Nat Fuller's Feast: The Life and Legacy of an Enslaved Cook in Charleston

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Caterer, 1850s-1860s

"Meeting of the southern seceders from the Democratic convention at St. Andrew's Hall," Charleston, South Carolina,&nbsp;<em>Harper's Weekly</em>, April 30, 1860, courtesy of the&nbsp;Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.&nbsp;

"Meeting of the southern seceders from the Democratic convention at St. Andrew's Hall," Harper's Weekly, Charleston, South Carolina, April 30, 1860, courtesy of the Library of Congress Prints and Photographs DivisionFuller, along with his successor Tom Tully, catered events held at St. Andrews Hall.

Hibernian Hall<span>,&nbsp;</span><em>Harper's Weekly</em><span>, Charleston, South Carolina, 1860,&nbsp;</span>Charleston Museum Illustrated Newspaper Collection<span>,</span><span>&nbsp;courtesy of the&nbsp;</span>Charleston Museum Archives<span>.&nbsp;</span>

Hibernian Hall, Harper's Weekly, Charleston, South Carolina, 1860, Charleston Museum Illustrated Newspaper Collection, courtesy of the Charleston Museum Archives. African American caterer John Lee, whose wife Eliza Lee trained Nat Fuller, regularly managed events for the Hibernian Society. Fuller's owner, William C. Gatewood, was an active member of this society. 

The 1855-1856 social season in Charleston proved to be critical for establishing Fuller’s business. The city’s chief event caterer, Adolph John Rutjes, a French pastry chef, had speculated in real estate and his investments went sour. Rutjes had to leave the city to escape debt proceedings. Consequently, a number of major Charleston societies, particularly the South Carolina Jockey Club and the Saint Cecilia Society, found themselves searching for a caterer. Fuller seized the opportunity to cater two of the most important elite social events of the season.

Rutjes’s departure from Charleston ultimately opened a major vacancy for catering on-site events in the city. By 1857, Fuller had positioned himself as the person best suited and equipped to manage public and private parties in the city. His new premises at 68 King Street also doubled as his depot for imported luxury foods. At the same time, Fuller provided services for municipal organizations as well as elite gatherings. On January 6, 1857, the Charleston City Council appointed him provisioner for the Marine Hospital. In the latter half of the year, he also provided meals for the House of Correction.

During the three and a half years Fuller operated out of 68 King Street, his wife, Diana, and an African American assistant named Tom R. Tully aided him. They catered over fourteen major events, two of which were so superlative that the local newspaper published the bill of fare. The most elaborate was the Jubilee of Southern Union dinner on May 1857—a feast for six hundred invited guests at the Military Hall celebrating the completion of a rail line between Memphis, Tennessee, and Charleston. The event was tremendous. As one newspaper reporter noted:

"All hands and the cook" were busy from an early hour in preparation at the Military Hall, which had been generously tendered for the reception dinner, which was contracted and built up by that well known caterer, Nat Fuller.