If there is one thing I found myself surprised to be talking about with one of the Southeast’s premiere caterers – Jack Brantley of Camden – it was peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
But that’s quintessential Mr. Jack, an 81-year-old mix of sophistication, Southern gentleman and simple ingredients.
“I can be happy with a peanut butter and jelly sandwich,” he said.
“Last night I had a PB&J. I fried up some bacon. I love bacon and I love PB&J, so I thought, to hell with it, I’ll put them together. Oh lawd, it was delicious.”
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And it was a pleasure – no, I take that back, it was an experience – to spend a recent morning talking with Mr. Jack at his historic, antiqued-filled home on Broad Street, just a few blocks from the center of the horsey town due east of Columbia.
Our conversation was the a la carte kind, so let’s start with some appetizers.
Mr. Jack grew up in Ridgeland, South Carolina, on a 25,000-acre hunting preserve called Good Hope Plantation. His father, Lamar Brantley, was the plantation’s superintendent.
“The family that owned it was from New York. They and their guests would come down during hunting season. We lived there like it was our plantation. It was an unreal way to grow up. There was a big house and a cottage. My family lived in the cottage. There were big old oak trees everywhere. When the acorns fell, Daddy would pick them up and take them to the duck ponds. Growing up there was something you would dream of. Lawd, we grew up thinking that’s the way everybody lived.”
As a boy, Mr. Jack went to “little old Ridgeland schools.” When it was time for college, he wanted to go to the University of South Carolina in the capital city.
His father had other ideas.
“ ‘Son,’ my daddy said, ‘the best thing for you to do is look at USC as we go by because you’re going to Clemson.’ ”
Upon graduation, Mr. Jack said he “didn’t know what he wanted to do.”
Thus began a stint in the banking industry; a position with the state Parks, Recreation and Tourism Department. He also worked with the Jaycees, nearly becoming its national president.
“I withdrew after the 22nd ballot and the guy from Ohio won.”
In 1971, the Kershaw County Chamber of Commerce asked him to come to Camden and run its show.
“I said, ‘Lawd, I don’t know about that,’ but I went.”
And now, for the main course of this story.
It’s hard to get a precise fix on when Mr. Jack’s catering business got started, but it surely began as a two-person mission in the kitchen of his beloved home – called Aberdeen.
“At some point, somebody called and said, ‘Can you do a little party for us?’ People just knew that I liked to entertain and somewhere along the way, I’d met Nancy Blakeney. When she cooked, she didn’t measure or anything, so we just got started and we worked out of the kitchen in my house.”
“Oh my, yes, that little kitchen,” Blakeney said. She’s 77 years old. She worked with Mr. Jack for at least 35 years, and lives in Lugoff, a stone’s throw from Camden.
“My husband, Reid, helped Jack install a washer and dryer in his basement. They were in the Jaycees together. I invited Jack over for supper. He said to me, ‘You know, you don’t measure anything. You just throw it together.’ He said, ‘Let’s start a catering business.’ I said, ‘Oh, Jack, that’s a lot of work.’ We did our first party in town and it just took off. It was Jack’s demeanor, his personality, that made it a success.”
And maybe the beef tenderloin too.
“Nancy was running the kitchen,” Mr. Jack said.
“Wayne Fenters, a good friend, came up with the marinated beef and that’s when things began to pop. We didn’t advertise or anything like that. We’d go cater a party and someone would ask, ‘Where’re y’all from?’ I’d say, ‘Camden, South Carolina.’ ‘Where?’ I’d say, ‘Camden, S.C., ma’am.’ ”
Mr. Jack has since put Camden on the catering map.
Aberdeen Catery is sought after for functions both big and small throughout the Southeast. The operation has long since moved out of Mr. Jack’s kitchen and into its own digs, with six fulltime employees and a slew of college students who help at events.
The catery has served a president, governors, judges, top-tier business folk and the likes of you and me. The catery sets tables and serves food at parties, business functions, weddings and premiere sporting events, like The Camden Cup and The Masters golf tournament.
“Hootie Johnson called and asked if I would cater a Masters function. I said, ‘Lawd, yeah.’ ”
Mr. Jack caters some events in his home; he thinks nothing of taking down the bed in his bedroom to make room for dining tables.
“We go everywhere. Museums. Barns on farms. Boats in Charleston. Private homes.”
So, you get the picture: the catery goes wherever and whenever, using fine-china plates and whatever else is needed from Mr. Jack’s massive collection of heirlooms and antiques.
He pointed to a large sterling silver trophy, topped with the figure of a horse, which sits on a table in his home’s hallway.
“Originally, it was presented to the winner of a horse race in England. We do punch in it and I’ve been known to put chicken salad in it. It’s no fun if you can’t use all these beautiful things and we use them.”
Mr. Jack and his crew are game for both big and small functions.
“When David Beasley became governor of South Carolina, we were serving 3,500 people in two different places. My smallest function? Two people. Right here in my house. He and she were getting married. We don’t care if it’s two people or 2,000, it’s always fun.”
Which brings us to dessert.
Mr. Jack recently bequeathed his home – one of Camden’s most historic structures, built in the early 1800s –along with its contents, including priceless antiques and a stunning collection of porcelain, to the city of Camden.
