American Cuisine’s Debt to the Enslaved

Men and houses lie; plantation mistresses beat naked cooks. These and other facts have been shrouded in a mythology that rose with the smoke from kitchen fires ...

Men and houses lie; plantation mistresses beat naked cooks. These and other facts have been shrouded in a mythology that rose with the smoke from kitchen fires in the antebellum period and persists into the 21st century in the form of Aunt Jemima on a pancake box, Rastus on a Cream of Wheat box, and Uncle Ben on a rice box, but also in certain works of modern scholarship, including Colonial Virginia’s Cooking Dynasty, by Katharine E. Harbury. In Bound to the Fire, Kelley Fanto Deetz, taking explicit aim at Harbury, works to set the record straight.

Bound to the Fire is a stew of many parts: biography, autobiography, recipes, cultural history, architectural-plan analysis, a review of archeological evidence, fragments of the imagined inner life of a cook, and more, all suspended in the salty broth of Deetz’s outrage over culinary erasure, epicurean appropriation, and kitchen deceptions. With this dish, Deetz renders visible the lives of a specific group of domestic servants: black cooks enslaved on Virginia plantations tasked solely with preparing meals for the planter’s table.

Each chapter includes biographies of multiple specific enslaved cooks. Ranging from a few lines to a few pages, these sketches effectively reveal their intelligence, creativity, culinary sophistication, technical proficiency, and strategic resistance. Martialing the details of these lives, Deetz makes the case that Virginia’s enslaved cooks helped invent American cuisine.

Much of her work on these cooks is both pathbreaking and preliminary, breadcrumbs for scholars to come. Who will give us more about Old Doll, who arrived at Mount Vernon at the age of 78 as part of Martha Washington’s dowry to work in the kitchen with her daughter Lucy? Who will write the full chapter (or script for a film) on the life Sukey Hamilton, who cooked for a governor? Liza Brown tells us her mother was beat for burning biscuits; who will tell us her mother’s name? A discussion of the sexual abuse of cooks on large plantations and of the kitchen as a location of rape is missing, with no obvious breadcrumbs dropped; arguably the omission itself is a breadcrumb. Yet nine years of work with primary sources (archival, archeological, and architectural) do allow Deetz to arrive at more than a few significant conclusions.

Lies—of omission and of fact—about kitchens and enslaved domestics abound in the published histories of America before emancipation and in the scripts of plantation house tours. Plantation architecture lies. Covered colonnaded passages connecting kitchen to dining room create the false illusion of benign masters and mistresses who sheltered their cooks from the elements—when a pan of burned biscuits could and did result in a pregnant enslaved cook being beaten by her mistress with a strap, after getting marched off to the plantation granary and forced to strip off all her clothes. To achieve the refined delicacy of headcheese a cook worked and slept in the immediate vicinity and stench of “fermenting meat, drying blood, fish guts, and rotting vegetables.” These are just a few of the truths she documents that add layers to our understanding of the lived experience of being enslaved.


Slavery Was No Opera

By Qiana Whitted

By choosing to focus on the dedicated cook enslaved in Virginia, Deetz provides us with new awareness of the contours of people too often obscured and erased from both the historical record and public memory, but she also provides us with a new perspective from which to view the wealthiest Virginia planters, their wives, their children, and their guests. Bound to the Fire significantly complicates our understanding, too, of the founding of the nation, and of our founders, particularly Washington and Jefferson.

Deetz reveals the pervasive paranoia and mendacity that planters, along with their kin and the friends to whom they extended hospitality, acquired and required to eat food cooked by enslaved hands.

For instance, in the background of Deetz’s word portrait of the long- and widely acclaimed enslaved chef Hercules (he appears in Margaret C. Conkling’s 1850 volume, Memoirs of the Mother and Wife of Washington, as “one of the most finished and renowned dandies of the age,” as well as “highly accomplished” and “adept in … the important art (cooking) he so long and so diligently practiced”) is a portrait of a devious George Washington who lies and conspires with Martha to shift Hercules between Philadelphia and Virginia to skirt Pennsylvania law that would have emancipated Hercules based on his time lived in Philadelphia.

Ultimately, Hercules outfoxes Washington. As documented by earlier historians, he manages to steal away to freedom while under intense scrutiny. Washington had begun to suspect Hercules would refuse to live out the remainder of his life enslaved in rural Virginia. Adrian Miller, author of the recent volume The President’s Kitchen Cabinet, has drawn attention to recent research that suggest Hercules escaped on George Washington’s birthday, making use of the many distractions and irregularities in the common patterns of the Mount Vernon day a grand celebration afforded.1

Deetz in her telling stays close to the kitchen. After following Hercules to freedom, she circles back to the world of those bound to the fire. She concludes Hercules’s story with a return to a Mount Vernon where Hercules’s still enslaved daughter boldly announces that she is happy her father is free, not sad that he is gone. With these deft strokes, Deetz draws both Hercules as beloved by a very specific member of his black family and slavery as so horrible that a daughter would prefer to lose her father than have him continue to be subjected to it.

