Saturday, August 29, 2020

A Watermelon with a Story to Tell

Bradford Family Farm near Sumter, S.C.
The Bradford Family Farm attracts many interested travelers in August.

To buy a watermelon, would you drive more than 200 miles? Would you make a two-day roundtrip from Illinois to South Carolina to buy the “heirloom” watermelon that once was believed to be extinct after the 1920s?

Bradford Watermelon

I did, and another customer drove across several states for the Bradford watermelon that is being introduced again to chefs, gardeners and food enthusiasts around the world. It is considered to be the tastiest watermelon and has exceptional characteristics such as rich sweetness, delicious flesh, thin rinds, and large fruits (up to 40 pounds). 

Bradford watermelon
A Bradford watermelon in the field before being picked.

The Story

The story of the Bradford watermelon is as interesting as the melon itself is revered for its sweetness and flavor. On a blog, Nat Bradford describes how he discovered a book from the 1850s that lists his family’s watermelons as the absolute best of all market melons of the day. That discovery motivated him to learn more about their history and led him to find Prof. David Shields, an expert in Southern foodways. 

Nat Bradford slicing watermelon
Nat Bradford prepares a sample of his pickled watermelon rind with pimento cheese.

Because the Bradford watermelon was so prized, growers often stood guard with guns at night deter potential thieves. Some growers even used electrocuting wires and poisoned selected watermelons in their fields that were marked by signs to “pick at your own risk.” (However, this plan backfired when a farmer confused a safe melon for a deadly one and poisoned the family.) According to Shields, more people were killed in watermelon patches than in any other part of the American agricultural landscape except for cattle rustlers and horse thieves. 

In the 1840s, Nathaniel Napoleon Bradford (1809-1882), the sixth great-grandfather of Nat, began experimenting with watermelon seeds and crossed two varieties to create what became known as the Bradford watermelon. Although it was celebrated during the 1850s to 1910s, it fell out of favor as other varieties became more popular. Its thin skin wasn’t suitable for long-distance shipping and its unusual elongated shape (like an overgrown cucumber) made it difficult to stack. 

Customers line up to receive watermelons that had been ordered online weeks earlier.

At the sacrifice of flavor, watermelons were bred to have tougher, thicker skins to reduce flesh damage and to improve their abilities to be stacked ten deep and loaded on trains without bruising and splitting. In fact, at this time 93 percent of commercially available seed varieties disappeared, and the last commercial planting of the Bradford melon was in 1922. 

Farm products ready for sale
Products from the Bradford Family Farm are ready for sale.

Although commercial production had ended, generations of the Bradford family kept growing the original watermelon for personal use. Then it was “discovered” when food historians, principally Prof. David Shields, were connected with the Bradford family. Shields had been researching the history of watermelons. From agricultural journals and seed catalogs of the 19th century, he was able to determine the characteristics of the Bradford melon: “oblong, dark green rind watermelon with red flesh and white seeds weighing 30 lbs. fully grown. Depending on the soil it is grown in, the rind develops longitudinal reticulations (stripes).” 

If you're taking home more than one, extra trunk space is needed.

Bradford Family Farm

Nat Bradford, an eighth-generation watermelon grower and seed saver of the famed watermelon, has been growing it since he was five and was taught by his grandfather how to save seeds. On his farm, not more than 10 miles from the original breeding site, he grows one of the oldest surviving North American watermelons. Over the decades, the Bradford family was saving up to 4 percent of each year’s crop as seed melons to create plantings in the next season. 

More melons are delivered to the sales tent.

Six weeks after I had placed an order, I arrived at the farm, appropriately marked with a hand-painted wood sign. A few people were standing in line to pick up their orders at the sales tent. Only a few watermelons were there. I must have looked worried because Bradford told me that he’d have a few more soon. Within minutes a pickup truck came down a dirt road to the tent, and the crew began offloading more melons. 

Nat Bradford washes every watermelon before handing it to a customer.