“It’s just an awesome gift to the city,” Camden Mayor Alfred Mae Drakeford said.
“When I die,” Mr. Jack said, “I’ll go out the back door in a box and the house will be left completely as is. People will come and be able to have tours.
“I just love Camden. The people have all been wonderful to me.”
And Mr. Jack has been wonderful to them.
“People call out of the blue to visit the house and I say, ‘Lawd, yeah, come on.’… I’m just so happy to know the house is going to be taken care of. I’ve done everything I know to do so that it will be enjoyed by those who come through it.”
And as for the catering business?
When Mr. Jack makes his earthly exit, the business will be given to Brian Haff, who has worked at the catery since he was a senior in high school.
“Brian is like a son to me,” Mr. Jack said. “When he first came in here, he was just piddling. He didn’t know how to cook, but he started cooking, cleaning, whatever. It just kept going. I hope he will enjoy it as much as I have.”
Haff said Mr. Jack has been key in helping with his career.
“I was lucky enough to do a job shadow with Jack and Aberdeen Catery that has paved the way for my career. With two degrees and Jack’s mentoring, I’ve learned the catering business from the ground up over the past 23 years. Jack took me under his wing and prepared me well to take over when the time is right.”
In the meantime, Mr. Jack has no idea of retiring.
“Lawd, no, I can assure you of that. The only reason I stay home is if I don’t have a party. I don’t look at it as work. I look at it as having a party. I get up every day knowing I’m going to have a party and I’m going to have a good time too. A lot of times I don’t get to bed until 3 or 4 a.m. That doesn’t bother me. I just want to know everyone has had a good time.”
Salley McAden McInerney is a local writer whose novel, Journey Proud, is based upon growing up in Columbia in the 1960s. She may be reached by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org
Stories of Mr. Jack
Talk about a party man. At the seasoned age of 81, Camden caterer Jack Brantley can evermore put on a big do. Here are a few “Jack Brantley stories” from folks who have worked for him and those whose parties were catered by him.
“Jack is absolutely the most perfect caterer. The first time I used him (for a party) I was in a rush, worried about this and worried about that. He came in and said, ‘OK, dear, all you have to do now is go put on your dress and lipstick.’ ” Page Morris, Columbia
“Jack is just a fine ambassador for Camden and South Carolina. He’s generous and treats you like his oldest friend. He just knows how to do. So funny, when you go in his house and he has a ham in the oven, he’ll say, ‘There’s nothing like a ham in the oven to make people feel like they are at home.’ ” Lee Brockington, Hobcaw Barony, Georgetown County
“I started with Jack at Aberdeen Catery over 40 years ago and we formed a catering family. Wonderful memories for all occasions. I most enjoyed catering at Augusta National for one week every year – the Masters.” – Betsy Greenway, Camden
“Jack is the best of the best. He did a birthday (garden) party for my husband, Hank. We took an afternoon nap and awakened to see a magnificent party in our backyard with a band, flowers done to the nines, and food stations to die for. No one ever misses a party done by Jack.” Coe Hankinson, Columbia
“When I got married in ’01, we asked Jack to cater my wedding. My mama was sick during that year I planned the wedding. Often, I would visit her in the hospital and talk wedding with her. She was not able to attend and it was hard to plan a ‘big Southern wedding’ without my mama. Emotionally, it was hard. I was young and knew she was not well. Trying to keep happy was a feat in itself. Jack shared sweet stories with me about her and tried to help me relax and enjoy. Which I did, very much. Our reception was beautiful and he worked so hard not only on our food but the decorations as well. He made sure I laughed during that year of planning. He may not have realized what he was doing, but being around him helped me cope. When mama passed less than a year later, he quietly sent his signature tenderloins to our family home … His genuine kindness during those times will always be remembered. He is a classic individual who I am proud to know.” Shannon Miles Smith, Lugoff
“When my granddaughter Holly was 10, Jack insisted on arranging a horse-driven carriage for her friends …Of course, he showed his home to them. He always insisted on children coming to his home during the holidays to see all the decorations. Of course, the parents were always scared their children would break something, but he always said ‘things’ were to be enjoyed and he has actually lived his life that way. Now Camden will be able to have his home for a museum of antiques … He is one of the most generous people I have known.” Paulette Munn, Camden
“I can recall working for Jack during college. During the Christmas season, he always kept me employed and always entertained. Years later, I introduced my fiancée and soon-to-be mother-in-law to Jack. They were planning our wedding down in Charleston and having trouble getting what they wanted. We all went up and met Jack at his home. He won them over in the first five minutes. Our reception at the Charleston Aquarium was one for the books!” Jarrett Branham, Mount Pleasant
“In the summer of 1986, Jack asked me to help with a cocktail party as a bartender. When the summer was over and I was heading back to USC, he asked if I would continue to work and find some classmates to help. He has primarily used my fraternity, ATO, as his source for leadership. He has always had one student in charge of lining up the workforce. When I look back at what Jack has done for me and so many students over the years, it’s almost unimaginable. He probably has the biggest heart of anyone I know.” Chuck Nash, Camden