“Yes.” That was Kevin Mitchell’s answer when he was approached by food historian Dr. David Shields to take on the part of 19th century African-American chef Nat Fuller and reenact an 1865 iconic biracial banquet that took place in Charleston, South Carolina. A year later, along with key Charleston community members, Mitchell and Shields pulled off one of the most significant post-Civil War events to happen in the South—again.
Chef Nat Fuller
Nat Fuller was born in 1812 on a plantation on the Ashley River in Charleston. He was sold several times before he was bought by William Gatewood, a 20-year-old lottery agent from Virginia. At age 15, Fuller began his training as a butler and a gourmet cook, because Gatewood was interested in increasing his social standing in Charleston. Fuller apprenticed under some of the best cooks in the area. He had a talent for cooking and became a slave for hire, catering elite events in Charleston. Eventually, with financial backing from his owner, Fuller secured a building where he established his first restaurant, The Bachelor’s Retreat. In addition, he explored other ventures, such as a vendor of game, to kick-start his catering business.
When the Civil War ended, Fuller hosted a banquet, serving food many war-weary Charlestonians had not eaten in a long time. Most importantly, he invited black people and white people to sit at the same table to eat this meal and celebrate the end of the war. He brought the community together in a way that it had never been and forced the issues of the day. According to Shields, the Fuller feast helped shaped Charleston after the war.
The 2015 Fuller feast
In spring 2015, the South was preparing to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the end of the Civil War, and a group of Charleston chefs, food producers and Shields were preparing to share their story of Nat Fuller with the U.S., following a year of focused research. Mitchell worked with Charleston chefs B.J. Dennis, a local chef immersed in Gullah Geechee cuisine, and Sean Brock, chef/owner of several Southern restaurants and known for his work in preserving Southern food, to create the banquet menu by researching menus from other Fuller catering events. Unfortunately, the original menu for the 1865 banquet was lost.
The original location of The Bachelor’s Retreat still stands in downtown Charleston, but in its current use, it could not house an 80-person banquet. Instead, because Fuller was a man of several talents, mixology being one of them, a cocktail reception was hosted at the Church Street location, with cocktails such as smashes made with heritage Bradford watermelon brandy, gin with bitters and carbonated shrubs.
The bill of fare
The bill of fare featured such starters as turtle soup and oyster soup with celery, a seafood course of fried whiting, shrimp pie and poached bass, and a poultry course of capon chasseur, aged duck with Seville oranges and squab with truffle sauce. In addition, venison, lamb and beef were served.
“The types of dishes for that time would have been heavily influenced by French cuisine and chefs such as Antonin Carême,” says Mitchell, who looked at cookbooks of the era to get a better sense of how food would have been prepared and served. Food service was Russian style, which was the service style for the original Fuller feast. Sides and homemade relishes were placed on the table and passed around, while servers brought out each meat course on trays and served the guests. After each course, the table settings were removed and new settings added before the next course.
Two of the dishes served at the banquet were regional delicacies of the time period, turtle soup and shrimp pie. Mitchell had some apprehension about serving actual turtle soup and planned to serve mock turtle at the feast. But after some thought and a discussion with Shields, he changed his mind and used turtle for the reenactment feast soup. For the most part, food that is considered Southern today was not served in society at that time. Charlestonians dined on the dishes that were in style, such as duck a l’orange and charlotte russe.
Fuller was a fan of sauces and ketchups, says Mitchell. Many of his favorite sauces on his menus were served at the reenactment feast. Worcestershire anchovy, mushroom ketchup, walnut ketchup and butter caper sauce were at the table for guests to try and to add to their sides.
Volunteers and sponsors came from all over to help. Students and chef instructors from the Culinary Institute of Charleston, where Mitchell is an instructor, volunteered on the floor and in the kitchen. Forrest Parker, executive chef at Old Village Post House in Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, volunteered last-minute to help cook, one of several chefs who volunteered on the day.
The Medical Society of South Carolina and the Society of the Cincinnati of the State of South Carolina, two of Charleston’s oldest societies, put their blessing on the feast and had representatives on hand to say a few words. Fuller had catered their banquets. Several Southern food producers and foundations put their blessing on the reenactment feast and gave their support. The Lowcountry Digital History Initiative has a section of its online digital library dedicated to Nat Fuller’s story, and Mitchell and Shields will continue to add to the digital library as new information is discovered.