Don’t think that I got a dirty melon! Nat washes every one before he places it in a customer’s arms. (Both arms are needed to carry something so huge to a car.) I had ordered two, and they needed a large trunk space for the ride home. The person behind me had ordered eight, which at $20 a melon is a sizeable order. One melon that I took home looks like an overgrown cucumber. Both the watermelon and cucumber are from the “Old World” (primarily Africa and Asia) and belong to the same family (Cucurbitaceae) as do squashes, pumpkins, and gourds, but they are only distantly related. 

Bradford watermelon
Is it a watermelon or a cucumber? Whatever it is, it's huge.

Bradford is certainly developing a following for his watermelons. He sold 500 online for pickup during two weekends of August (they grow late in the season). He also has a growing market for his family’s pickled rinds, watermelon molasses, and watermelon brandy. The Bradford family is continuing a multi-generational tradition of distilling the melon’s sugary juice into brandy as well as boiling it to make molasses. The melon’s sweet flesh makes it cherished for more than simply eating at a family dinner. 

Weeding is not a priority because walking in the patch would compact the soil.

Yes, my family is saving the seeds from the watermelons that we carried home. One day they may become a legacy gift.

Sunday, April 19, 2020

A Feast of Reconciliation and Fellowship

Before guests arrive at McCrady's Restaurant, Chef Kevin Mitchell checks the arrangements in the Long Room.
Five years ago I attended an amazing event — and after a five-year-long reflection I can now write about it. It was that profound. Held in Charleston, SC, on April 19, 2015, it has become known as Nat Fuller’s Feast.

Guests at Nat Fuller's Feast get comfortable before the dinner program begins.

Original Dinner

It commemorated and celebrated the original dinner held by Fuller, a newly freed African-American chef, to mark the end of the American Civil War and of slavery. Charleston, the epicenter of secession, had surrendered to Union forces on February 18, 1865, and their occupation liberated the approximately 10,000 slaves who had remained there.

Chef B.J. Dennis brings out a tray of hors d'oeuvres at the reception.

To a feast of his making in his restaurant, Fuller invited prominent citizens, blacks and whites, as his guests. Historian David Shields identifies the significance of the occasion: “Here’s a man who realizes that because of the abolition of slavery ... there’s going to be a new ground of social relationships.”

Prof. David Shields (right) with a re-enactor of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment at the reception.

Abby Louisa Porcher, a grande dame of the Charleston planter society, described the feast this way: “Nat Fuller, a Negro caterer, provided munificently for a miscegenat dinner, at which blacks and whites sat on an equality and gave toasts and sang songs for Lincoln and Freedom.”

A table display at the reception with a portrait by artist Jonathan Green to communicate the spirit of Nat Fuller (although no pictures of Fuller have been found).

The 2015 event also recognized the significant role that free and enslaved African-Americans played in shaping Charleston's cuisine in the mid-nineteenth and until World War I. Before being emancipated, Fuller had been an enslaved cook, caterer, marketer of game, and restaurateur, and he was the foremost private chef in the antebellum city. As described by Shields, Fuller was “one citizen who sought to turn the hearts and minds of the public to the future, to teach Charlestonians the values requisite in the new post-bellum world.”

Advertisement in the Charleston Courier on June 12, 1855 by Nat Fuller, who saved money for his catering business by working as the city's chief marketer of game (courtesy of American Historical Newspapers).

Reconciliation Renewed

Shields chaired Nat Fuller’s Feast in an attempt to re-create the 1865 meal as part of the city’s Civil War sesquicentennial. Chef Kevin Mitchell of the Culinary Institute of Charleston served as host. Chef B.J. Dennis, a Gullah-Geechee culinary specialist; nationally noted chef Sean Brock (formerly of McCrady’s and Husk); and Mitchell prepared the food with the assistance of many others.

I enjoyed meeting Natalie Dupree, the Queen of Southern Cuisine, who is an esteemed chef, cooking show host and author of 14 cookbooks.

The evening began with a reception in The Charleston Renaissance Gallery, a fine arts gallery where Bachelor’s Retreat, Fuller’s restaurant renowned for its pastries and its roasted game and meats at 78 Church Street (now 103 Church Street), had been located. Hors d’oeuvres — brioche with foie gras mousse, strawberry jam and pickled spring onions; benne tart shells with lobster salad and caviar; warm rice bread with smoked tongue and chow chow; chicken and truffle pies — were as remarkable as the cocktails: brandy smash, mint julep, gin with bitters, persimmon beer, carbonated shrubs as well as Nat Fuller’s signature concoctions.

