Saturday, September 5, 2020

From Garden to Table - Slave Chefs Helped Shape American Cuisine


Enslaved men & women have had a significant impact on the nation's culinary traditions from the colonial period until today. They were forced to prepare food, usually raised or grown in the owners' fields, nearby waterways, & gardens for the owners & their guests.  

In most cases, fellow slaves had planted & tended the gardens & fields where the plants grew, cared for the animals destined for slaughter, & caught the fish in local rivers & nearby salt-waters. For their own food, many slaves received a weekly or monthly ration of vegetables, meat, & sometimes fish from their owners.  To add to this allocation, some owners allowed their slaves to grow a small garden near their slave quarters.

Archaeological discoveries, notes on "receipts" (or recipes), & plantation journals & records offer hints into the lives of enslaved plantation cooks from colonial times through emancipation. These men & women often lived & worked inside the sweltering conditions of Southern plantation house kitchens; & when the heat was unbearable, they slept on the ground very near the kitchen.  Fellow plantation slaves probably built the kitchen as well. 

These cooks drew upon skills & seeds brought with them from their African homelands to create complex, labor-intensive dishes such as oyster stew, gumbo, jambalaya, & fried fish.  From the gardens, they added African accents with hot peppers, peanuts, okra, & greens. Some methods of cooking that are well-known in the U.S. today were reported in West Africa before 1500, including deep frying fish & barbecuing meats.

How Enslaved Chefs Helped Shape American Cuisine

By Kelley Fanto Deetz, Zócalo Public Square
Smithsonianmag.com  July 20, 2018

This...is the story of people like Chef Hercules, George Washington's chef; & Emmanuel Jones, who used his skills to transition out of enslavement into a successful career cooking in the food industry, evading the oppressive trappings of sharecropping. It is also the story of countless unnamed cooks across the South, the details of their existences now lost...

It’s not easy uncovering the histories of enslaved cooks, who left few records of their own & whose stories often appear in the historical record as asides—incidental details sprinkled through the stories of the people who held them in bondage. In my recent study of enslaved cooks, I relied on archaeological evidence & material culture—the rooms where they once lived, the heavy cast iron pots they lugged around, the gardens they planted—& documents such as slaveholders’ letters, cookbooks, & plantation records to learn about their experiences. These remnants, scant though they are, make it clear that enslaved cooks were central players in the birth of our nation’s cultural heritage.


In the early 17th century, tobacco farming began to spread throughout Virginia’s Tidewater region. Before long, plantations were founded by colonists, such as Shirley Plantation, constructed circa 1613; Berkeley Hundred, & Flowerdew Hundred, whose 1,000 acres extended along the James River. These large homes marked a moment of transition, when English cultural norms took hold on the Virginia landscape.


Traditions surrounding dining & maintaining a grand household were part of those norms, & the white gentry began seeking domestic help. At first, the cooks they hired on plantations were indentured servants, workers who toiled without pay for a contractually agreed-upon period of time before eventually earning their freedom. But by the late 17th century, plantation homes throughout Virginia had turned to enslaved laborers, captured from central & western Africa, to grow crops, build structures & generally remain at the beck & call of white families. Before long these enslaved cooks took the roles that had once been occupied by white indentured servants.


Black cooks were bound to the fire, 24 hours a day. They lived in the kitchen, sleeping upstairs above the hearth during the winters, & outside come summertime. Up every day before dawn, they baked bread for the mornings, cooked soups for the afternoons, & created divine feasts for the evenings. They roasted meats, made jellies, cooked puddings, & crafted desserts, preparing several meals a day for the white family. They also had to feed every free person who passed through the plantation. If a traveler showed up, day or night, bells would ring for the enslaved cook to prepare food...


Enslaved cooks were always under the direct gaze of white Virginians. Private moments were rare, as was rest. But cooks wielded great power: As part of the “front stage” of plantation culture, they carried the reputations of their enslavers—& of Virginia—on their shoulders. Guests wrote gushing missives about the meals in they ate while visiting these homes...


These cooks knew their craft. Hercules, who cooked for George Washington, & James Hemings, an enslaved cook at Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello, were both formally trained, albeit in different styles. Hercules was taught by the well-known New York tavern keeper & culinary giant Samuel Frances, who mentored him in Philadelphia; Hemings traveled with Jefferson to Paris, where he learned French-style cooking. Hercules & Hemings were the nation’s first celebrity chefs, famous for their talents & skills.


Folklore, archaeological evidence, & a rich oral tradition reveal that other cooks, their names now lost, also weaved their talents into the fabric of our culinary heritage, creating & normalizing the mixture of European, African, & Native American cuisines that became the staples of Southern food. Enslaved cooks brought this cuisine its unique flavors, adding ingredients such as hot peppers, peanuts, okra, & greens. They created favorites like gumbo, an adaptation of a traditional West African stew; & jambalaya, a cousin of Jolof rice, a spicy, heavily seasoned rice dish with vegetables & meat. These dishes traveled with captured West Africans on slave ships, & into the kitchens of Virginia’s elite.


You also see evidence of this multi-cultural transformation in so-called “receipt books,” handwritten cookbooks from the 18th & 19th centuries. These were compiled by slaveholding women, whose responsibilities sat firmly in the domestic sphere, & are now housed in historical societies throughout the country. Early receipt books are dominated by European dishes: puddings, pies, & roasted meats. But by the 1800s, African dishes began appearing in these books. Offerings such as pepper pot, okra stew, gumbo, & jambalaya became staples on American dining tables. Southern food—enslaved cooks’ food—had been written into the American cultural profile.


For the women who wrote & preserved the receipt books, these recipes, the products of African foodways, were something worthy of remembering, re-creating, & establishing as Americana. So why can’t we, as Americans today, look at this history for what it was? Colonial & antebellum elite Southerners understood fully that enslaved people cooked their food. During the 19th century, there were moments of widespread fear that these cooks would poison them, & we know from court records & other documents that on at least a few occasions enslaved cooks did slip poisons like hemlock into their masters’ food.


But the country began recalibrating its memories of black cooking even before the Civil War...While newly free African Americans fled the plantations to find work as housekeepers, butlers, cooks, drivers, Pullman porters & waiters—the only jobs they could get...to be an American is to live in a place where contradictions are the very fibers that bind a complicated heritage divided sharply by race.