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

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For decades, smiling images of "Aunt Jemima" and other historical and fictional black cooks could be found on various food products and in advertising. Although these images were sanitized and romanticized in American popular culture, they represented 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 knowledge and ingredients brought with them from their African homelands to create complex, labor-intensive dishes. However, their white owners overwhelmingly received the credit for their creations. Deetz restores these forgotten figures to their rightful place in American and Southern history by uncovering their rich and intricate stories and celebrating their living legacy with the recipes that they created and passed down to future generations.

ISBN-13: 9780813198545

Media Type: Paperback

Publisher: University Press of Kentucky

Publication Date: 01-09-2024

Pages: 192

Product Dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.51(d)

Age Range: 18 Years

Historical archaeologist and historian Kelley Fanto Deetz is the Vice President of Collections and Public Engagement at Stratford Hall in Stratford, Virginia. Deetz, formerly a professional chef, is a contributor to The Routledge History of Food, The Birth of a Nation: Nat Turner and the Making of a Movement, and Tanya Holland's California Soul: Recipes from a Culinary Journey West. Her work has appeared in National Geographic History, Audible's The Great Courses, and various podcasts.

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

Alfred L. Brophy

"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."

Peter H. Wood

"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."

Michael W. Twitty

"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."

Table of Contents

Introduction: In Myth
1. In Home: Standing the Heat
2. In Labor: Cooking for the Big House
3. In Fame and Fear: Exceptional Cooks
4. In Dining: Black Food on White Plates
5. In Memory: Kitchen Ghosts
Acknowledgments
Notes
Bibliography
Index