A tray of shells with lobster salad is served at the reception.

During the reception, re-enactors of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, an African-American regiment in the Civil War made famous in the movie Glory, sang songs of the era. This regiment had entered Charleston three days after the mayor had surrendered the city to Union troops. After the reception, we were escorted by the re-enactors to the Long Room of McCrady’s Restaurant for the feast. Food prepared as it was in Fuller’s time came out in waves. In the tradition of Fuller’s banquets, Russian-style service brought courses sequentially rather than all at once, and each waiter served small sections of two long dinner tables.

Re-enactors of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment escort the dinner guests from the reception to McCrady's Restaurant.

The Menu

The platters were overflowing:
  • Potage: mock turtle soup and oyster soup with celery
  • Relishes: mixed pickled vegetables, Bradford watermelon pickles, marinated olives, collard kraut 
  • Poisson (fish): fried whiting, shrimp pie, poached bass, Worcestershire anchovy sauce, mushroom ketchup, walnut ketchup, butter caper sauce 
  • Volaille (poultry): capon chasseur, aged duck with Seville oranges, partridge with truffle sauce
  • Viande (meat): venison with currant demi, lamb chops with mint sauce, beef a la mode 
  • Legumes: asparagus, roasted turnips, fresh peas, baby beets, roasted potatoes, Carolina gold rice, potato puree 
  • Desserts: Charlotte russe, almond cake, blanc mange, punch cakes, vanilla and pineapple ice creams 
The menu reflects dishes prepared by Nat Fuller in the 1860s.

Several of Fuller’s bills of fare have been preserved. They indicate that he cooked veal more than his peers, liked to fry or poach fish rather than broiling it, and prepared food with mushroom and walnut “catsups” regularly. Near the end of the dinner, Shields led everyone in the toast “To Lincoln and liberty” that was also a part of the 1865 feast.

Two soups, not one, begin the dinner.


The menu itself conveys a sense of how well-designed and fantastic the evening was, and the 80 who attended included community leaders, historians, scholars, faith leaders, culinarians, artists, writers, and others. In attendance was the great-great-granddaughter of stellar caterer Eliza Seymour Lee, a free black woman, who apprenticed Fuller when he was being trained as a cook. Because Fuller didn’t sell tickets to his 1865 feast, the organizers decided to select the guests — who would not pay for their meal, but receive it as a gift — except for six, who would be winners of an essay contest administered by The Post and Courier, the daily newspaper of Charleston.

My place setting at the dinner.

When I learned about the contest, I was compelled to enter — a chance to participate in an evening of history, food, and racial reconciliation was enticing. Entrants were asked to explain why they belonged at the table by referring to “the ideals of hospitality, culinary community and social justice embodied by Fuller and his feast.” I fortunately was one of the six winners, and a condensed version of my essay was published in The Post and Courier.

Guests are randomly seated at one of the two long tables to stimulate conversation. 


In 2018 at a conference hosted by the College of Charleston, Ethan Kytla, a California State University Fresno history professor, refuted the claim that Fuller hosted a reunification banquet in the wake of the Civil War. Nevertheless, the college continues to display its digital exhibit about Fuller and the 2015 dinner.

Baby beets are one of the many vegetables served.

Shields had uncovered details about Nat Fuller and his dinner when researching The Culinarians, a book published by the University of Chicago Press. Although Shields acknowledged to The Post and Courier that his research in documenting the original event was imperfect, he is adamant that “there was a sit-down event where blacks and whites were together.”

A platter of meats is served Russian-style by the team of waiters. Photo: Jonathan Boncek.


Six days before the dinner, a video of Walter Scott, an African American, being killed by a white police officer was released that further incited racial tensions caused by the shooting earlier that month. Then two months later nine African Americans, including Rev. Clementa Pinckney, were killed by a white gunman at Mother Emanuel A.M.E. Church. Pickney, also a state senator, had been one of the guests at Nat Fuller’s Feast.

