Chefs Collaborative, the nation’s leading network of sustainability-minded food professionals, is this weekend bringing its annual conference to Charleston for the first time. But the seafood topics on the National Summit agenda aren’t new to the city: In the 1880s, a local African-American retailer and amateur ichthyologist had already figured out how to “tempt guests with unfamiliar seafood,” a practice now considered a cornerstone of healthy aquatic ecosystems.
Prior to the Civil War, Charleston’s fish market was in sad shape. According to food scholar David Shields, who generously shared the manuscript for his forthcoming Charleston culinary history, most shad were shipped north, and clams, shrimp, scallops and crabs were rarely offered for sale; Shields quotes a disappointed Duke of Saxe-Weimer-Eisenach as reporting in 1826 that “fish were not presented in so great a variety as I expected.”
Shields attributes the dearth of fish at market to northern control of the commercial smack fleet and a mosquito fleet which delivered its catch directly to plantations, whose overseers forbade slaves from sidelining in fish sales. But emancipation didn’t solve the problem of connecting local eaters with local seafood: So many men took up fishing for profit that fish populations were at risk of being wiped out.
Charles C. Leslie, a freeborn African-American from Mount Pleasant, restored order. A former Confederate gunrunner, Leslie and his partner focused their retailing efforts on the market instead of the street. But Shields argues Leslie’s great advantages over his competitors were his fishing skills and – just as crucially — his ability to capitalize on them.
“He apparently offered an either/or to his freedman competitors—either ally with him by giving him first offering of a catch, or be undersold by him and left with unsold perishing product,” Shields writes. By 1870, every black-owned fishing boat which didn’t belong to Leslie’s rival was either partially-owned by, or in a contractual agreement with, Leslie. And the boats were so productive that the Yankee fleet decamped.
But Leslie wasn’t satisfied with merely selling shad and bass. He realized he could draw more people to his market stall by stringing up and selling types of fish which poor whites and blacks had traditionally bought off wharves. He successfully interested wealthier customers in “trash fish” too.
“Blackfish remained the best seller, but Leslie promoted the taste for pompano, jacks, red-snappers, bastard snappers, grunts, bream, squirrel-fish, and hake. Variety when added to low price proved magnetic to a broad public,” Shields writes.
Leslie also freely contributed specimens to scientific collections; he later called upon contacts he’d cultivated in the research community to help him establish a soft-shell crab nursery. (Shellfish farming is another sustainable activity likely to be cited approvingly at the upcoming Summit.)
Culinarians, though, might be most appreciative of a different Leslie feat. The fish which Leslie popularized were best caught with shrimp, so Leslie helped build up the local shrimping industry. According to Shields, hotel restaurant chefs were especially inspired by the possibilities posed by the newly-available crustacean. That makes Leslie’s the man to remember when you next enjoy a bowl of sustainable shrimp and grits.
The Chef’s Collaborative National Summit starts Sunday night. The event is sold out, but I’ll be live blogging the Summit from nose-to-tail (which means Raskin Around may skimp on your usual assortment of daily food news on Monday and Tuesday; see you back here on Wednesday.)