ESSAYS FROM WEST OF 98: EATING WITHOUT AGENDAS

By James M. Decker

Last time, I wrote about the unifying power of food, as expressed by the late Anthony Bourdain. Mr. Bourdain said that a shared meal can “break barriers, challenge assumptions, and build bridges,” that there is no better way for people to understand each other than over a meal together.

In 2015, the people of Charleston, South Carolina showed the power of a meal through the Nat Fuller Feast. Nat Fuller was a freed slave who operated a popular fine-dining restaurant in Charleston. In 1865, just after the end of the War Between the States, he organized a “reconciliation feast” in which he invited the elite of the city, from all races, to sit at the same table, enjoy a high-class dinner, and just talk to one another. In what must have been a surreal moment, newly-freed slaves, powerful antebellum figures, and Union generals dined together and toasted to freedom.

According to University of South Carolina professor David Shields, Fuller “knew well the symbolism” of these parties sharing a table and performing rites of civility together. Shields became familiar with this dinner while researching a book on the food of South Carolina’s Lowcountry. In 2015, he floated the idea of reenacting this dinner as part of Charleston’s memorials to the 150th anniversary of the War’s end. True to the original dinner, 80 invited guests representing all groups and demographics in Charleston dined together on a historically accurate menu similar to the food served at the original Reconciliation Feast. This dinner occurred amidst recent racial tension in the city and offered an opportunity for diners to reflect and discuss the opportunities to reconcile.

Other Southern cities, from across South Carolina and all the way to Shreveport, Louisiana, have since staged their own reconciliation dinners. Inspired by Charleston’s Nat Fuller Feast, these dinners have had the same purpose: to bring together a diverse group of diners from across their communities, to share a meal and conversation. Chef Hardette Harrison, organizer of the Shreveport dinner, said “We don’t want people to debate or argue. We just want them to sit down and eat, with no agenda, and just talk about whatever comes to their minds, in the spirit of reconciliation.”

I first read these stories a couple of years ago, but re-reading them ignites ideas anew. What could our rural communities accomplish with similar dinners? Even if there’s no immediate, apparent tension in the community, there are still gaps to be bridged. Lingering worries about motivations, or absence of trust in leaders may prevent the community from truly uniting as one. How better to overcome those concerns than sharing a table together?

As I’ve written many times, our rural communities will not survive and thrive into the future without our people working together for the community’s big picture. Perhaps our best way to establish unity is over a meal of reconciliation, conversation, and hopefulness.

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James Decker is a lawyer, farmer, and mayor in Stamford, Texas, and the creator of the forthcoming “West of 98” podcast and website. He may be contacted through Facebook at facebook.com/james.decker.

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