Bound to the Fire: How Virginia's Enslaved Cooks Helped Invent American Cuisine

Bound to the Fire: How Virginia's Enslaved Cooks Helped Invent American Cuisine

by Kelley Fanto Deetz


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In grocery store aisles and kitchens across the country, smiling images of "Aunt Jemima" and other historical and fictional black cooks can be found on various food products and in advertising. Although these images are sanitized and romanticized in American popular culture, they represent the untold stories of enslaved men and women who had a significant impact on the nation's culinary and hospitality traditions even as they were forced to prepare food for their oppressors.

Kelley Fanto Deetz draws upon archaeological evidence, cookbooks, plantation records, and folklore to present a nuanced study of the lives of enslaved plantation cooks from colonial times through emancipation and beyond. She reveals how these men and women were literally "bound to the fire" as they lived and worked in the sweltering and often fetid conditions of plantation house kitchens. These highly skilled cooks drew upon skills and ingredients brought with them from their African homelands to create complex, labor-intensive dishes such as oyster stew, gumbo, and fried fish. However, their white owners overwhelmingly received the credit for their creations.

Focusing on enslaved cooks at Virginia plantations including Thomas Jefferson's Monticello and George Washington's Mount Vernon, Deetz restores these forgotten figures to their rightful place in American and Southern history. Bound to the Fire not only uncovers their rich and complex stories and illuminates their role in plantation culture, but it celebrates their living legacy with the recipes that they created and passed down to future generations.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

Deetz, an assistant professor of history at Randolph College and a former chef, illuminates the real lives of enslaved cooks on the plantations of 18th- and 19th-century Virginia. Images of African-American cooks in American popular culture, such as Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben, are largely advertising agency creations associated with servility rather than with creativity or self-determination, she argues. But these men and women shaped both plantation life and Southern cuisine, while occupying a kitchen space that was “a crossroads between black and white worlds.” Though few of these enslaved women and men left written records of their experiences, Deetz draws on sources that include runaway-slave ads, travelogues, and recipe collections in order to catch glimpses of cooks in the kitchen and beyond. Her vivid portraits reveal these cooks producing the African-influenced dishes at the core of Southern hospitality, and occasionally poisoning their owners with those same dishes. Most importantly, Deetz recasts the image of the plantation cook as a figure of power, dignity, and, frequently, resistance. This is a lively and insightful account of a still-largely-unfamiliar aspect of the history of American slavery. Illus. (Nov.)Correction: An earlier version of this review misstated the college where Deetz teaches.

From the Publisher

"Deetz ensures her readers understand the significant intellect, physical strength, endurance, and capabilities required for enslaved cooks to produce four meals per day from scratch in hot, open-hearth kitchens while under the constant threat of psychological abuse and violence. Scholarly yet readable, Deetz's book honors these American ancestors by reclaiming their rightful places and stories." — Booklist

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780813174730
Publisher: University Press of Kentucky
Publication date: 11/06/2017
Pages: 192
Sales rank: 558,444
Product dimensions: 5.30(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.70(d)

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