Kelley Fanto Deetz says she’s “restoring culinary justice” with her new book on the legacy of American eating. “I think food is an important part of everyone’s culture, and it’s a topic that allows you to segue into talking about other issues, like race,” she says. “Everybody eats.”
Bound to the Fire: How Virginia’s Enslaved Cooks Helped Invent American Cuisine explores the lasting contributions of the early slave kitchens—tracing everything from okra stew to collard greens to gumbo back to West African roots. It pieces together the lives of the colony’s enslaved cooks, detailing their back-breaking labor and ingenuity, and includes centuries-only recipes created by slaves and passed down from generation to generation by white masters. Some of the dishes that came out of the early slave kitchens will be familiar indeed. You probably ate them last night.
Deetz, who teaches at Randolph College in Lynchburg, is not only an archaeologist and professor, concentrating on African-American studies, but a former chef. “I used all of those different lenses for my research,” she says.” For example, as a chef, if I see a dinner menu from 18th-century Virginia, I don’t think ‘what an amazing feast.’ I think ‘oh my god, how did they get all of those dishes on the table at the same time?'”
She grew up in Berkeley, Calif. to a family equally involved in food and academia—her dad was an archaeology professor and, at age 10, she was working in the kitchen of her sister’s Oakland restaurant, cutting carrots and peeling asparagus. “She trained me to do back of the house stuff, so eventually I was grilling people’s filets, working 3–4 times a week, totally not legal,” she laughs. “When I was 14, I got a job at a Mexican restaurant and became an assistant manager. Within a year, I was a chef. I made the food, grilled the meats, made the salsa. I also worked next door at an Italian restaurant, making pasta and sauces during the day. Then I catered for years and years on and off.”
When her father retired from University of California, Berkeley, he came to the University of Virginia to teach. “I followed him out when I was 19,” Deetz says. She eventually got a degree from William and Mary before returning to UC-Berkeley for advanced studies. “Even when I was going to grad school, I was still pulling shifts at restaurants and with catering jobs on the side just to pay my bills.”
She returned to Virginia, eventually working as a research associate for the James River Institute of Archeology, and to study in detail the early lives of America’s slave cooks. “As someone who is interested in history,” she says, “living in Virginia and traveling to these plantation museums, I became less interested in the people living in the big house and more about what was happening in the slave kitchens, because I was familiar with that landscape. I had questions in my head, and I was able to look at things in a way that someone else who doesn’t have a background in cooking wouldn’t.”
Deetz recently spoke to Savor Virginia about her provocative new book and the answers she found.
When I first heard about Bound to the Fire, I thought: Hasn’t this book already been written somewhere?
That’s exactly what I ran into when I started this project 10 years ago—the assumption that we already knew this history, that we had the enslaved cooks figured out. There definitely have been little windows into their lives found in larger works on Southern women and books on slavery generally. But nobody actually went back into the archives in the way that I did.
Was visiting Virginia’s plantation homes an inspiration?
Yes, that’s what started it. And a lot of it was looking at the sale ads for enslaved cooks—reading the old 18th-century newspapers and realizing that these cooks were being sold for their skills, and were being sold for more than other slave laborers in the 1730s, 1740s. The entire 18th century was all about building the colony, building the domestic spaces.
But when we visit Monticello or Mount Vernon, we see these spacious kitchens, and that was not the norm, right?
Not at all, not at all. Those homes are exceptional in every way, they had every financial resource afforded to them. But a vast majority of elite Virginians were not living in homes like that, and they didn’t have the same obsession that Jefferson did for fresh food. [Ordinary] kitchens were definitely on the hearth still. They didn’t have beautiful stew stoves or fancy baked ovens, they were still literally cooking on the ground in the kitchen into the 19th century.
How did your background as a chef inform your research?
It’s through recipes, though menus, that I’m able to deconstruct and then reconstruct what the labor was actually like. I’m thinking of it in a very pragmatic way—how long did it take to make that oyster stew, and what other dishes were on the table with that oyster stew? It’s something that traditional historians don’t usually bring to the archives with them.
What did you learn about the early diet of America?
The 17th century was about surviving. At one point, in Jamestown, they were eating rats, and eating each other, to stay alive. You can’t romanticize 17th-century Virginia, but what happened when women started coming over, when the colony really started to take hold, was you had households developing and new identities being formed. During this same period, you had an influx of enslaved West Africans coming in. They were taken from their homeland and forced to make food that was very unfamiliar—a lot of roasted meats. And all of it is happening in a new place, where people are eating corn, which didn’t exist in Europe—it was an American crop. So you’ve got things mixing together in interesting ways you hadn’t seen before. There are influences of the food of Native Americans, British, of later German and even later French. But these elite plantation homes, having enslaved Africans in the kitchen, you can see the transformation of food moving from being something that was necessary to stay alive to something representing wealth and sophistication and elite pedigree.
The book makes a connection between the slave diet and what we think of today as ‘comfort food.’
If you were an enslaved people working in the field, you would get a little tiny bit of meat and some corn meal. The rest had to come from your own garden that you had to tend after you worked all day, so if you’ve got one little chunk of meat and some greens, you are going to put the meat in that pot and flavor those greens in a way that makes it taste decent. And you need something like fatback, having some sort of fat in those pot of greens is going to make it taste better and give it more calories. So the whole Southern high calorie diet is coming from an era of our history when slaves were literally almost starving to death—calories were essential to survive during the Colonial Antebellum period. But now, today, we are still eating that food, and it’s problematic because we aren’t starving to death, and we’re eating a million other things besides.
