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Reckoning with the legacy of Jestine's Kitchen, and the black cook storyline at its center

Slice of cake from Jestine's Kitchen

Provided/Cynthia Donovan

Jestine’s Kitchen, which on Thursday closed after 24 years of magnetizing tourists to the corner of Meeting and Wentworth streets, will in the short term be remembered for its fried chicken, Coca-Cola cake and crab cakes that made a regular customer of Jelani Cobb when The New Yorker writer was in town to cover the trial of mass murderer Dylann Roof.

In the long run, though, Jestine’s Kitchen may be remembered as the last Charleston restaurant to openly capitalize on a narrative of black servitude.

To be clear, Jestine’s did not shut down because its owners felt “a responsibility to take a stand in putting an end to racial bias,” as the makers of Uncle Ben’s this week said when announcing the rice’s evolution. Nor did the closure result from a desire to recognize its brand’s “origins are based on a racial stereotype,” as the company behind Aunt Jemima’s this week said when retiring the breakfast syrup’s name and imagery. Jestine’s went out of business because the coronavirus decimated its bottom line.

“With the quick onset of the scary pandemic, I have done everything from takeout to wearing a chicken suit to try and stay afloat,” owner Dana Berlin Strange explained in a Facebook post. (A representative of the restaurant did not return a message seeking further comment.)

So the end of Jestine’s, and the genuine anguish it drew forth from thousands of devoted fans, is very much emblematic of the big story of 2020. But with the closure coming one day after the city of Charleston vowed to remove John C. Calhoun’s bronze likeness from Marion Square, and one day before Juneteenth, it’s impossible not to take note of how it’s linked to the other big story, too.

Namely, as Charleston diners reckon with the legacy of Jestine’s Kitchen, apart from the quality of its food or cheeriness of its service, they have to confront how the local restaurant industry thinks about white consumerism and black labor. They have to consider, within the scope of the city’s dining rooms, how much Black Lives Matter.

A bit of background: Jestine’s Kitchen was conceived as a tribute to Jestine Matthews, who in 1928 was hired by Charleston’s Aleck Ellison as a housekeeper. She’d previously lived on Wadmalaw Island. The restaurant’s website quotes her as saying, “I don’t know if I was born there, but when I first know myself, that’s where I was living.”

Matthews was still employed by the family decades later when the Ellisons’ granddaughter would come by the house for meals. When that girl grew up and opened Jestine’s, nine years after Matthews’ death, she promised customers, “the wonderful style of home cooking and the warm atmosphere that Jestine provided.”

Provided for pay, scholars of the black experience clarify. They place Jestine’s within the class of American restaurants that welcomed white customers into the bosom of smiling and selfless domesticity as represented by a black woman (sometimes quite literally, as in the case of the extant Mammy’s Cupboard in Natchez, Miss.), without regard to the woman’s skill or need to earn a living.

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These restaurants, they say, play up and encourage white nostalgia for a time when a racial hierarchy was firmly in place.

“It’s quite relevant to the moment we’re in right now, because there’s a lot of discourse around what racism looks like,” said Naa Oyo A. Kwate, associate professor of Africana Studies and Human Ecology at Rutgers. “When we see a black man killed the way George Floyd was, in a spectacular way, it’s very clear: That’s racism.”

By contrast, Kwate continued, “People will say, ‘I love this restaurant. If anything, this is honoring (Matthews). That can’t be racist. The owners are lovely: They’re not racist.’ The owner’s personal beliefs are neither here nor there. This matters because it sheds light on what the devaluation of black lives looks like.”

Kwate last year published “Burgers in Blackface: Anti-Black Restaurants Then and Now.” On the spectrum of anti-black restaurants, she said, Jestine’s isn’t as explicitly racist or problematic as Mammy’s Kitchen or Sambo’s, which this week dropped its name after years of complaints. Still, she sees a racial dimension to the sentimental attitudes which crop up in online reviews of the restaurant.

“People are deeply invested in and enjoy all this nostalgia,” she said, pointing out there’s a reason that the restaurant is attributed to Jestine instead of a guy named Bob. “They refer to the restaurant as quaint and charming. ... The archetype of the happy domestic who has served her white bettors means something, and that’s appealing.”

Rafia Zafar, professor of English, African and African American Studies and American Culture Studies at Washington University, said, “I would find it rewarding to hear if there was some kind of connection; that it’s more than nostalgic kitsch.”

For instance, Zafar said, a restaurant could position itself as a training ground for the next generation of African American chefs, or stress the technical mastery that domestic workers historically brought to their jobs, rather than focus on its namesake’s “soul.”

That stereotype dates back centuries, she added. “If we look to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, we have at the core of it two black cooks who are brilliant chefs but seen as illiterate geniuses,” Zafar said.

“At one point, the white mistress comes to visit the cabin and she talks about making pie, and the overweight black woman says, ‘Look at your hands. It’s my big fat hands that are made to make pie crust’,” she continued. “There’s this undercutting of their intelligence.”

As people reflect on Jestine’s and its contributions to the Charleston area dining scene, Zafar hopes they won’t think only of the sweet tea and pecan pie. She hopes they will contemplate the power dynamics which led not to Matthews’ grandchildren having a restaurant with a line out of the door, but to the grandchild of her boss having one.

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

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