Historian releases fuller version of Nat Fuller biography

A hallway in the Charleston Renaissance Gallery was once a kitchen. The gallery, once a restaurant, was the setting for Nat Fuller's reunification banquet and will be the setting for the reenactment of the dinner. Paul Zoeller/Staff

Nat Fuller, who masterminded the interracial banquet that helped set a civil course for post-Civil War Charleston, is remembered as the "renowned presiding genius" of nineteenth-century Charleston cuisine. But details of Fuller's enslavement and apprenticeship were largely forgotten until University of South Carolina professor David Shields started poking through the archives.

In advance of a recreation of Fuller's groundbreaking meal, Shields has assembled the first complete biographical sketch of Fuller. Since sharing a broad outline of his life with The Post and Courier for a feature about the upcoming event, Shields has fleshed out Fuller's story to include his parentage, manumission and training.

Born on a St. Andrews plantation in 1812, Fuller was the son of a planter and an enslaved woman. Around 1819, he was sold to the Daniel Stevens, and then sold again at the age of 14. According to Shields, Stevens found Fuller "unsuitable." He was sold at a sheriff's auction in 1827 to William Gatewood, an energetic young businessman who arranged for Fuller to be trained as a butler and cook.

"Gatewood needed a cook in order to do the sort of entertaining expected of someone making their way in Charleston's arcane social world," Shields writes.

Fuller was apprenticed to Eliza Lee, a caterer and restaurateur whose mother was a freedwoman trained by a London-based pastry chef. The first year of his four-year apprenticeship likely involved hauling wood; chopping vegetables; grocery shopping and cleaning. He would later learn to make dough; cook meat; prepare sauces and bake pastries.

After completing his formal apprenticeship, Fuller continued to work for Lee; in the late 1840s, he married one of her pastry cooks, Dianne.

Shields notes that Fuller's tastes diverged slightly from those of his teacher. Lee liked parsnips; Fuller didn't. Lee broiled fish, while Fuller poached or fried it. And Fuller had a fondness for veal and catsup that Lee didn't share. Overall, though, his techniques reflected Lee's instruction. (He may have also learned the art of confectionary sculpture from the Mills House's chef: For a Memphis and Charleston Railroad banquet, he concocted a meringue-and-nougat set piece with "barrels of rice and barrels of cotton.")

In 1852, Fuller gained his freedom. He opened a meat stand in the market, advertising "turkeys, pheasants, grouse and capons." He presented his first meal as a caterer in 1855, probably borrowing china and flatware from Lee to serve the South Carolina Medical Society. Two years later, he "consciously put himself forward as the person best suited and equipped (thanks to a shipment of European tableware) to cater 'public and private parties'," many of which were held at his 68 King St. venue.

But the location wasn't conducive to running a restaurant, so Fuller in 1860 opened The Bachelor's Retreat at the corner of Church Street and St. Michael's Alley, overtly appealing to men who sought refuge from domestic life. Health problems forced Fuller to take an extended sabbatical in 1863; the building was auctioned off the following year.

In early 1865, Fuller returned to the building on Church Street, but focused exclusively on catering. He also hosted the legendary dinner "that became famous for its novelty, splendor, and audacity," Shields writes. "In certain respects, it marked the end of the war and the beginning of the new civil order."

The restaging of the reconciliation banquet is scheduled for Apr. 19. No tickets will be sold, but the organizing committee is extending invitations to winners of an essay contest administered by The Post and Courier. If you'd like to apply, send an essay of no more than 600 words to hraskin@postandcourier.com, outlining why you deserve a seat at the table and referencing the ideals of hospitality, culinary community and social justice embodied by Fuller and his feast.

Last batch of rules: Entrants must be 16 years or older; joint entries are verboten; and the invite is non-transferable. The deadline is Jan. 30.