No one mentioned the name Walter Scott during the speeches and toasts at the Nat Fuller Feast in Charleston on April 19th. No one needed to. When Chef Kevin Mitchell alluded in his welcoming remarks to “the troubles of the past few weeks,” we all knew what he was talking about. We were gathered in the Long Room upstairs at McCrady’s Restaurant, where George Washington once dined. Two tables filled the room, 40 attendees at each, a hand-picked collection of scholars, politicians, food and beverage pros, writers, and community activists. Six of the diners had been selected by composing the top entries in an essay contest.
It was a recreation of a very special and unusual event that had occurred 150 years before, and the central theme — reconciliation between two long-divided communities — seemed all too relevant.
A promise of civility
In the 19th century, Nat Fuller was the most celebrated cook and restaurateur in Charleston. His restaurant, the Bachelor’s Retreat, was famed for its pastries and its roasted game and meats. When it came time for a banquet or ball, the city’s most prominent associations and corporations — the Chamber of Commerce, the Charleston Light Dragoons, the St. Cecilia Society — called on Nat Fuller to cater it.
The surprising part of the story is that Fuller was an African-American man, and until February 1865 he was a slave.
That changed when the mayor of Charleston surrendered the city to Union forces on February 18, 1865, and three days later the African-American troops of the Massachusetts 55th Regiment entered the city. That April, after the war had ended, Fuller invited a slate of prominent citizens, both white and black, to a celebratory banquet at the Bachelor’s Retreat.
One grand dame of old Charleston society contemptuously labeled it “a miscegenat dinner, at which blacks and whites sat on equality and gave toasts and sang songs for Lincoln and Freedom.” But other prominent white Charlestonians took their seats at table, and for the first time dined side-by-side with Holy City citizens of color — some long part of the free elite, others newly emancipated. It heralded, in the words of University of South Carolina professor and dinner chair Dr. David Shields, “a new kind of civil society and promised a new grounds of civility.”
Shields, a leading authority on Lowcountry culinary history, spearheaded the recreation of Nat Fuller’s long-forgotten feast and also staged an online exhibition on Fuller’s legacy, which is hosted by the Lowcountry Digital History Initiative.
Kevin Mitchell, an instructor at the Culinary Institute of Charleston, took on the role of Nat Fuller for the event as planner, host, and leader of the kitchen. BJ Dennis, himself a noted local chef and caterer, played the role of Tom R. Tully, Fuller’s protégé and successor, who assisted him at the original feast.
A thunderstorm rolled in as guests gathered for cocktails at Charleston Renaissance Gallery, which occupies the Church Street building that once housed the Bachelor’s Retreat. We sipped smashes made with High Wire Distilling’s heirloom Bradford watermelon brandy and persimmon beer from Freehouse Brewery, an oddly astringent but satisfying brew. The beer paired quite nicely with Dennis’s hors d’oeuvres, which included smoked tongue and chow chow atop warm rice bread and triangles of brioche topped with foie gras mousse and strawberry jam.
At 7 p.m. we stepped out into the still wet streets amid the the flashing of blue police lights, pre-arranged escorts to block off the streets. The grand procession, led by Joseph McGill and his company of 54th Massachusetts Regiment reenactors, made its way straight down the middle of Broad Street then snaked around the corner and down Unity Alley to McCrady’s, where Chef Sean Brock and the feast awaited.
I expected the food to be excellent, and I wasn’t disappointed. Even more enjoyable was the conversation. We talked about Southern food, the close connection between Charleston and New Orleans cuisines, about our favorite barbecue joints and memories of old Lowcountry dining. We didn’t talk of traffic stops for broken taillights or the mechanics of school funding, all the sobering evidence that, despite the great progress made just within my own lifetime, we still have a long, long way to go.
“My work has always been to supply the bread and salt that makes peace break out,” Kevin Mitchell said. It wasn’t clear whether he was speaking in his own voice or that of Nat Fuller’s, but it would work either way.
But I knew all of those things going in. What the Nat Fuller Feast precipitated for me — both at the event itself as well the reading and research that Shields’ work had inspired in advance — was the realization that, despite decades of efforts to correct long-standing gaps and outright falsehoods, we are still getting an awful lot of Southern culinary history dead wrong.