The dinner was held at McCrady's Restaurant in historic downtown Charleston. 

The controversy about the authenticity of the 1865 event notwithstanding, the 2015 feast still has merit — a gathering of fellowship in the spirit of racial reconciliation. That it occurred in Charleston is so meaningful in light of the tragic loss of lives that spring. Attending Nat Fuller's Feast was an amazing experience and causes me to reflect frequently on its significance.

Each guest received a program about the event and Nat Fuller's life.

For more information about Nat Fuller’s Feast, see:

The reception was held at The Charleston Renaissance Gallery where the Bachelor's Retreat, Fuller's famous restaurant, had been located.

Note: McCrady's Restaurant closed when the coronavirus pandemic occurred in 2020 and did not reopen.

Wednesday, April 8, 2020

Finding a Historic Culture in Our Backyard

The chance to find an ancient culture seems like an adventure worth pursuing. Imagine exploring the political and ceremonial center of a complex society that engaged in widespread trade, supported craft specialists, and built earthen mounds for spiritual and political leaders.

Early Civilization

The mysteries of past centuries and an early civilization are hidden in plain sight, but visible if you venture to Town Creek Indian Mound near the town of Mount Gilead in southwestern Montgomery County, NC.

The only state historic site in North Carolina dedicated to Native American heritage, Town Creek offers a glimpse into how people lived here well before the arrival of Europeans and Africans in an era known as “pre-Columbian,” or before Columbus first crossed the Atlantic Ocean in 1492.

Several thousand years earlier, Native peoples began settling in permanent villages near rivers. When they stopped their nomadic lifestyles to search for wild foods, they planted plots of squash, corns, beans, and other produce and made pottery with clay from riverbanks.

Archeological Evidence

Around 1100, these societies began building ceremonial centers, some surrounded by stockades. Town Creek represents such a center, although it has largely been reconstructed using archeological evidence. Scholarly research and archeology have been conducted there for more than half a century. Excavations first began in 1937, when the site was acquired by the state, and still continue today, although on only a limited basis. Because these people left no written record, archeology has been vital to uncover their history.

When I first visited Town Creek and saw the palisade, or fence of wooden stakes, that surrounds the site, it reminded me of stockades built in the 1600s at Jamestown and other colonial settlements. However, entering inside lets you know that you are experiencing a much earlier history when survival might have been even more difficult. Archaeological evidence indicates that the palisade was rebuilt at least five times.

The open area inside Town Creek made me think of parade grounds in early U.S. coastal forts such as Fort Sumter in the harbor of Charleston, S.C., or open plazas typical of cities designed by the Spanish and best illustrated in the South by the one in Saint Augustine, FL. However, these sites don’t have a huge ceremonial mound as their centerpiece.

The mound at Town Creek was actually the site of three separate structures: first an earthen lodge, then a temple built over the lodge after it had collapsed with age, and finally a ceremonial structure that had a ramp leading to a large plaza or public area where societal meetings and ceremonial activities took place. Around the edge of the plaza, several structures that served as burial or mortuary houses containing graves of a clan were built.

Graves of the elite were decorated with treasured relics, such as copper from the Great Lakes region and conch shells from the coast, that reflected their status in society. Some graves included medicine bundles as well as pots of food for the voyage to the afterlife. Learning that 563 burials have been found at Town Creek captivated me more than seeing the burial artifacts.

Cultural Traditions

In addition to being a burial site, Town Creek was also where socially high-ranking members lived and important matters were discussed among collective clans of the society. It was also the scene of tribal feasts as well as important religious events, including annual purification ceremonies.

After extinguishing all fires in their homes, people from outlying villages came to Town Creek and participated in ceremonial bathing, took “cleansing” medicines, and ate corn to prepare for each new year. When the annual ceremonies ended, villagers returned home to relight their hearths with embers from a sacred fire to symbolize unity with each other. Sharing the fire fostered the idea that they were “people of one fire.”

Town Creek was abandoned around 1400 when the Pee Dee adopted a more egalitarian social structure. Priestly temples atop mounds that reflected government by an elite fell into disuse. As large council houses were created to conduct government by consensus, burial practices changed as well.

