Charleston changed Kevin Mitchell. The chef instructor at Trident Tech's Culinary Institute of Charleston (CIC) wasn't thinking much about the culinary journey of African Americans when he began his career. But now he has a master's degree in Southern Studies from the University of Mississippi and a mission to use his knowledge to broaden his teaching and continue to delve into the story of enslaved cooks. That wouldn't have happened if his career hadn't brought him to Charleston.
As a student at the Culinary Institute of America back in the '90s, the New Jersey native planned to be the next Thomas Keller or Emeril Lagasse. When the Food Network was busily launching celebrity chefs, "Southern food was a non-factor," he says.
After living and working in Atlanta and Detroit, he came to Charleston 10 years ago for a job at CIC. His first project was testing recipes for Charlotte Jenkins' "Gullah Cuisine: By Land and By Sea."
"It reminded me of my grandma's food," says Mitchell, who first learned to cook with that grandmother, a North Carolina native. "I wanted to know more, and I looked around and said where are the black chefs?" He was one of the very few in Charleston.
In 2015, he was tapped by University of South Carolina professor David Shields to play the role of Nat Fuller, a mid-nineteenth-century Charleston's leading caterer, at the Nat Fuller Feast. (Full disclosure: I was hired as a consultant to plan that event).
Fuller, born into slavery, had been trained by Eliza Seymour Lee, the free black daughter of Sally Seymour. Both women were well known for being accomplished pastry cooks.
Shields found what he believed to be evidence of an interracial dinner hosted after the Civil War by Fuller to celebrate the end of the war. Scholar Ethan Kytle of California State University of Fresno contends that the dinner was a myth and took issue with the scholarship. Regardless of whether the 1865 feast took place or not, the reenactment at McCrady's pushed Mitchell to pursue a master's in Southern Studies at the University of Mississippi, and to dive deeper into the history of people like Fuller and Lee.
He successfully defended his thesis, titled "From Black Hands to White Mouths: Charleston's freed and enslaved cooks and their influence on the food of the South," this past May, and hopes to expound on it with further exploration of the newspaper notices that advertised cooks for sale.
By reading advertisements for enslaved cooks, Mitchell discovered the hierarchy of cooking skills, from the most skilled pastry chef of Charleston to the plain cook of the plantation house.
Of the 100 ads for enslaved cooks that he pored over, Mitchell found only one that named a specific price: $1,400 or $26,494.86 in today's money. The ad was for a "negro wench, about 33 years old, a complete cook in the French and English style, a washer, ironer and clear starcher; and her 2 sons. One seven, and the other five years old."
He also found in the ads for these cooks a distinction between the sale of "negro women" and "negro wenches," leading him to the unpleasant reality of enslaved women being sexually exploited. Not only were they advertised for cooking skills and the ability to sew and iron, but words like "prime" and "young" were used to signal their desirability.
In his thesis, he also acknowledges appropriation, and whether white chefs cooking food created by blacks is cultural theft. It's a prickly patch that he sidesteps, writing: "Food is something that is universal and it should be celebrated, not fought over."
Mitchell ultimately finds the history of blacks in the kitchens of America to be "tragic and beautiful all at the same time."
Now that he's completed his degree, he is planning a course at CIC that will explore cooking the food of the South. "I want to take my students on this journey through the South," he says. "And it's not just about Gullah. It's about the Mississippi Delta where tamales are considered Southern food. I'm hoping that this experience broadens my approach in teaching."
He also hopes to see a place where the story of Charleston's enslaved and free black cooks can be told. In Charleston, where the International African American Museum is currently under way, he thinks that'd be the perfect place for an exhibit on the subject, and perhaps he'd be just the person to help put that together.