Fish sandwich cabarets shaped Charleston's culinary history 

Fish Tales

Erin Bennett Banks

Throughout the 19th century, black chefs and caterers served a very cosmopolitan sort of Southern cuisine at the great hotels and restaurants of Charleston. Individuals such as Nat Fuller, a slave who owned the Bachelor's Retreat, catered to the wealthiest of Charleston's white elite. Fuller was so respected that at the end of the Civil War he hosted an integrated celebration feast, a dinner 40-some Charlestonians remembered this spring with a sesquicentennial meal at McCrady's.

But while the histories of the Holy City's most revered black chefs' have recently come to light, the stories of the area's black public eating places have remained more of a mystery. Where were they? What did they serve? And who were the individuals working in their kitchens? Piecing together newspaper clippings, cookbook references, and almanacs of the era, University of South Carolina Professor David S. Shields has compiled a revealing look at Charleston's black restaurants.

In the 1850s, the black cook shop appeared in Charleston. These black-operated businesses crowded South Market from East Bay to State Street. Some were run by freedmen, others by slaves, though there's no easy way to determine who was slave and who was free pre-Civil War. When manumission was shut down in the wake of Denmark Vesey's 1822 attempted slave revolt, some masters made self-hire arrangements. They no longer paid room, board, and food for a slave but instead received a portion of the income that slave earned. This may have been the case at some of these shops. What we do know is the earliest of these storefronts were one of two sorts: those that specialized in the quick preparation of food items, and those operating as clandestine taverns. As such, the cook shops were objects of vigilant scrutiny by white authorities.

"I would call the attention of Council to the evils arising from the negro cook shops or eating houses of which there are quite a number in the city..." reads a Mayor's Report from May 29, 1856 in the Charleston Courier. Although the general prejudice at the time was that shop owners were illegally selling liquor, police had difficulty detecting offenders and were often unable to convict due to the fact that "the negroes found on the premises were only there for the purpose of getting something to eat." The most common dish enjoyed by these alleged rabble-rousers? The fish sandwich.

Sometime shortly after the turn of the 20th century, the fashion for fried fish sandwiches swept through the city. The sandwiches were simple — bread, butter, and a skillet fried, cornmeal dusted fillet. The concept may have been popularized by the Allen Amusement Company that ran a cheap lunch counter at the Isle of Palms in the summer of 1905. According to an August story that year in the Charleston Evening Post, "Among the favorite dishes ordered at the restaurant, the most popular was the fish sandwich, which cost a nickel. The hungry customer for his five-cent piece received a good-sized, freshly fried fish, two generous slices of bread and good butter." The convenience of the sandwich must have struck cook shop owners. In a decade the city officials would be calling the shops "fish sandwich cabarets."

But even though we have records of these shops, there are few descriptions of the interiors. A May 3, 1906 story from the Evening Post spoke of "dingy smoke-colored walls" featuring a picture of President Teddy Roosevelt meeting Booker T. Washington. The shop served "loud smelling viands."

click to enlarge ERIN BENNETT BANKS
  • Erin Bennett Banks

What was so pungent? What exactly did they serve besides fish sandwiches? Information can only be secured piecemeal — for instance, a 1909 Charleston Evening Post's report on murderer William Robertson described him as stuffing himself with "cowpeas and rice" in a Drake Street cook shop when he was arrested for slashing Malsy Talton.

But the shops also put a special premium on shark. Black provisioners would rush the fish pool at the end of Market Street whenever a landing took place, a Charleston News & Courier story from 1895 reads. Of Gullah fish dishes, Northern observers described "a purely local combination" of whiting and hominy. Pairing fish with a grain was standard. Mullet was served with "small rice" or middlings. The cornmeal coating for porgy when fried in lard or bacon fat extended the principle. A sweet pan fish, porgy was fried with the head on.

