Nat Fuller, Tom Tully and Rhett’s Butler

Nat Fuller, by Lowcountry artist Jonathan Green
Nat Fuller, by Lowcountry artist Jonathan Green
The REAL Rhett's Butler!
Meet Chef William Deas, inventor of She Crab Soup.

In recent weeks, we’ve celebrated the name of a previously unsung Charleston hero: Nat Fuller. Unless you’ve been completely outside the loop, you’ve probably heard the story. Fuller, a former slave, was renowned for his hospitality and for hosting events even through the war and, at the time, the longest siege in military history.

And so it was that just weeks after the War’s end in 1865, Fuller hosted a grand Reconciliation Feast. Bringing together freed blacks and whites to sit at the same communal table and break bread.

I don’t need to recount this story here, but i wanted to dig into his legacy. As a Charlestonian, a chef and tour guide, all this has been eye opening- seeing previously untold stories of our shared history unfold right in front of me. Fuller would pass on shortly thereafter, in 1866, of typhoid fever. But his legacy continued in that of his protégé and successor Tom Tully. Tully would continue on, taking over his market stalls and assuming Fuller’s role in society events, until he passed on in turn. As Robert Moss stated in his piece from the Charleston City Paper,

“Tom R. Tully went on to become Charleston’s most noted caterer after Fuller’s death in 1866, and he trained an entire generation of African-American chefs who led the kitchens at Charleston’s best hotels straight into the 20th century. That legacy was carried on by William Deas, the inventor of Charleston’s signature she-crab soup, who transitioned from a career cooking in the homes of the city’s elite white families to being the head chef at Everett’s Restaurant. And somehow we forgot all of that.”

Well, my hat’s off to Mr. Moss (who, by the way, just published another great treatise on BBQ) for bringing things full circle. All of these stories seemed esoteric, though crucial to my own understanding of our shared Lowcountry history. Until Mr. moss highlighted the obvious- that Tom Tully in turn was responsible for training other cooks here in the Holy City, and that among those was none other than William Deas.

I’ve written of William before– of how as a butler for Mayor Rhett he was tasked with planning a menu to entertain the President of the United States at the time. Of how he took a fairly simple crab soup made here by Scottish immigrants and ramped it up with the addition of Sherry and crab roe, of how in tour guide fashion we used to say that Charleston’s ubiquitous she crab soup was, in fact, created by Rhett’s Butler.

So there it is. Nat Fuller isn’t just some dusty footnote to Charleston’s culinary history. He is, in many ways, why we enjoy she crab soup. Next Wednesday, we will host the Carolina Rice Kitchen dinner at Old Village Post House. Titled “Tables of the Reconstruction,” we will focus on the foods and stories of this pivot point in Charleston’s history. We’ll raise a glass to Mr. Deas, and to Nat Fuller.

Hope to see you there.

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