To sketch the biographies of these enslaved cooks is to reveal the horrifying degree of exploitation, denigration, and obfuscation required to enslave the people who feed you.

No less provocative for those who prefer their Founding Fathers unsullied is a new portrait of Thomas Jefferson in the background of Deetz’s portraits of Peter and James Hemings. The master of Monticello, Deetz observes, created “a system of high-tech dumbwaiters so that food and wine magically appeared out of the walls in the formal dining room. He also relied on a tiered table that could be set with one course on each tier, enabling a waiter-less dinner. His house with equipped with the most modern and bizarre gadgets to allow the presentation of food without blackness.” And all the while, black Peter Hemings and black James Hemings were working in his kitchen.

Jefferson also built colonnades. Deetz spends a lot of time dissecting the kinds of covered walkways connecting the kitchen to the house, be they colonnades or underground “whistling walks” (to which I return below). According to Deetz, “Aesthetics can explain some of the popularity of these additions, but their true function—to conceal the daily activities of slavery—became more apparent as time went on.” Further on in her discussion of colonnades she notes, “the more high-profile the planter, the more likely he was to build a walkway between his kitchen and the mansion. Entertaining guests from other regions or nations where slavery had been abolished forced these white slaveholders to create a flexible landscape that could hide their moral sins from disapproving guests.” Dumbwaiters, tiered mechanical tables preset for the service of various courses, hidden doors, and veiled passages each emerge in Deetz’s text as “an extreme example” of a pervasive “attempt to hide black domestic labor.” Which is another way of saying, getting your architecture to lie for you.

In her final chapter, “In Memory: Kitchen Ghosts,” Deetz addresses public memory, public history, and plantation tourism. Of the “absurd tales” told on plantation tours, she writes that they “function to ease white tourists’ feelings about slavery … while perpetuating the stereotypes of the bad character and dishonesty of African Americans.” One of the tales that fails to amuse Deetz is that of a “whistling walkway” that connected an external kitchen to a dining room. The story told on the tour of the Berkeley Plantation, in Charles City County, is that the enslaved cook or waiter was required by their mistress to whistle as they walked through the passage carrying food, to ensure they were not stealing and eating.

Deetz challenges both the facts and the interpretation of the facts around the-oft told tale of the “whistling walk,” suggesting alternative purposes and interpretations for the mandated whistling. Shifting the focus from black mischief onto white fear, she concludes that “these whistling walkways acted as a venue for black performance and an architectural manifestation of the social control of enslaved spaces.” In the context of Deetz’s  larger argument we come to understand that whistling to signal that you are not stealing is an act of performance as complex as the cakewalk, a performance that both submits to white expectations and subverts white power with an ironic awareness on the part of the enslaved cooks that they are doing what they are supposed to be doing, whistling, but not necessarily for the reasons they are supposed to be doing it.

To sketch the biographies of these enslaved cooks—Emma, Fanny, Edith Fossett, Ursula Granger, Sukey Hamilton, two different Harriets, James Hemings, Peter Hemings, Hercules, Hannah Johnson, Emmanuel Jones, Lishy, two different Lucys, Nathan, Old Betty, Old Doll, Rachael, Ursula Sanders, Sookey, Elizabeth Sparks, and Susan—is to reveal, document, and detail the horrifying degree of exploitation, denigration, and obfuscation required to enslave the people who feed you; and the poisonings, kitchen mistakes, and kitchen triumphs that can be used to assert one’s humanity.

Viewed from a pallet beside an August cooking fire that blazed at 1,000 degrees all day and all night, requiring attention and labor while plaguing the cook who tended it with the afflictions including death by hemorrhage; or from the spot where you load the dumbwaiter so the food you labored to create can appear magically disconnected from your industry; or from the granary where you were whipped over burned biscuits or bread, Washington and Jefferson look very different than they do in their Gilbert Stuart portraits.

Viewed from the perspective of the kitchen, plantation architecture and planters lie like dirty rugs.


This article was commissioned by Annette Joseph-Gabriel. icon

  1. Adrian Miller, The President’s Kitchen Cabinet: The Story of the African Americans Who Have Fed Our First Families, from the Washingtons to the Obamas (University of North Carolina Press, 2017), p. 67.
Featured image: Detail from George Washington’s Cook (ca. 1795–97), attributed to Gilbert Stuart, possibly a portrait of Hercules. Wikimedia Commons