Fried fish was eaten with a knife and fork during the 19th century. Indeed Joe Cole — the most famous street-seller in Charleston from the 1870s to 1910 — made it a point in his famous Porgy Song:

Hambone am sweet
Beats all de meat.
Possum an' potatoes berry fine,
But you gimme, you gimme,
I rally wish you wish you would
All de porgy dat you catch upon the line.
Porgy walk and porgy talk,
Porgy eat with a knife and fork.

click to enlarge ERIN BENNETT BANKS
  • Erin Bennett Banks

When a cook shop had fried too much fish in the course of a meal rush, the cold fried fish was converted into Brown Fish Soup. These stews were made up of a brown roux made of lard and flour with mashed cold fried fish, water, and salt and pepper added — in summer tomatoes and onions might be added. It would be served at the next meal.

Fish stews were a favorite lunch offering of the black cook shops. Put on the stove during breakfast service, the stews would be ready for ladling at 11 a.m., the common lunch hour from the 1860s onward. The contents of these stews were determined by seasonal availability. Black drum, was often found at C. C. Leslie's fish market. Because the large drum (over 35 lbs.) were not favored by hotels and white clientele, it was salted (like codfish) and employed in the antebellum period as protein rations for slaves. Salt drum dishes survived into the Reconstruction period but not into the 20th century. Drum steaks, cut an inch thick, were, however, a favorite dinner fare in white and black venues, particularly in April and May.

Fanny Kemble, in her 1838-39 journal of life as a plantation mistress on Butler's Island Georgia, described an encounter with the cook, Abraham, after a drum had been procured for dinner: "Abraham, our cook, went by with some most revolting-looking 'raw material' (part, I think, of the interior of the monstrous drum-fish of which I have told you). I asked him, with considerable disgust, what he was going to do with it; he replied, " Oh! we colored people eat it, missis." Said I," Why do you say we colored people ?" " Because, missis, white people won't touch what we too glad of." After the Civil War, when freed sea islanders moved into Charleston, they brought with them a taste for the gelatinous Drum Head Fish Stew. The cook shops obliged.

Shrimp were also a cook shop staple. Served "au naturel" (boiled with salt, cayenne, and herbs in shell) they'd be brought to the table for the customer to peel and eat. Okra soup also regularly appeared. It made the menu beginning the second week in July and remained as a lunch offering and as a prelude to dinner. The amalgam of okra and tomatoes "has a thousand recipes all 'tried and found good' the Charleston News and Courier reported in 1896. At the end of the 19th century, Cantini's Wharf, where Savage, Tradd, and Rutledge streets converge on the bank of the Ashley, was where the tubs of okra and tomatoes from James Island were off loaded. There okra jobbers such as Tante Sannie would set up a makeshift vegetable market using carts as stalls and bushel baskets as seats.

Thomas Seabrook's cook shop at Cantini's Wharf made the most famous okra soup in the city. For over a quarter century, it was the place to experience the best vegetable cookery in the Gullah style. Seabrook's son would continue the family's carpentry/cook shop tradition, doing construction work and running a restaurant at 1½ Cannon St. with his wife Hattie through the 1930s. Indeed, the Seabrook family was something of a black cooking dynasty in the city from the 1880s through the 1920s. Anna, Dorothy, Ella, Henrietta, Richardine, and Wilhemiena were hired household cooks in the 1910s-30s. Edward Seabrook ran Seabrook's restaurant on Archdale Street with his wife Maria during the Depression. Yet of this group, Mary Seabrook was the most legendary talent, known for her pilaus, her vegetable cookery, and her exemplary okra soup. Okra soup may have mattered most to her clientele. The distinctiveness of this preparation from other okra based soups, particularly gumbo, was a point of pride to Carolinians:

Let Boston rave on pork and beans
To such a mess I would not stoop;
Gumbo's the dish for New Orleans,
But Charleston murmurs, 'okra soup!'
Charleston News & Courier, Nov. 17, 1914

Though nearly lost to history, Charleston's black cook shops were the beginning of the proliferation of commercial Gullah Geechee cuisine. Some of the people who ran them simply worked fish sandwich cabarets, others, such as William G. Barron, elevated himself into the ranks of the premier black caterers in the city, but they all played a role in shaping Charleston's culinary legacy.


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