Kelley Fanto Deetz, "Bound to the Fire: How Virginia’s Enslaved Cooks Helped Invent American Cuisine" (UP of Kentucky, 2017)


The concept of “Southern hospitality” began to take form in the late eighteenth century and became especially associated with Virginia’s grand plantations. This state was home to many of our founding fathers. Their galas, balls, feasts, and entertainments became famous internationally as well as at home. On whose shoulders did this success rest? Not the mistress, whose role was mainly that of social director. The labor was slavery, the abundant and spectacular food was produced by enslaved cooks. Bound to the Fire: How Virginia’s Enslaved Cooks Helped Invent American Cuisine (University Press of Kentucky, 2017) is their story. Let’s start with where you can’t learn about them. Colonial Williamsburg and many plantation houses that are tourist destinations did their best in the early twentieth century to remove all traces of slavery. Field hand houses and kitchens alike were razed. Author Kelley Fanto Deetz is director of programming, education, and visitor engagement at Stratford Hall, the birthplace of Robert E. Lee, near Lynchburg, Virginia. She has made it her work to restore the history of the “disappeared.” First, the kitchen: an external brick building with at least one hearth burning constantly, where the enslaved cooks and their families often lived upstairs. The author examines the question whether being a “house slave” was better that being a field hand. Yes and not. The reader learns why. When the transatlantic slave trade was banned internationally in 1803, Virginia plantation owners began to come under scrutiny from their business associates and abolition groups on both sides of the Atlantic. Discussions at table were becoming problematic, not in small part because enslaved butlers and waiters were hearing about what the world beyond the plantation thought. This gave rise to “protective” architecture between the external kitchen and the house, which Deetz describes in detail (Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello is an outstanding example). Nat Turner’s failed slave rebellion in 1831 had a further reactionary result: it because illegal for a slave to learn to read or write. The irony is that enslaved cooks did learn to read, write, and do simple math because it was required in their work: reading and writing down recipes, and changing measurements. Labor without negotiating power was the enslaved cook lot. The dynamic between mistress and slave was complex, and the enslaved cook, while powerless, still worked to find ways to bend the power struggle in their own favor. This was inevitable given that the enslaved cook was a de facto member of the master’s family, feeding them (often tweaking dishes with African ingredients such as okra), providing companionship to her mistress (plantations were isolated from each other) and her children likewise providing playmates for the mistress’s children. And everyone had an enslaved “mammy.” Some details in this book dismay, some shock, but perhaps the most jaw-dropping story is about George Washington and his famous enslaved cook Hercules. This alone makes Bound to the Fire a book to read and reread. Kelle Fanto Deetz has a doctorate in African Diaspora Studies from UC Berkeley and is founding director of the Shared History Project.

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