On Sunday, April 19th, Charleston, South Carolina was the site of one of the most imaginative and positive sesquicentennial commemorations of the end of the American Civil War. The brainchild of USC historian David Shields whose research in food history in South Carolina had led him to reports of a remarkable African American caterer and restaurateur called Nat Fuller, the event was a recreation of a “miscegenation feast” or reconciliation dinner, hosted 150 years ago in 1865. Chefs Kevin Mitchell, Sean Brock, and BJ Dennis served up an amazing and palate-pleasing reconstruction of that dinner for 80 invited guests (six of whom had won their places at the table by writing essays for a competition run by Dr Shields and the Post and Courier).You can read all about the remarkable Mr Fuller on the Lowcountry Digital History Initiative web-site’s on-line exhibition, and you can read Hannah Raskin’s and John Kessler’s reports on the 2015 dinner in the Charleston Post and Courier and Atlanta Journal-Constitution, respectively. The Post and Courier report is accompanied by a fabulous gallery of photographs, too.
Here, though, without any further clicking is Kevin Mitchell’s own moving account of the Feast, couched as a letter to Nat Fuller.
Dear Chef Nat Fuller,
Chef, I hope this note finds you in good health and spirits. I am sure as you read this you are busy planning your next banquet in heaven. I am writing you for several reasons. I first take this time to thank you for creating such a powerful legacy for myself and future chefs both black and white. Your legacy will be forever told as long as I am living. As I am writing you I am sure you are looking down from heaven marveling over the events of this past weekend. As you saw I hosted a feast in honor of the feast you held at the Bachelor’s Retreat at the end of the Civil war some 150 years ago. True to your legacy it was only offered to a select 80 guests and served in the style in which you were famous for, Russian Service.
The feast commenced in the hallowed rooms and halls of the Bachelor’s Retreat. The guests were treated to the food of your apprentice, Tom Tully. Chef, you will be so proud of the chef he has become. He has taken the reigns from you and has done you well. As I watched in awe of the excitement felt by guests in the room and grounds of the Bachelor’s Retreat a strong gust of rain filled the 103 Church Street. It was my thought that you and the great chefs of your day sat around the banquet table in heaven and cried tears of joy. No guest was discouraged by the rain, they continue to eat, drink and communion. You must have known what was happening because once the time came for the guests to march to McCrady’s lead by the 54th regiment the rain ceased, divine intervention is my thought!!
Once the guests settled in their seats in the Long Room, in your true fashion I gave words of welcome. Silence filled the air as I spoke of you and your work. I needed to let the guest know why they were there and the importance of what you did for the city of Charleston. I always wondered why you decided to hold that feast during the time in which you did. We all know that the climate in the city was not good, however you saw fit to bring people together centered around a bountiful banquet. It truly shows who you were as a man as well as a chef. I have always admired you for that.
The feast of 2015 was a year in the making. I was approached by Dr. David Shields, who knew of your great legacy. He introduced you to me and thought I must stand in your place. Unfortunately no record of the menu existed, however we were able to find Bills of Fare from the many events you hosted, and I was able to piece my menu together using your most celebrated dishes from your massive culinary repertoire. I could not hold this feast without serving both your Turtle and Oyster Soup. In today’s time it is hard to find turtle soup in Charleston. You can, however find in the great restaurants of New Orleans. The guests were treated to an array of pickled vegetables, relishes and the famous Bradford Watermelon pickles set on the table upon arrival.
The chefs decided that we would feature three trays of proteins in honor of the meat and fowl you sold at the bachelor’s retreat. We started with a poisson tray featuring fried whiting, poached bass and your infamous shrimp pie all served with sauces such as Worcestershire, mushroom and walnut ketchup and caper butter sauce. We moved from there to poultry, consisting of duck a l’orange, capon chasseur and squab with truffle sauce. Lastly the viande tray with heaping portions of beef a la mode, venison with currant sauce and a wonderful lamb with mint sauce. After dinner before desserts there were glasses raised in toasts to the event and hopes for better future in the city of Charleston. Then once again guests were greeted with a bounty of desserts that included Charlotte Russe, almond cake, punch cake, blanc mange, and vanilla and pineapple ice cream. Your teacher, your mentor Eliza Seymour Lee would have been proud. Please mention to her when you see her that her great great granddaughter is a lovely women and she would be proud. Before the night was finished I offered my praise and love to the many cooks and chefs who shared their time and talent with me. .As I think you would have done. As the guests made their way out of the building a feeling of great pride came over me as each guest came to shake my hand and commend me on a job well done.
Chef it is my hope that when you looked down upon me that you were able to say well done chef, well done. When I was asked to stand in your place I was overwhelmed with what that truly meant. I know as I spoke and cooked that your spirit was channeled through my body and that all around me felt your great presence. I also hope that you were touched by Jonathan Greene’s rendition of you. As you know there were no pictures of you to be found. The rendition was well received by all who saw it. Chef, I want to once again Thank You for your great legacy and vision. I only hope that I will leave one as great as yours and that as I walk into my kitchen you place your hand upon me. I look forward to joining you and the other great chefs at the banquet table in heaven.
Kevin E. Mitchell