The site is a popular destination for field trips by schoolchildren. “It’s fun to see how amazed they are when they walk through the guard tower and see what a village once looked like. It’s like stepping back in time,” says Rich Thompson, site manager. He estimates that about 12,000 children on school field trips visit each year, some from as far away as Ocracoke Island on the Outer Banks and others from neighboring states.

The oldest state historic site, Town Creek Indian Mound has several special events throughout the year that focus on archaeology and explore the lifestyle of the Native peoples, known as “Pee Dee,” who are not culturally connected to familiar regional groups such as Lumbee, Catawba and Cherokee but were influenced by a different tradition known as South Appalachian Mississippian. Learning more about an ancient culture is definitely an adventure worth pursuing

Note: The post is based on my article about Town Creek published in the March 2019 issue of OutreachNC Magazine.

Thursday, April 2, 2020

Scheduled for Demolition but Now Thriving as a Museum

Imagine a small, bustling community taking shape in a remote, isolated area and growing with the development of agriculture, naval stores and iron works. That scene is an early picture of what is now Lee County (before it was carved in 1907 from Moore and Chatham counties).

Commerce was initially transported over unpaved roads and waterways — the Cape Fear and Deep rivers. Once coal was mined commercially and added to other products of the local economy, a rail connection was indispensable for further growth.

At the junction of two new railroads, the community of Sanford began to take shape in the 1860s, and soon T. W. Tucker arrived to manage the burgeoning rail business. As the first depot agent for the Raleigh and Augusta Air Line Railroad, he and his family became the initial residents of the Railroad House, the oldest house in the city.

Built near the depot in the center of town in 1872, two years before Sanford itself was incorporated, the classic Gothic Revival frame cottage has always occupied a very prominent spot in the community and demonstrates that the city was originally a railroad town. Because the city was named for C.O. Sanford, the chief civil engineer for the railroad, the influence of transportation is clearly important.

The well-being of the Railroad House has had its peaks and valleys. Fortunately, today it is thriving as a principal component of Depot Park, which has evolved into the cultural and communal center of Sanford where concerts and events are held and families play and enjoy leisure time. However, the stability of the house was not so certain several decades ago.

While Tucker and his family lived at the Railroad House, a school for girls was run there by his wife Inder. Because Tucker was also Sanford’s first mayor, the house flourished as a mainstay of community life. However, its importance began to fade. In 1916 the railroad sold the then 44-year-old house, which next became the home for several families before it was used as a tea room.

Because the house had deteriorated, it was scheduled for demolition in 1962. However, interested citizens banded together to save it and formed the Railroad House Historical Association. Through their efforts the house was moved across the street to its current location, restored and given a new life first as the home of the Chamber of Commerce for 30 years and now as the only historical museum of Lee County.

“Interesting artifacts are located throughout the house,” says Emily Mierisch, who volunteers regularly at the Railroad House because “I just love history.” With historical photos, objects and documents of the area’s early days, the house is indispensable in preserving local history as itself is being preserved.

A historic steam engine, known as Old No. 12, anchors an important part of the landscape near the house. With two small wheels in front and eight large driving wheels, it was placed in service in 1911 and officially retired in 1955.

Also part of the park is the passenger depot (circa 1900), a one-story brick structure typical of its period and renovated in 1976. Its charming, wide, overhanging red tile roof with flared eaves almost rivals the artistic architecture of the Railroad House.

The house’s central chimney with a recessed lancet panel (inspired by the beauty of cathedral windows) on each face and a crenellated cap adds an antiquated charisma to Sanford’s historic district that encompasses 53 buildings, most dating from 1895 to 1930.

The Railroad House’s simple board-and-batten siding is enriched in the front by decorative features such as central double windows, each with a four-over-four sash. Other embellishments include gables on the main roof, two dormers and entrance porch that are ornamented with a finial and cross-bracing.

The interior of the house is finished in simple fashion with wide beaded baseboards and plaster walls. The original floors are mostly intact, and the mantels have a typical nineteenth-century design. The house consists of a one-and-half-story main block, which has three rooms on the lower level, and a one-story rear wing with its own chimney.

