Charleston Chronicle columnist calls upon readers to integrate city’s fine-dining restaurants | Raskin Around

D.R.E. James wasn’t the first Charleston diner unsettled by the racial homogeneity of the city’s leading restaurants, nor was he the first to question the appropriateness of a white miller using the phrase “Geechie Boy” to sell grits. But he’s one of the few local cultural critics who’s put his concerns in print, immediately making his Charleston Chronicle column required reading for members of the food-and-beverage community.

“Unless I’m at Hannibal’s or Martha Lou’s, I don’t see anyone who resembles me,” says James, an African-American man who relocated to Charleston in part for its culinary reputation. A North Carolina native, James previously lived in Chattanooga, Tenn.

“It sat on my soul for a while,” he says of the disparities he’s witnessed. “What’s the use of being woke if I don’t tap you on your shoulder?”

James’ first column for The Charleston Chronicle, encouraged by editor Damion Smalls, grappled with the ways in which Charleston both exploits and ignores its African-American heritage. But he calls his follow-up piece, “The Fine Line,” his “coming-out party.”

“The Fine Line,” which hasn’t yet appeared in the Chronicle’s print edition, calls upon black Charlestonians to assert their right to enjoy the food and drink which have made the city famous.

“So what if we get the stank eye from the waiters?” James writes. “It’s essential that we snip that mental barbwire on the way to that bowl of cacio e pepe. I’ve for sure walked into restaurants and got that ‘who invited you?’ stare. We don’t need an invitation.”

According to James, black Charlestonians too often limit their restaurant experiences to soul food joints and Halls Chophouse. (“Don’t be lured into that Gospel Brunch,” he advises. “The Plantation Singers perform there, and I can’t get jiggy with that, or the fact Halls Chophouse is in cahoots with another restaurant called High Cotton.”) He urges his readers to think beyond large portions, and to take pride in advancing their culinary knowledge.

“I refer to it as the miseducation of the black palate,” he writes. “So what or if you don’t know ‘a la carte’ means you have pay for that creamed spinach separately? Stick around and you’ll learn that crudo means ‘raw’ and spritzy prosecco and fried calamariare as fine a tandem as a Jay-Z verse off one of Ski’s Beatz.”

While James allows people are typically reluctant to adjust eating habits, which are intensely personal, he mounted this same battle in his parents’ home and won.

“I’ve always been into food,” he says. “With my dad, I used to bring crazy craft beers from Oregon, and he’d be like ‘I’m not drinking that. I’m drinking Heineken.’”

Now, James says, his father is gradually becoming more adventurous.

Still, he’s not sure if Charlestonians will be similarly responsive. He’s gotten good feedback on his first column, but realizes some habits are ingrained. “It’s a cultural adjustment,” he says. “We’re so in a box.”

Reach Hanna Raskin at 843-937-5560 and follow her on Twitter @hannaraskin.

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