- Cooking in Other Women's Kitchens: Domestic Workers in the South, 1865-1960 by Rebecca Sharpless
In her recent work Cooking in Other Women's Kitchens: Domestic Workers in the South, 1865-1960, Rebecca Sharpless provides an intriguing account of the personal and public lives of African American domestic workers from Reconstruction to the beginning of the Civil Rights Movement. She traces how cooking and the other household jobs that accompanied it, including light cleaning, childcare, and shopping, became the main source of income for many black women after emancipation, and how this domestic work shaped both the interracial climate of the South as well as southern foodways and culinary culture. As Sharpless delineates, Cooking in Other Women's Kitchens has three major foci: "to look at the way that African American women . . . used domestic work, particularly cooking, to bridge the old ways and the new, from slavery to employment of their own choosing"; "to discover how African American cooks successfully functioned within a world of extremely hard work, low wages, and omnipresent strife"; and "to refute the widespread popular stereotypes about African American cooks" (xi-xiii) such as the Mammy and Aunt Jemima tropes. Sharpless's work expands the existing literature on African American women and domestic labor in all three areas; however, her most palpable contribution is the way in which she adds depth to existing studies in the field (Doris Witt's Black Hunger, for example) by using interviews, letters, autobiographies, newspaper articles, manuscripts, and other archival material to trace the public and private lives of black female domestic workers. Moreover, Cooking in Other Women's Kitchens augments additional studies, including Susan Tucker's Telling Memories Among Southern Women and the Duke University oral history project Remembering Jim Crow: African Americans Tell about Life in the Segregated South, by placing these works into their historical and cultural contexts. It also provides a framework to the self-writing of former African American cooks, such as Cleora Butler and Idella Parker, who, in their own words, describe life as a southern [End Page 105] domestic laborer during the first half of the twentieth century and the ways in which their occupation impacted their family and immediate environment.
Sharpless divides her examination into seven chapters, devoting the first part of her book to the reasons why African American women sought employment as domestic laborers. After the Civil War, employment options were channeled into two main directions: farm labor (as sharecroppers), which in essence perpetuated the fieldwork done by bondspeople, and domestic labor (servitude in the private sphere), which, like farm labor, strove to preserve the racial, class, and gender hierarchies of the antebellum world. For black women living in southern cities, domestic work in the homes of middle to upper class white families became one of the only acceptable, and respectable, ways of earning a living.
As Sharpless outlines, African American cooks faced a range of hardships including discrimination, segregation, long workdays, and low pay, as well as sexual harassment, coercion, and abuse. Nevertheless, these women used their talents to forge paths of resistance. Sharpless conveys how cooks used their knowledge and skills to negotiate better salaries and positions for themselves, and how many, despite a lack of formal training, were able to draw on their traditional culinary background to meet the expectations of their employers. Chapters two and four are particularly notable for their descriptions of the creativity of these cooks, many of whom merged black and white foodways to formulate dishes that pleased discerning "mistresses" and dinner guests. She also explains, in great detail, the evolution of the practice of "toting," or bringing home leftovers, which for many black cooks served either as a supplement to their income or to their larder when used as a substitute for monetary compensation. In addition to expanding the variety and nutritional quality of home meals, the practice of toting allowed African American women to take pride in their work. After all, their children might be eating the product...