Visiting the Railroad House, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, is a great way to celebrate local and national history.

Note: The post is based on my article about the Railroad House published in the April 2020 issue of OutreachNC Magazine.

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

Cattle Auctions Offer Glimpses in Agricultural Heritage

When is the last time you attended a cattle auction? Never? But if no cattle auctions were held, your prime rib, flank steak, and hamburger would likely be in short supply.

Carolina Stockyards

Curious about the journey ahead for the cattle that you recently passed while traveling on a two-lane road? Your chance to learn about American agriculture and appreciate the work of cattle farmers begins in nearby Chatham County, NC—home of Carolina Stockyards Company, one of about a dozen stockyards in the state.

Although Siler City is known much more for chicken production at the Mountaire Farms plant downtown that at full capacity can process 1.4 million chickens a week, Carolina Stockyards is the place to watch old-fashioned livestock auctions. About a mile west of Siler City, it holds auctions twice a week. Monday sales start at 1:30 p.m., and Friday sales begin at 10:30 a.m. It has 14 full-time employees but as many as 35 work on auction days.

Cattle Auctions

Jennifer Thomas, office manager, says that auctions are observed frequently by members of Future Farmers of America and regional high school students who are planning agricultural careers. When you visit, you’ll be surprised how quickly a sale starts and ends. A helper brings in a steer and an auction begins immediately with its statistics displayed on a digital screen.

The auctioneer’s voice booms over the loudspeaker. Very soon “going, going, gone” ends the sale, and the next one begins. The tiered seating area that surrounds the auction floor is often crowded. As you watch, keep your hands down and be careful not to scratch an ear, adjust your glasses, or jiggle a hand. The auctioneer might interpret such motions as meaning that you’re placing a bid. For sure, don’t hold up a sheet of paper that is another signal you’re bidding.

Early History

The early days of Carolina Stockyards began in 1950 when brothers Harry Lee and Howard Horney, who were operating Horney Livestock, bought Siler City Livestock Company with auctioneer John Brewer. They gave the business, located south of the city, a new name: Carolina Stockyards.

As the business thrived in the 1970s, it outgrew its facilities, and a new livestock market was built in 1972 west of Siler City where the business grew rapidly. It quickly became the largest stockyard in the state. By the mid-1980s, it was the largest livestock auction market east of the Mississippi River. In 2004, the stockyard was sold to Robert Crabb Jr., his father Ray, and several other investors.

Importance to Local Economy

In recognition of its contribution to the area’s economic growth, the stockyard received the Agriculture Hall of Fame Award from the Chatham County Board of Commissioners in 2010, the first year of the award program. At the time of the award, Commissioner Vice Chair George Lucier said that the stockyard means “so much to our agricultural excellence.”

Carolina Stockyards sells more than 80,000 head of cattle a year. On one Friday, more than 1,000 head of cattle were sold (as well as 101 goats and 62 sheep). Weights ranged from slightly more than 200 to 1,800 pounds. The highest price range was $150-$186 per head. Prices paid here still set the market price statewide.

Kevin Gray, owner and operator of Hickory Creek Farm, reflects, “I grew up going to the stockyards every Friday selling cows with my dad. Now 30 years later I’m taking my boys on Friday nights and hardly anything has changed.”

Don’t be surprised if you hear someone playing “International Harvester” by Craig Morgan, who sings, “I’m the son of a third-generation farmer. I’ve been married ten years to the farmer’s daughter. I got two boys in the county 4-H.”

People—sellers, buyers, spectators, farmers, friends—come and go throughout the day as auctions continue until all livestock are sold. A visit to a cattle auction can help you appreciate American agriculture and the work of cattle farmers.

Note: The post is based on my article about cattle auctions at Carolina Stockyards published in the July 2019 issue of OutreachNC Magazine.

Wednesday, January 15, 2020

Sharing Favorite Foods with Family and Friends

If you want a lot of great home-cooking, your best bet is the all-you-can eat Southern buffet at Fuller’s in Pembroke, NC. Although Fuller’s is open daily, the Sunday crowd seems like family and makes the restaurant lively.