You actually chart when slave-influenced food begins to become a staple in the white households.
You can really see it in the handwritten cookbooks from the 18th to 19th century. In the 18th, most of the food being recorded by white ladies is all European inspired—plain European fare. But in the 19th century, you start seeing things like pepper pots, okra stew, jambalaya and gumbo written down in these cookbooks. And those are West African dishes. I would argue that whites were eating the dishes in the 18th century, but they became a cultural norm, they became American cuisine, by the 19th century. Like any good recipe, if it’s good enough to eat, you are going to write it down.
What ingredients, and specific dishes, can we trace back to the enslaved cooks?
The biggest ingredient you can point to is okra, a West African vegetable, the one thing that ties food from the Caribbean, South America, Central America, to the southern U.S. It takes the form of pepperpot in some locales, okra stew in Virginia, gumbo in the deep south. It was put in these large pots of stew to thicken and used throughout the African diaspora, and it’s the one food you can find in most places wherever enslaved Africans were brought. Okra was cheap, grew like crazy and, importantly, it was eaten in both the slave quarters and in the large houses.
There’s jambalaya, a rice dish with meat and seafood in it, a very close cousin to jollof rice, one of the national dishes of many West African nations. It has the same flavor profiles, balance of ingredients, heavy spice, vegetables and some meat and rice. And of course rice came over from the Sierra Leone and was planted in the rice country here, and there were slaves being brought over here to grow the rice.
And, of course, there’s greens. During the slave trade and the early American colonies, the slaves had a mostly plant based diet, and they had to live on whatever food they were given. And then they had to supplement that with their own gardens, with food that they had to go catch, things like turnip greens, sweet potato greens. They had to eat it because they were starving. So they were taking these kinds of vegetables and turning them into these delicious things that we now think of as essentials for Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner, but it was very much something born of necessity.
What do you hope that readers come away with after reading, Bound to the Fire?
People are buying it to read about food and they end up learning a lot about slavery. I think we need to give credit to people who have been written out of history, written out of a legacy. These are people whose contributions we enjoy every single day. There are recipes in the book, not necessarily so a reader can create them, but to show how much labor went into them. It’s being marketed as a food book, but I’m not tricking people, it’s all tethered together. You can’t have the romance of this food without the pain and reality of slavery.
“Bound to the Fire: How Virginia’s Enslaved Cooks Helped Invent American Cuisine” by Kelley Fanto Deetz is published by University Press of Kentucky. For more on the book, visit here.
Samples from Bound to the Fire
2 quarts of flour
2 tablespoonfuls of lard or butter
2 tablespoonfuls of salt
Enough sponge for a two quart loaf of bread. Mix with one pint of sweet milk. Make into rolls and bake with very little fire under the oven.
Precise measuring was required for the proper chemical balance of this diet staple. In addition to being accurate in his or her measurements, the cook had to be able to control the temperature of the Dutch oven and the fire. Most recipes also called for “kneading the bread for half an hour without intermission.”
1 teaspoonful salt
1 tablespoonful black pepper
1⁄4 pound butter Yolks of three eggs
1 pint rich milk, perfectly fresh
3 tablespoonfuls flour
Separate the oysters from the liquor: put the liquor to boil, when boiled add salt, pepper and butter, then the flour, having previously made it into a batter. Stir all the time. When it comes to a boil add the eggs well beaten, then the milk, and when the mixture reaches a boil, put in the oysters; let them also just boil, and the soup is done. Stir all the time to prevent curdling.
Fish a la Crème
Boil a firm fish, remove the bones, pick it to pieces. Mix one pint cream or milk with two tablespoonfuls flour, one onion, one-half pound butter (or less), and salt. Set it on the fire and stir until it is as thick as custard. Fill a baking dish alternately with fish, cracker, and cream. Bake for 30 minutes, use four crackers.
A Risen Cake
Take three pounds of flour, one and a half of pounds sugar, a teaspoonful of cloves, one of mace, and one of ginger, all finely powdered—pass the whole through a sieve, put to it four spoonsful of good yeast, and twelve eggs—mix it up well, and if not sufficiently soft, add a little milk: make it up at night, and set it to rise—when well risen, knead into it a pound of butter, and two gills of brandy; have ready two pounds of raisins stoned, mix all well together, pour it into a mould of proper size, and bake it in an oven heated as for bread; let it stand till thoroughly done, and do not take it from the mould until quite cold.
Oyster Sauce for Fish
Scald a pint of oysters, and strain them through a sieve; then wash some more in cold water, and take off their beards; put them in a stew pan, and pour the liquor over them; then add a large spoonful of anchovy liquor, half a lemon, two blades of mace, and thicken it with butter rolled in flour. Put in half a pound of butter, and boil it till it is melted—take out the mace and lemon, and squeeze the lemon juice into the sauce; boil it, and stir it all the time, and put it in a boat.
Boil two or three pounds of tripe, cut it in pieces, and put it on the fire with a knuckle of veal and a sufficient quantity of water; part of a pod of pepper, a little spice, sweet herbs according to your taste, salt, and some dumplins; stew it till tender, and thicken the gravy with butter and flour.
18th- and 19th-century recipes collected from Virginia cookbooks by Kelley Fanto Deetz for Bound to the Fire: How Virginia’s Enslaved Cooks Helped Invent America’s Cuisine (University Press of Kentucky)