“Conversations around southern food have been met with passion + debate. The debate has been surrounded by the authenticity of dishes, how they are prepared, and who can claim the tradition of southern food. Oftentimes, the holders of these traditions are overlooked.” – Chef Kevin Mitchell
Kevin Mitchell is a Charleston-based chef + chef instructor at the Culinary Institute of Charleston at Trident Technical College and a 2020 and 2021 South Carolina Chef Ambassador. He completed his graduate studies at the University of Mississippi, where he focused on Southern Foodways, the preservation of Southern ingredients and the history of African Americans in the culinary arts. His thesis, “From Black Hands to White Mouths: Charleston’s freed and enslaved cooks and their influence on the food of the South” examines the stories of those who are overlooked – the freed + enslaved Black cooks from Charleston – and highlights the people + ingredients that made culinary contributions throughout history.
As we look towards Juneteenth and honoring the cultural significance of the day, it’s important we pay homage to the chefs who laid the foundation for American – specifically Southern – cuisine. Through the lens of Mitchell’s thesis, we’re examining the history of people who, through their skill, created the authentic cuisine still alive today.
SALLY SEYMOUR (1779-1824)
Sally Seymour is the matriarch of a lineage of great Black caterers from the City of Charleston. The skill she commanded in the kitchen made her a top caterer, and she was known for her pastries such as Rich Cakes, French PIes, Trifles, and Jellies. Seymour trained numerous enslaved people as cooks, and after she was freed from slavery, set up her own business that was ultimately passed down to her daughter, Eliza Seymour Lee. Seymour was a successful business owner who could not not meet the demands of her business and ultimately had to use slave labor.
ELIZA SEYMOUR LEE (1800-1874?)
Eliza Seymour Lee was a freed pastry chef + restaurateur who learned the mastery of meat cookery alongside other slaves who were also trained by her mother. Following her mother’s death, Eliza Seymour Lee received the rights to her 35 Tradd Street business. She came into prominence in the 1820s and trained Nat Fuller in 1854. At the end of the Civil War, her sons migrated north and began careers as cooks by using her recipes. One recipe in particular – savory pickles + preserves – became so famous that Henry Heinz bought the rights to the recipe. While there is no definitive information, Mitchell states in his thesis that [we] believe Heinz 57 Sauce can be linked back to Sally Seymour, Lee’s mother.
NAT FULLER (1812 – 1866)
Nat Fuller, born in West Ashley, became the foremost + most sought-after caterer in Charleston. While he did not have the luxury of training at a culinary school, he apprenticed under great cooks, such as Eliza Seymour Lee, to master his culinary skills. Cuisine for many years in Charleston was French, in which the saucier is a position of great respect and takes great skill to master. Fuller was known for a variety of sauces including mustard, mayonnaise, catsups, white sauce, Worcestershire, mushroom, oyster, tomato, caper, Madeira, olive, and lemon. In addition to his culinary skills, he was a master mixologist famous for his Mint Julep, Brandy Smash, and gin with bitters.
Fuller may have been the most prolific of all caterers in this lineage. He was labeled the “culinary genius” and was able to gain freedom, become the caterer of choice, and own his own restaurant in the late 1800s. In 1865, Fuller hosted an interracial dinner celebrating emancipation and the end of the Civil War. In 2015, Mitchell was tapped by University of South Carolina professor David Shields to play the role of Fuller at the Nat Fuller feast, a reenactment of this 1865 event.
THOMAS TULLY (1828-1883), WILLIAM G. BARRON (1847-1900), JAMES F. PERRINEAU (1868-1953)
Thomas Tully apprenticed under Fuller and came into prominence after Fuller’s death. Born into freedom on Edisto Island, he partnered with free Black pastry chef, Martha Vanderhorst, and became a master at pastry + confections. Fuller trained William G. Barron, who was born into slavery before opening his own restaurant + catering facility in 1882. James F. Perrineau was employed as a cook as a teenager by Irish baker + confectioner, John E. Heffron. He catered for St. Cecilia Society, the South Carolina Society, the Hibernian Society, periodically at dinners for the Medical Society and the St. Andrews Society, and opened a restaurant at 391 ½ King Street.
Charleston is a culinary destination, and these chefs laid the foundation for the way we eat, not only in the city itself, but throughout the South. They – along with many nameless others – made up the culinary lineage of Charleston as great Black chefs + caterers of the 1800s.
“To be a chef today is to center yourself in the traditions of your roots and use them to define your art and speak to any human being about who you are; your plate is your flag.” – Michael Twitty
Food + cooking were part of the diverse African heritage before their forced migration to America. Recipes traveled from Africa to America and were passed down generation to generation. Enslaved people brought ingredients and the ingenuity of how to use them, and the cooking of these ingredients became a part of traditions that were passed down from their ancestors and are still used today. Ingredients such as rice, leafy green vegetables, okra, and yams (often confused as the sweet potato) have always been prominent in Southern food and can be credited to African influence + cuisine.
Cooking has always been a part of the heritage of African Americans, and this heritage has been and will continue to be part of white America as well. As we celebrate the chefs + cuisines of today, we must honor the legacy of the enslaved cooks that came before them, laying the foundation of Southern food and the profession of cooking. Enslaved people – whether they were cooks or not – were at the center of southern history; through their legacy, we can tell the story of southern foodways and how their culture has been imprinted on the American south.
Read “From Black Hands to White Mouths: Charleston’s freed and enslaved cooks and their influence on the food of the South”, and follow Kevin Mitchell on Instagram @chefscholar.