This Chef Is Making Civil War-Era Cuisine to Uncover American Food’s Real Roots
"Our history is carnage. A lot of that can be seen in the food. It’s food as carnage.”
All photos courtesy Hatchet Hall.
“The fascinating thing about our history is that it’s very dark,” Brian Dunsmoor tells me, hunched over hand-scrawled menu notes for Fuss & Feathers, the supper club out of his Southern-American inflected restaurant, Hatchet Hall, that takes a deep dive into what we mean historically when we talk about American food. It also happens to be one of the most exciting tasting menus in Los Angeles.
“In almost every direction you look, it’s very dark. If you look at George Washington or Thomas Jefferson or anyone that was of influence at that time [of America’s origins] you can’t find a clean slate. That’s why we’re so fascinated with American food. And why so few people know or talk about it. I think because it’s all tied to some really horrible things. Our history is carnage. It’s carnage. A lot of that can be seen in the food. It’s food as carnage.”
Named for General Winfield Scott (affectionately known as Old Fuss and Feathers) who was equally famous for his role in defeating the Confederacy as he was for being an unparalleled gourmet, Dunsmoor’s monthlyish dinner walks twelve diners through a tasting menu of American history and its intrinsic relationship with American food. And he does it all without the help of modern technology or electricity. Instead, the dedicated chef brings 11 elegant courses to life with a wood-fired hearth as the sole means of heat—a mesmerizing and hotter-than-hell pit of ash, ember, and flame decorated with a small sign reading “Diablo.”
Dunsmoor’s hearth set up includes a grill, flat iron, crane, and essentially every kind of cast iron vessel you can think, some of which have been custom-fabricated to fit the space, style, and means of cooking of the time. “The only thing we cheat with is boiling water,” he says, towering over the smoldering hearth with a visible pride. “And that’s just because it takes almost an hour to get a boil going.” While most modern American hearth cooking tends to embraces the rustic and nostalgic, Dunsmoor goes for refinement—save for a final rustic course of whole suckling pig and silken heirloom grits that purposefully lies in contrast to the rest of the meal (he doesn’t want anyone going home hungry).
Dunsmoor uses heirloom varieties of grains, fruits and vegetables as well as types and cuts of meat and poultry that were common during America’s beginning, and pairs each dish with wines that reflect the varieties of grapes planted and grown. Dishes are then paired with stories from Dunsmoor’s partner Jonathan Strader, who walks the intimate private dining room explaining the inspiration and history of each dish. “To wed Virginian and French cookery is the happiest unions in the history of cookery,” Strader quotes Thomas Jefferson, alongside a course of sand dab meuniére amandine roasted on the bone . But that’s not all Strader says. He also explains that Jefferson’s food-based Francophilia led him to have his slaves trained in classical French cooking—some were sent to France to learn—and much of French cuisine’s early foothold in America can be traced back to their influence. You’re then encouraged to eat the sand dabs with your hands.
Beyond dishes that highlight the place and role of African-Americans and slave culture in the development of American cuisine, Dunsmoor also dedicates much of the menu to Native American history. Salt Spring Island mussels or spot prawns (depending on the season) are cooked over hot rocks laced with seaweed to pay homage to the two-thousand-year-old Algonquin technique of cooking shellfish packed in seaweed and buried with hot rocks—a technique which, if you weren’t familiar with Algonquin cooking methods, you might think began and ended with New England-style clambakes.
Dunsmoor and Strader hope this tasting menu gets people to understand the magnitude of the contributions to American cuisine from marginalized and unrecognized communities—and that the history of food isn’t necessarily all happy memories and romantic nostalgia.
The partners see now as the perfect time for this. “With everything [politically and socially] going on right now, everyone is sticking their heads in the sand,” Dunsmoor says. “I think it’s good to open up people’s eyes about what American food is and where it came from. It’s even hard for us to talk about these dishes sometimes. It can be upsetting and raw. We’ll offend people regardless because that’s part of it. That, or else we can just pretend that our food is all European and we can keep on pretending.”
The next Fuss & Feathers will take place in January 2019. Stay abreast here.