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.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780813174730
Publisher: University Press of Kentucky
Publication date: 11/17/2017
Pages: 192
Sales rank: 315,044
Product dimensions: 5.30(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.70(d)

About the Author

Historical archaeologist and historian Kelley Fanto Deetz is a research associate at the James River Institute for Archaeology, and a Visiting Assistant Professor at Randolph College, in Lynchburg, Virginia. Deetz, who was a professional chef for several years, is a contributor to  The Routledge History of Food and  Birth of a Nation: Nat Turner and the Making of a Movement. Her work has appeared in  National Geographic History.

Table of Contents

Introduction: In Myth 1

1 In Home: Standing the Heat 15

2 In Labor: Cooking for the Big House 43

3 In Fame and Fear: Exceptional Cooks 73

4 In Dining: Black Food on White Plates 99

5 In Memory: Kitchen Ghosts 127

Acknowledgments 141

Notes 143

Bibliography 161

Index 173

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

"Kelley Fanto Deetz understands the pleasures and pains of cooking well for large numbers, and she knows that creativity within slave labor camps is especially remarkable. As an archaeologist, she is just the person to revisit Virginia's Big House hearths. Bound to the Fire brings life and dignity to the talented black artisans — many of them gifted chefs — who presided in these steamy kitchens.  Despite their skills, such lifetime prisoners received few compliments from their diners, no wages from their owners, and only patronizing nods from generations of white writers and historians. Deetz uses letters and wills, utensils and cooking pots, even recipes and menus, in composing a suggestive salute to all those once obliged to put delicious food on the tables of the Tidewater elite." — Peter H. Wood, coauthor of Created Equal: A Social and Political History of the United States

" Bound to the Fire is the from-the-ground-up study we've been looking for. Deetz investigates the material culture of the enslaved through the lens of the cooks who forged in flame classic Southern foodways, and she has given us a powerful analysis of the lives of those ancestors whose hands stirred the pots in sorrow's kitchen." — Michael W. Twitty, author of The Cooking Gene: A Journey through African American Culinary History in the Old South

"This sweeping work draws on methods from archaeology to intellectual history to take a 360-degree look at the lives and work of enslaved cooks. The cooks were revered as well as feared; they held positions of authority, but labored under extra scrutiny, and they had some autonomy, yet they worked under the watchful eyes of the plantation elite. Through analysis of kitchens, labor, and handwritten recipes, Deetz relates a story that spans from the late seventeenth century to the Civil War in Virginia, rendering a full understanding of the men and women who cooked for the big house. Deetz exemplifies how enslaved people shaped their own destiny and how they were subject to extraordinary brutality, too. And then there are the recipes sprinkled throughout the book, which invite readers to taste the craft of these cooks. Bound to the Fire redefines much of what we thought we knew about the history and heritage of American cuisine." — Alfred L. Brophy, author of University, Court, and Slave: Proslavery Thought in Southern Colleges and Courts and the Coming of Civil War

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