- Cooking in Other Women’s Kitchens by Rebecca Sharpless
In Cooking in Other Women’s Kitchens, Rebecca Sharpless sets out to achieve three goals: to examine how cooking bridged the old world of slavery and the new world of emancipation for African Americans; to explore how black cooks functioned within the world of hard work, low wages, and racial strife; and to refute stereotypes. To accomplish this, she relies on African American voices found in letters, interviews, autobiographies, and cookbooks. By primarily using African Americans’ own accounts, Sharpless expertly avoids the “filters of the media and white people’s sentiments and prejudices” that color other renderings of black experience (xvii).
The outcome is an intimate and honest portrayal of the world of the black cook in the postbellum South. Sharpless’s multi-layered depiction touches on virtually every aspect of the cooks’ experience not only as cooks, but as human beings. She follows the women through their days, from waking in the dark to feed and dress their own children to washing the dishes after the company finally leaves well into the night. She details the cooks’ living arrangements, food materials and preparation, daily tasks, clothing, hours and wages, family life, transportation, relationships, and coping strategies, among other things.
As a result, this book is not so much about the food African American women cooked as it is about the lives they led. The cook stands as a gateway into a culture; her experiences reflect and portray the world around her. Sharpless’s writing is clear, accessible, and fair. She offers her discoveries without judgment, and without the burden of heavy symbolism and interpretation. Thus, both the content and style of Cooking in Other Women’s Kitchens will render it interesting to readers inside and outside of academia who are interested in Southern culture, women’s studies, African American history, food history, and explorations of racism and power.
Significantly, Sharpless refutes two common stereotypes about African American women and food. First, she rejects the image of the jolly cook, noting that black women cooked because it was the only work available to them and the only means to support their families. It was exhausting [End Page 197] work, and when new opportunities emerged, black women pursued them immediately. Secondly, Sharpless discards the notion that black women have an innate, almost mystical knowledge of cookery. She recounts the experiences of several black women who took positions as cooks at a young age with no experience or skills and were terrified of being thrown into the kitchen and expected to perform.
Sharpless rightly summarizes the cooks’ livelihoods as “long hours and little pay” (65). Readers easily gain a sense of the breadth, physicality, and unpredictability of the cook’s work, most of which took place on her feet in hot conditions. Further, a cook had to relearn her employer’s expectations and preferences each time she changed jobs, balance instructions with her own knowledge, and grapple with unreliable quality of materials. Of course, all of this took place under supervision that was consistently racist and often unjust and punitive, with no recourse for the cook who had to hold her tongue to keep her job.
In a fascinating comparison of wages and household goods, Sharpless reveals just how low cooks’ wages were. For example, during one month, “Aunt Sarah” earns $2.50, the same amount her employer paid for oysters (72). These miniscule wages caused extreme difficulty for cooks, whose families struggled with hunger and poverty. Cooks usually lived with several adult family members to pool their earnings. They struggled to care for their children, whom they rarely saw and often left with family members. Though this engendered tremendous hardship, it also created strong family bonds and extensive kin networks in black communities. As Sharpless notes, “Family was the only thing that stood between a cook and the poorhouse” (128).
Despite rigid circumstances, cooks did find ways to assert power in their lives. They would quit or fail to...