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.
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.)