February 2016

Cooks and Books Celebrates 10 Years of Literacy in the Lowcountry

Author: Joe Nehilia | Photographer: M.Kat Photography

Reading is a ticket to Budapest and puts you in the front seat on a rocket to the moon launching from China. It builds human dignity and builds self reliance. Literacy makes all things possible to all people—the great equalizer. For more than 40 years, The Literacy Center, formerly know as the Literacy Volunteers of the Lowcountry, has been handing the keys to self-respect over to thousands of local men, women, and now children.

Marking its tenth anniversary this year, Cooks & Books, the Lowcountry’s premier event for supporting literacy, takes place February 28, from 11 a.m.-2 p.m. at the Hilton Head Marriott Resort and Spa. Over a dozen of the area’s best restaurants and 18 Lowcountry authors showcase their skill and interact with supporters. The event offers an author meet-and-greet, and 1,000 carefully prepared delectable bites from each participating restaurant. Chefs also compete in a competition entitled “The Heat is On,” and authors share their secrets to composing great works. There’s little wonder why Cooks & Books has become a staple in the community for those supporting literacy.

Prior to the signature event, a special gala dinner will be held on February 18, with a sumptuous feast prepared by TidePointe, a Vi community’s award-winning chef Stephen Stewart. The gala event includes an open bar and exciting silent and live auctions.

To celebrate the tenth anniversary, we decided to find out from some notable locals what their favorite books were and why they felt so strongly about literacy in the Lowcountry. Local and national leaders are well aware that literacy is a keystone to being a successful member of society. It’s difficult to run a company without being able to read the contract. There are significant challenges to rearing children if you can’t comfortably pick up a book and read them a bedtime story or help with homework. These frustrations lead many to low-paying jobs, cycles of dependency, poor health, and low school achievement.

When living in such a beautiful community with wonderful neighbors, it may seem that literacy issues do not touch the area. Most people are startled to learn that more than one in every 10 adults in Beaufort County and one in four in Jasper County are low literate. ProLiteracy (an international non-profit that supports people and programs that help adults learn to read and write) suggests that over $230 billion is added annually to health care costs due to individuals who struggle with literacy.

This is what spurred a group of women who called themselves the “Friends of Literacy” to put on the first Cooks & Books event in 2006. Each year, they one-upped themselves, bringing in more restaurants and prolific Lowcountry authors to raise funds to support tutoring in math and basic literacy programs in our area.


Stephen Stewart, Executive Chef at Tide Point
Favorite book: Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil

Chef Stewart of TidePointe said, “I can’t give you one favorite book. When I was 20 and avante garde it was Crime and Punishment. When I was 30 and much wiser and mature, it was Atlas Shrugged. When I was an accomplished CEC at 40, it was Kitchen Confidential, and now that I’m over 50 and looking at my tenth year with Cooks and Books, it’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.”

Stewart is a luddite. No cell phone, Facebook, or Snapchat for him. He said he reads his Bible daily and likes a pencil and legal pad for notes. He loves sharing the joy of literacy and said, “Give a man a fish and he is fed for a day, teach a man to fish and he won’t be hungry in the future.”

This made us wonder about that expression. Turns out it is from a story titled Mrs. Dymond, written by Anne Isabella Ritchie in the 1880s. The story contained this bit of prose:

“He certainly doesn’t practise his precepts, but I suppose the patron meant that if you give a man a fish he is hungry again in an hour; if you teach him to catch a fish you do him a good turn.”

Literacy influences every aspect of our lives. Many individuals would likely identify the Bible as their favorite book. Like Stewart, Hilton Head Island Mayor David Bennett said he reads from the Good Book daily. Mayor Bennett shared his favorite verse:

“My favorite verse about this subject is Second Timothy 3:16 in the New Living Translation which states: ‘All scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right.’

