The Original Charleston Reconciliation Dinner¹
In the 19th century, Nat Fuller was the most celebrated cook and restaurateur in Charleston. His restaurant, the Bachelor’s Retreat, was famed for its pastries and its roasted game and meats. When it came time for a banquet or ball, the city’s most prominent associations and corporations — the Chamber of Commerce, the Charleston Light Dragoons, the St. Cecilia Society — called on Nat Fuller to cater it.
The surprising part of the story is that Fuller was an African-American man, and until February 1865 he was a slave.
That changed when the mayor of Charleston surrendered the city to Union forces on February 18, 1865, and three days later the African-American troops of the Massachusetts 55th Regiment entered the city. That April, after the war had ended, Fuller invited a slate of prominent citizens, both white and black, to a celebratory banquet at the Bachelor’s Retreat.
One grand dame of old Charleston society contemptuously labeled it “a miscegenat dinner, at which blacks and whites sat on equality and gave toasts and sang songs for Lincoln and Freedom.” But other prominent white Charlestonians took their seats at table, and for the first time dined side-by-side with Holy City citizens of color — some long part of the free elite, others newly emancipated. It heralded, in the words of University of South Carolina professor and dinner chair Dr. David Shields, “a new kind of civil society and promised a new grounds of civility.”
Shields, a leading authority on Lowcountry culinary history, spearheaded the recreation of Nat Fuller’s long-forgotten feast and also staged an online exhibition on Fuller’s legacy, which is hosted by the Lowcountry Digital History Initiative.
Kevin Mitchell, an instructor at the Culinary Institute of Charleston, took on the role of Nat Fuller for the event as planner, host, and leader of the kitchen. BJ Dennis, himself a noted local chef and caterer, played the role of Tom R. Tully, Fuller’s protégé and successor, who assisted him at the original feast.
The Shreveport Reconciliation Dinner will attempt to emulate the spirit of Charleston in much the same way.
For more information:
- “Nat Fuller’s Feast” by David S. Shields at his Common-Place online journal of early American life
- Southern Foodways Alliance’s Gravy podcast (episode 17)
- Slow Food magazine (in the Spring 2015 issue available at the linked site)