“The Nat Fuller feast was truly a collaborative effort,” says Mitchell. “With any event you learn collaboration, and I try to bring that spirit with me. Chefs know that they cannot prepare a meal by themselves.”
Shields and the chefs on the project worked with Stephanie Barna, Home Team PR, Charleston, to plan the event. An invitation committee identified key members of the community in religious, political, secular and educational sectors, and Barna reached out to invite the 80 guests. Most were surprised to have been chosen to be a part of the feast and recreate a moment in history.
Activism through hospitality
During the introduction at the feast, Mitchell, who played the part of Fuller, alluded to the “troubles of the past few weeks.” Guests knew that Mitchell was referring to race issues taking place in two U.S. cities, Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore, reminding attendees around the two banquet tables that the issues of 1865 Charleston are still relevant today.
“Nat Fuller was a man who used his spirit of hospitality to bring people together at a time when the environment was not conducive to do so,” said Mitchell. “With that, I truly feel he was a man of great courage.”
The original dinner ruffled many aristocratic feathers, and one woman, who wrote about the feast in her journal, called it the “miscegenation” banquet. However, the dinner created a safe space for people talk. “It’s a custom once people break bread and share salt at a table they can do no harm to each other,” said Mitchell as Nat Fuller during the reenactment.
That night, other South Carolina cities hosted Nat Fuller feasts. Columbia, Clinton and Greenville also celebrated his legacy. Mitchell hopes that this dinner will serve as inspiration to other chefs across the nation who want to be a part of change and help facilitate important conversations over food. He has always felt that the things you do should make a statement, and he believes that even though Fuller was in the business of feeding people, he still wanted to do something thought-provoking.
“It was needed 150 years ago, and it is needed today,” says Damon Fordham, a history professor/author and an attendee at the Fuller feast.
Lessons from the feast
Mitchell is an educator at heart, and this reenactment dinner feeds back to what he teaches in the classroom. He often tells his students that to look to the future, they have to spend some time in the past. “Everything we do in the kitchen today stems from something chefs did in the past,” he says. The feedback from the students is that they want to do more of these types of dinners.
Mitchell asks that chefs do some research on who Nat Fuller was as a chef and a man. Gather the right people around the table, those who exemplify the spirit of hospitality, and break bread.
“You should never be afraid to rock the boat,” Mitchell says. “Chefs have done it for years. When we move from one trend to another, we make a statement.”
The Nat Fuller team
Dr. David Shields, food historian/professor, University of South Carolina, is an author of several books on food history including Southern Provisions: The Creation & Revival of a Cuisine (University Of Chicago Press, 2015). Shields discovered Nat Fuller and oversaw the research and reenactment event. He is passionate about shining a light on forgotten events and food.
Stephanie Barna, Home Town PR, oversaw invitations and media. As former editor of Charleston City Paper, Barna knew how to tell the story to news media and has experience hosting these types of events in Charleston. She is also motivated to solving the race issues in Charleston.
Kevin Mitchell, CEC, chef instructor, Culinary Institute of Charleston, Trident Technical College, researched the food of the period and Nat Fuller’s menus to create the reenactment feast menu. Mitchell played the role of Nat Fuller during the feast. He is interested in social issues and making a difference in his community. Mitchell is president of ACF Greater Charleston South Carolina Chapter.
B.J. Dennis, personal chef/caterer, Charleston, is an expert on Gullah Geechee cuisine. He played the role of Nat Fuller’s apprentice Tom Tully at the feast, and helped develop and research the feast menu. Dennis is passionate about Lowcountry cuisine and preserving the food history of Charleston.
Sean Brock, chef/owner, McCrady’s, Charleston; Husk, Charleston and Nashville, Tennessee; and Minero, Charleston and Atlanta, assisted Mitchell in menu research and prepared the fish course for the feast. He is the author of Heritage (Artisan, 2014), and is involved in preserving Southern food and its history.
Article by Jessica Ward.
Photos by Jonathan Boncek and courtesy of Stephanie Barna.