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  • Going DutchA Pot's Place in the Southern Kitchen
  • Rebecca Sharpless (bio)

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A visual image sticks with me: a photograph said to be from Refuge Plantation in Camden County, Georgia. A dark-skinned woman, almost surely a former slave, in a white turban and an immaculate apron covering a floor-length skirt stands in front of an open-hearth fireplace perhaps eight feet wide, filled with cooking gear. The Dutch oven, in the foreground of the photograph, occupies important space on the hearth and in the photo, indicating its prominence in the slave-staffed kitchen. View in kitchen, Refuge Plantation, Satilla River, Woodbine, Camden County, Georgia, by L.D. Andrew, from old photograph in possession of B. C. Heyward, courtesy of the Library of Congress.

[End Page 111]

Last year, I bit the bullet, so to speak, and bought two Le Creuset pots that the upscale neighborhood chain calls "Dutch ovens." After more than thirty years of use by me and at least that many by my Aunt Exa before that, my WearEver aluminum set had become pitted and just about worn out, deserving of a happy retirement in the utility room cabinet. The new pots are gorgeous—a shade of yellow that back in my youth we called "harvest gold." Their enamel surfaces gleam under the lights above the stovetop. I christened the first one with coq au vin at my friend Joan Browning's suggestion and in the ensuing months have used the two pots for everything from chili (with the Wick Fowler seasoning beloved by Texans) to banana pudding for my husband's eightieth birthday (made to his longstanding preferences: the recipe from the Nabisco Nilla Wafer box, double custard, no meringue).

When I bend to lift these beauties from the drawer below the cooktop, however, I pause, for there is the heft to consider. Beneath their glowing surfaces, the pots have cast iron interiors—the larger one weighs in at twelve pounds, so I stop and think about my surgically mended back as I carefully raise one to the burners.

There is also a heft to their story. I consider the woman called "Mammy," her own name unrecorded, whom Martha McCulloch-Williams praises in her monumental 1913 work Dishes & Beverages of the Old South. McCulloch-Williams, like many white writers of the early twentieth century, sentimentalized her childhood on her family's plantation in Tennessee shortly before the Civil War. In acclaiming "Mammy," McCulloch-Williams inadvertently described the cook's physically challenging work, toiling in front of an open hearth, preparing food that her own family would never taste. According to McCulloch-Williams, "Mammy" deployed a sizeable collection of cast iron cooking vessels. In that array were pots with close-fitting tops, featuring "rounded bottoms with three pertly outstanding legs." McCulloch-Williams acknowledged the weight of the cast iron, commenting that the cook used a shovel "so big and heavy nobody but Mammy herself could wield it properly" to spread hot coals over the tops of the pots to fix the McCulloch family's meals. With her great strength and her great knowledge, "Mammy" was, it seems, a master of cooking in the pot known as a Dutch oven.1

A visual image sticks with me as well: a photograph said to be from Refuge Plantation in Camden County, Georgia. A dark-skinned woman, almost surely a former slave, in a white turban and an immaculate apron covering a floor-length skirt stands in front of an open-hearth fireplace perhaps eight feet wide, filled with cooking gear. To her left, on the brick hearth, sits a pot, about ten inches high, on legs, with a rimmed lid: a traditional Dutch oven. The undated picture was most likely taken sometime in the late nineteenth century, but the scene it depicts, with the giant fireplace and the woman in traditional cook's garb, could be a hundred years earlier. (Interestingly, it doesn't look like there is a fire in the [End Page 112] fireplace, and the woman's snowy white apron shows no sign of cooking frenzy. Maybe the photograph was staged to show how things were in...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-1488
Print ISSN
1068-8218
Pages
pp. 111-117
Launched on MUSE
2017-10-31
Open Access
No
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