An authentic Southern cuisine
If you told someone today that you were planning an authentic Southern feast, I doubt they would envision anything served at the commemorative Nat Fuller dinner, which included silver pitchers of walnut ketchup and Worcestershire anchovy sauce. A splendidly tender poached bass, a ramekin of shrimp pie bursting with fragrant herbs. Capon chasseur, venison with currant demi-glace, squab with truffle sauce.
You won’t find such dishes amid the fried chicken and pimento cheese at the hottest new Southern eatery. Apart from an obligatory platter of Carolina Gold Rice, the closest thing you might peg as Southern were the collards, and even those were prepared as fermented “collard kraut.”
But the fare was thoroughly authentic. The menu for the original feast does not survive, but every single dish served appeared on the menus for other functions Nat Fuller catered. And, as Mitchell put it, they were “served true to the style of his banquets.” That means Russian service, with dozens of waiters and waitresses in a highly orchestrated dance, delivering bowls of relish and vegetables and dishing fish, poultry, and meat courses tableside from platters.
Fuller had mastered what was considered at the time the highest of the culinary arts: European-style sauces, roast meats and game, and, more than anything, pastry. Fuller was known in particular for his pièces montée — ornate edible sculptures of clipper ships at sea and railroad cars crossing the bridge on the newly completed Memphis to Charleston line.
Fuller was just one of many famous 19th century African-American restaurateurs and caterers. Richmond had John Dabney and Fields Cook. Augusta had Lexius Henson, and Baltimore had Henry Jakes and BF Simms — names that have been almost lost to history.
We’ve always known that much of the cooking in the American South was performed by black hands. What we’ve forgotten is that in the 19th century African Americans were not just doing the hard labor at the South’s finest restaurants — splitting wood, preparing vegetables, butchering meat — but were in fact running the entire show.
It’s a new chapter in a story we’ve been rewriting for decades. For far too long Southern culinary history has been warped by the pernicious notion that African-Americans were brought to the New World as empty vessels, hands that could be taught and groomed by Europeans but possessing no culinary knowledge or traditions of value of their own.
We were told that rice seed was brought to the Lowcountry by a white sea captain, and white planters taught their slaves to grow it. That boiled peanuts were invented by hungry Confederate soldiers during the Civil War. That gumbo evolved as a variation of bouillabaisse, the classic fish stew from Provence, when it is unequivocally a traditional African dish. (The very name is taken from gombo, the word for okra in multiple west African languages.)
To the extent that African Americans were allowed any contributions to our culinary history, it was attributed to their possessing a mystical natural talent for cooking. Hence Dorothy Dix’s explanation in her introduction to The Gourmet’s Guide to New Orleans (1933) of how the city’s cookery came to be: “Founded originally on the French cuisine, it was pepped up, so to speak, by the Spanish, given body and strength by the New England influence, a bit of warmth by the hot breads of Virginia, and finally glorified by the touch of the old Negro mammies who boasted that they had only to pass their hands over a pot to give it a flavor that would make your mouth water.”
In recent years, food historians have been steadily chipping away at such nonsense and establishing the vital African influence on Southern foodways. The focus, though, has tended to be on everyday cooking — “soul food,” if you will. (I had the good fortune to be seated next to the culinary historian Michael Twitty at the banquet, and he pointed out that the term originated in the north after the Great Migration. To people in the South it was just “food”.)
The story of Nat Fuller pulls back the curtain on a whole new aspect of the African-American culinary experience, and it underscores the fact that the current divides we are witnessing in society at large are stubbornly persistent in the culinary world, too.
Martha Lou’s Kitchen and Bertha’s Kitchen are rightly celebrated as local treasures, but there is still a sharp divide between fine dining and, call it what you will, vernacular cuisine, soul food, or whatever. Our finest restaurant kitchens are staffed by people of color, but those running the show — the general managers, the executive chefs — much less those that get their faces on TV and their every move documented breathlessly on Twitter — are still overwhelmingly white.