“It is obvious that today’s world revolves around the influence of literacy. Being literate allows an individual who wants to improve their life to obtain and continuously upgrade their skills by staying informed, not only in their area of interest, but also about the world around them through reading,” Bennett said.

Local radio personality Monty Jett favors a lighter read from his youth, Catcher in the Rye. Jett said he loves to read and counts down the days to devour new releases from many of his favorite contemporary authors, but that it was his sixth grade school assignment that stayed with him.

Coming from a background of being touched by reading in his youth, Jett feels strongly about literacy and the impact the Literacy Center has had over its 40-year history. “Thanks to the work of The Literacy Center, 11,000 people have been helped to learn reading, writing and basic math skills. This enables them to find and keep jobs which leads to better health and a better economy for our environment. More important, it helps them teach their children these vital life skills. I’m fascinated by how these new skills help them to dream big.”

“Literacy has been great for my community. It has helped so many Hispanics to adapt themselves to our way of living in America. That means a lot to me since I’m Hispanic and I know how hard it is to come to a new country without speaking the language,” said Carolos Tovar-Rojas, assistant vice president of TD Bank. “I love reading because it entertains, cultivates, and makes me feel like I’m doing something productive on a regular basis. My favorite book is Cien Anos de Soledad (100 Years of Solitude) as it tells the story of a family through six generations and 100 years.”

A few local leaders who are intimately aware of the power of The Literacy Center also shared their favorites. Jane and Tom Upshaw have been supporters of the organization for years, including a tenure by Jane on the board. Jane said the “one-on-one model allows each client to learn at his or her pace and bases the learning experience on a personal level.” She recalls fondly the first time she read To Kill a Mockingbird, whereas Tom’s favorite book remains Gone with the Wind.

Incoming Literacy Center board chairman Jim Bannon preferred a more contemporary piece of nonfiction literature, Confederates in the Attic. He might differ in his book selection, but not his love of Cooks & Books and the importance of literacy. “Literacy is the bedrock of any civilization… Being able to have fun around delicious food, highlighting local chefs, promoting local authors, all while raising critically needed funds and being able to share our love of reading with the community is what makes Cooks and Books a worthy event.”

Local Gullah leader and owner of the Gullah Heritage Tours Emory Campbell offered his perspective on The Literacy Center. “The Literacy Center is one of the most essential agencies in the region for helping to ‘level the socio economic playing field.’ Tom Friedman’s bestselling book The World is Flat is predicated largely on a theory that if literacy is common in the world’s population, a more equal and harmonious world would be possible.”

“Growing up on then-isolated Hilton Head Island in the 1940s and 1950s, I became enthralled by the Brooklyn Dodgers major league baseball team. My boyhood dream was to become a professional baseball player, and I spent most of my meager spare time trying to hone my baseball skills. I believe that is why I favor Boys of Summer more than any other book I’ve read.

I became deeply curious about the character of Dodger team members. Of course Jackie Robinson was my most idolized member, but I also wondered about the personality of Pee Wee Reese, Gil Hodges, Roy Campanella, and Jackie’s other tremendously talented teammates. In those days, radio and the Sunday issue of the Savannah Morning News sports page were the way for me to regularly experience baseball games. It was not until the late 1950s that television became a more common household item in Gullah homes on Hilton Head Island.

“Thank goodness I could read, Campbell continued. “Kahn related his childhood memories of the 1950s Dodgers that paralleled my childhood and thoroughly satisfied my intellectual curiosity about my childhood idols.

“I think Cooks & Books is a remarkable, unique event that brings people together for the purpose of advancing the community through literacy. The ten-year milestone is a commendable achievement. Food and books go hand-in-hand, and I think the event provides a great opportunity to promote the diversity of our Lowcountry and the effort to make it ‘flat,’” Campbell added.

We could not agree more. 

For tickets to the gala event or more information regarding the Cooks and Books celebration or The Literacy Center, visit theliteracycenter.org or call (843) 815-6616.

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