4 years ago I was blessed to be transported into the kitchen at McCrady’s Restaurant. I’d volunteered in helping Chefs Sean Brock, Kevin Mitchell, the Leadership of the Culinary Institute of Charleston and a host of ridiculous talent in recreating an historic feast of Reconciliation. The original supper took place just a week after the end of Civil War hostilities ended in 1865. It represented the first time, literally, that free blacks and whites sat down to break bread at a common table.
The 2015 dinner took place just 2 weeks after an unarmed Walter Scott was killed in a racially charged incident, and just months before the massacre at Emmanuel A.M.E. of nine Charlestonians. Much has already been documented about both of those events, and by writers much greater than I.
But 4 years on today, the event of that original feast continues to ripple forward with resonance, and is at least as relevant now as it was in 1865, and again in 2015. California naysayers have debated mightily as to whether such a feast ever in fact took place, casting shade on Dr. Shield’s well documented research. Whether you ascribe to our great champion of Southern Provisions or to a left coast doubting Thomas (who admittedly authored Denmark Vessey’s Garden) my point is this- aren’t we better off taking a cue from the idea of a Reconciliation feast recognizing this annually, if not regularly by sitting down to a common table and breaking bread?
Chef Kevin Mitchell has marked the occasion by launching his website The Chef Scholar. Kevin, along with Dr. David Shields spearheaded the recreation of Nat Fuller’s Feast, and authored the accompanying book. Chef recently completed his Graduate degree in Southern Studies under the guidance of the Southern Foodways Alliance at ‘ole Miss, his thesis sub titled “From Black Hands to White Mouths.” He has dedicated himself to shedding light on the lives of the Enslaved through the lens of food. He has cooked alongside Joseph McGill of the Slave Dwelling Project in the kitchens Behind the Big House. On April 27, he and I will breathe new life into the memory of the Enslaved by cooking an historic dinner for the Drayton Society of 1738. He will speak publicly about both events on May 16 at Drayton Hall.
I’m no journalist, and my job isn’t to sift out the truth of it all. I’m a chef, and to paraphrase Atticus Finch I’m no idealist to believe firmly in the integrity of creating comfort and hospitality by feeding people. As chefs, if we can create a greater culture of genuine care and understanding, well, it may be Herculean in scope but we love our work.
There is much about life in Charleston tied to tradition; much of it great, but much of it not. One of Chef Mitchell’s axioms is “if the path doesn’t exist, you must create it.” Equally, and especially now, if the tradition doesn’t exist, we must work together to create it.