- Bound to the Fire: How Virginia's Enslaved Cooks Helped Invent American Cuisine by Kelley Fanto Deetz
This book aims to challenge the historical myth of the whitewashed enslaved cook by replacing the accommodating smile of the fictional Aunt Jemima with the dignified expression born of highly skilled, though bound, labor. Bound to the Fire: How Virginia's Enslaved Cooks Helped Invent American Cuisine [End Page 677] focuses on the history of enslaved cooks and their role in shaping American cuisine. Unlike other historians of foodways, Kelley Fanto Deetz focuses less on cultural continuities and transmissions and directs her attention more toward examining the lived experiences of the cooks themselves. Within this framework, Deetz is successful in her goal of emphasizing the agency and resistance of her subjects, and she captures well the unique position that plantation cooks held, given the value of their skills and their proximity to their enslavers. Combining archival material with archaeological artifacts, along with the author's background as a chef, this book offers a detailed look at the spatial organization of food production, the geography of the plantation kitchen, and the highly refined skills of the enslaved men and women who labored there.
Bound to the Fire is organized largely around the daily experience of enslaved cooks. The first chapter, which is among the strongest of the five, focuses on the spatial politics of the plantation kitchen. While the themes of this chapter, such as the conflict between household slaves' proximity to the relentless white gaze measured against the relative advantages and privileges of highly skilled slaves, will be familiar to most historians of slavery, Deetz's hands-on approach (her research included visits to several plantation kitchens) provides fresh insights. Subsequent chapters focus on the skilled labor needed to produce the various recipes popular in the Old South and contain a few case studies of enslaved cooks who managed to achieve fame and notoriety, due either to their esteemed skills or to their successful poisonings of the master and his family.
This book is brief, with an introduction and five succinct chapters, each of which could stand alone for use with undergraduate students. In particular, chapter 4, "In Dining: Black Food on White Plates," provides a richly nuanced view of how plantation mistresses relied on the labor of enslaved cooks to create a stage of refined domesticity. White women of the plantation elite defined themselves, at least in part, by public demonstrations of their hospitality and feminine talents for entertaining. Picnics, barbecues, and elaborate dinners operated as public displays of private values, and Deetz's work carefully highlights how such displays relied on a precise blend of the visibility and invisibility of enslaved labor. While such findings are not new, Deetz's focus on the crucial importance of the deliciousness of the food adds a sense of dailiness and grit to our understanding of the labor behind the many stews, hams, biscuits, and pies that appear in the archives.
In addition to directing readers' focus to the skill and political agency of enslaved cooks, Bound to the Fire has a second goal, though one less accomplished. In the final chapter, "In Memory: Kitchen Ghosts," Deetz shifts her analysis to figures such as Aunt Jemima, with the aim of challenging the enduring ideological legacy of the "mythical 'slave cook'" and its concomitant notions of black servility (p. 127). In this reviewer's opinion, Deetz is most successful in her analysis of the daily materiality of plantation foodways, while her analysis of the historical memory of Lost Cause myths falls flat. [End Page 678]