But perhaps we are poised for a change.
The great Southern culinary masters
The story of Fuller and his fellow caterers is about far more than just talent for cooking. They were masters of logistics, management, and marketing.
As we sat down at the feast table and perused the menu, one of my fellow guests asked a perceptive question: “How on earth could Nat Fuller have gotten his hands on all this food? It was right at the end of the Civil War!” And it was indeed a staggering array of provisions: two soups, four relishes, three fish dishes, three birds (capon, duck, and squab) and three meats (venison, lamb, and beef), not to mention seven vegetable dishes to go alongside.
Fuller, it turns out, was very well connected. He got his start as a culinary professional selling game imported from New York, and he developed a network of trusted suppliers, some of whom served on the supply staff of the Union Army, which allowed him to obtain meats and vegetables even during the wartime blockade when most of the city was subsisting on rice and beans.
A great caterer had to be a skilled manager, too. “You must not only master the art of cooking,” Mitchell writes in his reflections on Fuller’s repertoire, which were distributed to the guests at the feast. “But you must also be a master of people and timing. A caterer must have a great eye for detail, the ability to manage many people cooking many different items, both hot and cold, whether cooking for 20 or 600.”
The great 19th century caterers were also masters of public relations. John Dabney, Fuller’s counterpart in Richmond, was famous for his turtle soup, and he periodically staged soup feasts to draw patrons to the Ballard House’s bar room. Each time he did, he made sure to provide a few samples for the working press.
In 1859, for instance, he sent a tray with a large bowl of soup and three mint juleps to the editorial room of the Richmond Whig. The editors, in turn, published a glowing endorsement of Dabney’s handiwork, declaring “no two compounds intended for the regalement of the inner man, deserved a higher rank.” They surely would have tweeted pictures if they could.
For many of the South’s great caterers, a career in the culinary arts was a path not just to fame but also to wealth and even freedom. Many were working under the illegal but widely practiced “self-hire” system, in which enslaved persons hired themselves out to employers, sharing a portion of their wages with their owners and keeping the rest for themselves. In Richmond, Fields Cook had purchased his freedom by 1850. John Dabney used the money he earned running hotel kitchens to purchase his wife’s freedom, and he was in the process of paying installments toward his own liberty when Emancipation came.
Tom R. Tully went on to become Charleston’s most noted caterer after Fuller’s death in 1866, and he trained an entire generation of African-American chefs who led the kitchens at Charleston’s best hotels straight into the 20th century. That legacy was carried on by William Deas, the inventor of Charleston’s signature she-crab soup, who transitioned from a career cooking in the homes of the city’s elite white families to being the head chef at Everett’s Restaurant. And somehow we forgot all of that.
Reconciliation at the Table
To sit at the table and break bread together is one path to reconciliation. So is being prompted to look at a whole new facet of history you didn’t even know existed. It’s unconscionable that it’s taken so long, that the promise glimpsed on that April night 150 years ago flickered out so quickly as the South lapsed into the Jim Crow darkness. It can’t take another 150 years, or even 50 or 10. Though I hope the Nat Fuller Feast becomes an annual tradition, it shouldn’t take another year just to sit down and talk.
Fuller and Tully mastered the highest culinary art of their age. For contemporary chefs like Mitchell and Dennis, it opens a world of possibilities, too. Nothing. — not the simplest okra soup nor the most ornate sauces and pastries — is off limits.
At end of the dinner, Dennis took the microphone for his closing remarks. I have spoken with him on many occasions, but the way he spoke that night was different than I had heard him before.
It was the rapid, rolling accent of someone born and raised in the Gullah-Geechee Lowcountry — the same voice, I can only assume, that he uses when speaking to his grandparents, the same way I used to slip into a different voice when visiting my father’s family in small-town Georgia. Which is to say, the voices we use when we’re just talking and no longer playing a role.
“This is the beginning for all of us,” Dennis said. “We’re coming.” Keep the City Paper free We don't have a paywall. Each week's printed issue is free. We're local, independent and free. Let's keep it this way. Please consider a donation of $100 to keep the City Paper free. Donate: chscp.us
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