and that somebody needs to tell the truth. I realize that if I keep writing about food in Charleston (or anywhere for that matter) I’m doing absolutely nothing to squash that “it’s summertime and living is easy” narrative of the white leisure class, lollygagging in a perpetual jubilee, valet parking to eat fried chicken atLeon’s Oyster Shopafter giggling their way through goat yoga.
I could feel the spirit of James Baldwin chasing me, chomping at the bit like a crazed thoroughbred ready to trample me if I didn’t use my pen, my voice, my God-given talent to illuminate the perils, the plight of Black people in this country or at least Charleston, South Carolina.
No! I didn’t play varsity football atBurke,I don’t listen toPachino Dinoor callNike Air Force Ones“Willie D’s.” I’ve just found out what “binyah” meant, and I still prefer a good jollof rice over red rice. But whether I’m from the 843 or the 910 I’m still black, and I’m obligated to write for Black Charlestonians — not the ones that have been broadcast like the plump mammy gleefully humming gospel hymns as she tends to a pot of perloo, or a slave on an auction block quivering with fear and uncertainty. I mean the guy mopping the floors atA.W. Shuck’s,the lady with the gold teeth selling weave out of a minivan behind the laundromat on Rutledge Avenue, the ones on the fringes, or was we call it in my culture, “the trenches,” because if I don't, who will?
This is my purpose. I’m not wasting air. Anymore.