The Forgotten Chefs Of The South – Garden & Gun

Southern cooking, such as childbirth and sewing, has generally been considered one of the arts of the home. We have tended to imagine its creators and leading practitioners as women – black, white, or indigenous – in rural kitchens, simmering and stirring what would become the culinary canon of the South: fried chicken, oatmeal, field peas, bread corn, green vegetables. And for the most part, that’s true. But as food and drink historian Robert F. Moss explores, in The Lost Chiefs of the South, a parallel mode of cooking and eating also developed in the 19th century. In restaurants, saloons, hotels and banquet halls, a diverse cast of chefs – then known as caterers – fashioned a different genre of Southern cuisine with a distinctive flavor profile: grilled shad, Green Turtle Stew, Green Turtle Soup, Canvas-backed Duck, Madeira Wine and Lynnhaven Oysters. Their work, Moss writes, “raised southern cuisine to a higher art,” influencing menus and culinary trends across the country. It has also been largely forgotten.

“These caterers,” writes Moss, “are central characters in one of the great untold stories of the South’s cultural past, a story very different from the more familiar one of everyday cooking on plantations or in family kitchens.” . The Lost Chiefs of the South is Moss’s effort to unearth this buried history and restore, sometimes painstakingly, the legacy of these leaders.

First, he needs to clear out some cobwebs. Among them was the perception that the restaurant’s 19th-century dishes were, in Moss’s words, “very, very bad, and…especially bad in the South.” Charles Dickens famously kicked this fare in his novel Martin Chuzzlewit, in which he described American boarding house food as a nightmare, “great heaps of indigestible stuff”. Indeed: Moss quotes a traveler passing through Mississippi in 1861 lamenting a breakfast of “awful coffee, cornbread, rancid butter, and very questionable meat.” Keep in mind, however, that some travelers to present-day New Orleans opt to dine not at Commander’s Palace or Domilise’s, but at Buffalo Wild Wings; the claim of the past on terrible food is hardly exclusive. “It was actually quite easy,” Moss writes, “for travelers to dine well in Southern cities, provided they could afford it.” Moss reprints several menus, including one for an 1860 Louisville banquet where guests chose quail on toast with butter sauce, buffalo tongue with aspic jelly, Lexington Saddle of Mutton with Crab Apple Green Sauce and – for an eyebrow-raising riff on land and sea – Grilled Squirrels with Clam Sauce.

Who were these lost Southern chefs, fusing squirrels and clams and, as one reporter from Augusta, Georgia, snidely reported, adding brandy, mint and sugar to “the water in order to get rid of all the bad tastes”? They were mostly black men and women, or immigrant entrepreneurs, and “they didn’t advance their craft behind the scenes as anonymous hands in the kitchen,” Moss writes. “Instead, they were right in front as hosts, chefs and business owners” – even, as in the case of Charleston, Nat Fuller of South Carolina, when they were enslaved. Moss delved into the archives to piece together the lives of Fuller, Augusta restaurateur Lexius Henson, and George T. Downing of Washington, D.C., among others, and interposed those with vibrant culinary histories of cities like Richmond and Baltimore . “Contrary to myths…the driving force of southern restaurants was not ‘old mamas’ who cooked out of mystical instinct under the tutelage of white mistresses,” Moss writes. “Rather, this kitchen was created by a remarkable cast of talented and determined men and women who navigated a complex web of social conventions and legal restrictions to achieve commercial success as professional cooks and caterers. Some even got rich doing it.

For a while, anyway. We see demise coming as the bright promise of Reconstruction turns into Jim Crow ugliness. “Their restaurants were closed, their stoves and ovens were taken away, their buildings were finally taken down brick by brick or wrecked by the wrecking ball,” Moss writes. “Their signature dishes have been forgotten, supplanted by the new waves of French and continental fashion. Few of these chefs’ recipes have been written down or found their way into cookbooks, so their methods and techniques have also been lost. Many of their valuable ingredients have also disappeared, after decades of market hunting, overfishing and fouling of ecosystems. But just as oysters are slowly being restored in Virginia’s Lynnhaven River, Moss’ lost chefs — and their delicious and intricate legacies — can also be reintroduced into our culinary history.