On that day more tables are taken by family groups than on other days. Tonya Rouben, who grew up in Pembroke, was having lunch with 11 family members who still live in the area. Now living in Atlanta, Rouben says, “I wish I had a place with home-cooking like this where I live. I love the barbecue and fried chicken. “A lot of Lumbees are in the kitchen cooking. It’s hard to beat Native American cooking,” she adds.

Sisters in Faith

At a table for eight, LaVica Farmer of Fayetteville, NC, was eating with her sisters in faith, including one who is 93. All are members of Bethany Presbyterian in Lumberton, NC, that was formed in 1875 and has a historic African-American legacy. Some are descendants of families who established an adjoining academy in 1903 and built the current church building in 1938.

They were with Rev. Helane Church, the pastor at Bethany, and were spending the day praising the Lord, eating Southern food and praising the Lord again. They had just attended the 9 o’clock service in Lumberton conducted by Church before coming to Fuller’s for lunch. Then they were attending an afternoon service, again conducted by Church, at Freedom East Presbyterian in Raeford, NC.

Service and Atmosphere

“Not only is the food delicious, but the service and atmosphere are a treat, so warm. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been here. We come here as often as we can,” says Farmer. Although she did not make one of the iconic collard sandwiches, Farmer says she came close. “I got some fatback, fried cornbread, and ate them with collards,” she adds.

The church ladies appreciate Fuller’s approach for serving fish. “We like ours with the bone in, which is what is on the buffet, but they also made a bowl of boneless just for us. This is a treat,” says Farmer, holding a piece of croaker.

Elder Linda Carter of Lumberton remembers eating at the original location of Fuller’s in that city. It opened in 1986 but was closed permanently after being inundated by eight feet of floodwater from Hurricane Matthew in 2016. About the original location, she says, “I went there a long, long time. The same people who now work here remember your face. They are like family.”

New and Repeat Customers

At another table was Lasheena Jones, who was visiting Fuller’s for the first time with nine family members aged 8 to 74, all from Florence, S.C. Although her favorite on the buffet is the turnip greens, her cousin Francenia Cooper says, “The pork sausage is the best.”

You can tell customers who are new by how they hesitate before going to one of the four buffet stations from a repeat customer who makes a beeline for the favorite. Only in the South would more people hover around the station for vegetables than the one for main dishes. Such was the case where 20 vegetables make customers linger and struggle with narrowing the options before filling their plates.

My favorites are anything green — collards, limas, peas, cabbage, turnip greens, okra (fried). With just a third of the plate now open, I had a hard time choosing among rutabagas, mashed potatoes, corn, succotash, mac ‘n’ cheese and nine more. (Yes, mac ‘n’ cheese is a vegetable.) The second most popular station has main dishes — chopped pork barbecue, chicken (fried, baked and barbecue), fried crab, shrimp and fried fish, sliced roast beef, pork sausage, chicken livers — plus breads such as hushpuppies, biscuits and corn fritters.

Desserts at Fuller's

Customers are not timid about taking desserts — some have at least three. Chocolate layer cake (four layers), strawberry shortcake and banana pudding seem to be the top choices. Other choices included a fruit cobbler, a vanilla layer cake and self-serve soft ice cream. When the dessert station runs out of space, sometimes more desserts are on the fourth station, which is mostly salad ingredients.

The buffet stations are brightly lighted by clerestory windows, a series of small windows along the top of the building near the roofline. Don’t worry about anything on the buffet being stale or sitting too long. Items are continually taken by customers and quickly replenished by servers, who keep the chicken — an obvious favorite — piled high.

Table of Brotherhood

Kristyn Sabara, one of the servers, said that Sunday is the most popular day and a waitlist that day around 1 p.m. is common, although the buffet price of $12.99 on Sunday is $4 more than on weekdays. A menu is also available, but most choose the buffet.

Fuller’s brings to life the dream of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., who envisioned how we would “sit down together at the table of brotherhood.” People of all colors and heritages — once separated by the power of Jim Crow — mingle as they enjoy favorite foods. The scene could be improved only if everyone were served family-style and sat at one communal table.

Note: The post is based on my article about Fuller's published in the January 2020 issue of OutreachNC Magazine.