From Slave to Celebrated Chef: The Surprising Story of Nat Fuller

Charleston Square,“ painting by Charles J. Hamilton. (Photo: Lowcountry Digital History Initiative.)

In April 1865, one of Charleston’s most prominent chefs held a dinner to celebrate the end of the Civil War. According to published reports, toasts were made, lavish dishes were served, and songs were sung about President Abraham Lincoln and freedom. The chef was Nat Fuller, a celebrated culinary personality and recently freed slave. Prior to that evening, his guests had never dined together; they were black and white residents of Charleston, assembled by Fuller in the spirit of reconciliation.

This meal was recreated in Charleston this past April, following the shooting of Walter Scott that shook the city and became part of the larger national conversation about violence, policing, and race relations. This second reconciliation dinner was meant to once again bring black and white Charlestonians to the same table, but it had another purpose — to pay tribute to an African-American chef whose contributions had been long forgotten.

The dinner and Chef Fuller are the subject of the current podcast from the Southern Foodways Alliance, the organization dedicated to documenting the “diverse food cultures of the changing American South.” Philip Graitcer, a producer on the Gravy podcast series, traces the origin of the event, past and present, and talks to David Shields, the historian who has been piecing together Fuller’s story.

Professor David Shields (Photo: Southern Foodways Alliance)

Shields is an English professor at the University of South Carolina, but his passion is Southern food. (His new book is called “Southern Provisions: The Creation and Revival of a Cuisine.”) He learned about Fuller and dug deeper. Fuller’s name had been lost to history, but his impact on the culinary scene of Civil War-era Charleston was significant. “His story is a remarkable one on several fronts,” said Shields. While Fuller was still enslaved, he was the city’s most successful purveyor of game; he became one of the city’s leading caterers; and he ran a popular restaurant called The Bachelor’s Retreat. (At the time, certain slaves could operate businesses with the permission of their masters, who would take a cut of the proceeds.)

Interestingly, the dishes that Fuller specialized in were not the Southern staples celebrated today. It wasn’t until years later that fried chicken, grits, biscuits, and the like would come to represent the region. Fuller was a classically trained chef and served the cosmopolitan cuisine preferred by the upper class of Charleston society. A newspaper ad for The Bachelor’s Retreat promoted “oyster and calf head soups, turkey, wild duck, roast beef, a la mode beef, roast lamb, chicken pie, oyster pie, vegetables, and dessert courses” as menu options. Fuller even had flair with cocktails. The Daily Constitutionalist, a local newspaper, wrote about his Brandy Smash and went so far as to call him a “renowned genius.” “Nat Fuller … has a cunning way of fixing up water so as to take all the bad taste out of it,” read the article. “We did not get the exact receipt, but believe that ice, brandy, mint and sugar are some of the condiments used.”

Fuller was a free man for just a year and a half, having died of typhoid fever at the end of 1866. For those interested in Fuller’s life and career, Shields has published a longer biography on the Lowcountry Digital History Initiative website.

Chef Kevin Mitchell. (Photo: Southern Foodways Alliance)

The site also features an appreciation of Fuller by Chef Kevin Mitchell, an instructor at the Culinary Institute of Charleston. He oversaw the menu for the 2015 reconciliation dinner and was joined in the kitchen by other local culinary talents, including Benjamin “BJ” Dennis, a noted Gullah Geechee chef from the region, and Sean Brock of Husk. The first part of the evening took place in the same building that once housed The Bachelor’s Retreat. After cocktails and hors d’oeuvres, the 80 guests walked to McCrady’s restaurant for dinner. It was an optimistic evening, with no foreshadowing of the awful event to come only two months later: On the night of June 17, one of the dinner’s participants, state Senator Clementa C. Pinckney, would be slain along with eight other members of his church in a brutal murder that shocked the country and changed Charleston and perhaps the South forever.

Dessert is served. (Photo: Southern Foodways Alliance)

“Pinckney believed, like Fuller believed, that racism is based on mediated images and on a lack of personal face-to-face knowledge of the circumstances and situations of other people,” said Shields. “When you get people at the same table talking to one another, that’s the way you gain knowledge.”

Shields continues to hold out hope for “the possibility of a future where the friendship at the table is extended into society at large.”

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