Alluette Jones-Smalls, one of Charleston’s leading African-American chefs, doesn’t remember anyone in the community ever talking about Nat Fuller. Julia-Ellen Craft Davis, who serves on the boards of the Avery Institute of Afro-American History and Culture and the Preservation Society of Charleston, had never come across the man’s name either.
“Even my brother, Alphonso Brown, who does Gullah Tours, had never heard of him,” says Shelia Anderson, one of six essay contest winners invited to a lavish banquet celebrating the 19th-century caterer. “It is amazing. We didn’t know. We didn’t know.”
Fuller, as University of South Carolina professor David Shields discovered when he started poking around newspaper archives in an attempt to document the lively Charleston food scene that unfolded outside of antebellum home kitchens, was an exceptionally accomplished chef. Born into slavery in 1812, Fuller apprenticed with Eliza Seymour Lee, a restaurateur who took advantage of her talents and newly affordable loaf sugar to produce sophisticated marmalades, cakes and pies. Before his death in 1866, Fuller trained Tom Tully, preserving a local line of succession for African-American chefs that stretched from the 1790s until the start of World War I.
Over the course of his career, Fuller mastered the art of constructing diorama-type scenes out of candy, popularized cocktails in Charleston and emerged as the favored caterer of the city’s white society clubs. In the midst of the Civil War, he overcame ingredient-sourcing challenges posed by the blockade to serve calf head soup, turtle steaks, oyster pies and plum puddings at his restaurant on Church Street. “People love virtuosity,” Shields says of Fuller’s allure.
But the reason 80 people gathered Sunday at McCrady’s restaurant for the Nat Fuller Feast was to commemorate just one of the many dinners Fuller hosted. In April 1865, Fuller invited blacks and whites to join together for a reconciliation meal at which they raised glasses to freedom and the future. At the event’s re-creation, a similarly integrated group did the same.
“It’s not only important we’ve done this because of what happened 150 years ago, but especially because of what happened last week,” historian Damon Fordham said when guests were asked to offer toasts. “It was needed 150 years ago, and it is needed today.”
Fordham was the first participant to openly acknowledge Walter Scott’s killing. “I couldn’t let it go,” he said as a corps of Culinary Institute of Charleston students bustled through the Long Room with dessert plates. “Due to more economic than social reasons today, this kind of dinner is still rare in Charleston.”
The impulse to tackle societal problems at the table — to combat injustice with “novelty, splendor and audacity,” as Fuller’s biography describes his landmark dinner — has never faded. But as Fuller’s story shows, many of the humanitarian efforts headquartered in kitchens and dining rooms didn’t make it into history books. Now, as historians begin to remove the blinders of bigotry, more such true tales are likely to surface, leaving it up to contemporary eaters to figure out how to memorialize critical culinary moments.
It’s an issue that isn’t restricted to the food sphere. Yale University professor David Blight in 2001 stumbled upon a mention of the nation’s first Decoration Day occurring in the present-day Hampton Park on Charleston’s upper peninsula. “No one who saw it could have ever forgotten it,” he said Sunday, speaking after a memorial service for the Civil War dead. “But it vanished from the public memory.” After Blight documented his finding, it took almost a decade for the city to install a plaque acknowledging the 10,000 former slaves who gathered to give Union soldiers a proper funeral.
“It’s not very visible,” Blight said of the small marker, partially obscured by foliage. Still, “you need something physical around which to consolidate memory.”
As of yet, there is no tangible monument to Fuller or his feast. At the same time that historians started asking new questions about the Civil War experience, popular taste shifted away from marble columns and statues. On Monday, though, Charleston County Public Library historian Nic Butler revealed he’d located Fuller’s burial place on Heriot Street. “I’ve been by this site many times before without knowing about Nat Fuller’s amazing story, so I’ll take a closer look when next I’m in his neighborhood,” Butler wrote on his blog. “Perhaps one day there will be a marker in his honor at this old, forgotten site.”
Rather than lobby for a plaque at the Charleston Renaissance Gallery, located in the building that housed Fuller’s restaurant, feast organizers focused on developing a Culinary Institute of Charleston scholarship and a curatorial fellowship at the McKissick Museum at the University of South Carolina in Fuller’s name. They commissioned Jonathan Green to paint a portrait that will be reproduced. And they threw out the idea of the Nat Fuller Feast to anyone who might want to stage a similar event.
Dinners have already been held in Clinton, Columbia and New Hampshire.“One of the things I don’t want to do is to take proprietary control,” Shields says. “I want people to do what they will.”
In Charleston, the party started at the Charleston Renaissance Gallery, which filled with guests even before the announced start time of 6 p.m. (When an event occurs just once every 150 years, tardiness is unthinkable.) The selection process, headed up by the College of Charleston’s Simon Lewis, was meritocratic. Invitees were chosen partly because of their achievements, but perhaps more so because of their beliefs: Every writer, historian, community activist, politician and food producer in the room had demonstrated faith in the potential of reconciliation.
Guests weren’t issued name tags, so they made their own introductions over Freehouse Brewery’s persimmon beer and smashes featuring High Wire Distilling Co.’s Bradford watermelon brandy. Food-and-beverage industry members, accustomed to seeing the same crowd at every food-themed event, estimated they recognized fewer than one-quarter of the attendees.
BJ Dennis prepared the hors d’oeuvres, including crescent-shaped chicken pies and springtime brioche smeared with foie gras mousse, strawberry jam and pickled ramps. There was rice bread overlaid with tingly chow chow and sheer slices of smoked tongue that chef Valerie Erwin, late of Geechee Girl Cafe, admiringly compared to the best fried bologna she’d ever tasted.
“All of the dishes you taste tonight come from (Fuller’s) repertoire and are served true to the style of his banquets,” chef Kevin Mitchell told guests after they proceeded down a set of closed streets to McCrady’s, led by Joseph McGill’s band of re-enactors.
Mitchell’s mother drove from New Jersey to claim her seat at one of the two room-long tables, draped in white tablecloths and set with red blossoms, silver candelabras and tall flutes of Champagne, a beverage that first reached the U.S. during Fuller’s lifetime. In addition to overseeing the preparation of the dinner, Mitchell played the host role pioneered by Fuller.
“I think he might have said, ‘All things are ready: Come and feast,’ ” Mitchell said in his short opening address, vacillating between his voice and Fuller’s. “These have not been hospitable times. But it’s an ancient custom that once people break bread, they shall do each other no harm.”
Mitchell and Dennis were joined in the kitchen by Sean Brock, Forrest Parker of Old Village Post House and 18 Culinary Institute of Charleston students. Department head Mike Carmel called the event a tremendous opportunity for the future chefs. “It’s a historic event,” he said.
Dinner began with a meaty turtle soup and delicate chowder occupied by plump oysters, trailed by a diverting shrimp pie. Instead of larding the table with heaping platters of fish, meats and vegetables, as might have happened in Fuller’s day, servers dosed each guest’s plate with wieldy portions of fried whiting and poached bass, followed by capon, duck and squab and ending with beef, lamb and venison.
As nearby diners sampled the sauces on the table, parsing the differences between Worcestershire anchovy sauce and walnut ketchup, Craft Davis murmured, “This is going to be over before I want it to be over.”
The end arrived with Charlotte russe and pineapple ice cream. But as Dennis, designated the spiritual heir of Fuller’s protegee Tom Tully, said in his toast, “This is the beginning for all us. We coming, that’s all.”