- Bound to the Fire: How Virginia's Enslaved Cooks Helped Invent American Cuisine by Kelley Fanto Deetz
Kelley Fanto Deetz's Bound to the Fire begins by imagining four individuals, scattered across the United States, going to the grocery store on a Saturday morning and doing something completely unremarkable: purchasing Aunt Jemima syrup and pancake mix. It is precisely the unremarkable nature of that action that Deetz wants her book to help us reconsider. Why have such (racist) icons as Aunt Jemima, Uncle Ben, or Rastus (the Cream of Wheat chef) remained powerful marketing tools? Most importantly, what are the historical roots of these trusty black cooks whose products consumers so readily purchase? As Deetz observes, the idea of the "nonfictional black cook" is so "ingrained in American domestic culture" that we fail to ask a fundamental question: "Who were these men and women who were forced to cook for those who enslaved them?" (2).
Deetz seeks to answer this question by examining the role of enslaved cooks in Virginia. Countering the stereotype of enslaved cooks as "whitewashed" and detached from the larger enslaved population (132), Deetz draws on information from a variety of fields (history, archaeology, archival studies, folklore) to tell a more complicated story. Plantation cooks, she observes, were often literate and "highly skilled"; they used those skills to "creat[e] meals that made Virginia famous for its cuisine and hospitality" (2), all while working under extraordinarily challenging emotional and physical conditions. Their importance to plantation culture made them powerful—it was, after all, largely upon their labor that the social reputation of the planter and mistress rested—yet their importance also made them vulnerable to perpetual monitoring, and failures could be costly. Deetz argues that the enslaved cook existed in a liminal space between black and white worlds; from that position, she or he could—within limits—subvert, control, and invent. Invention is critical: Deetz asserts that [End Page 295] enslaved cooks "single-handedly transformed American food and gave birth to southern cuisine" by introducing such West African foods as okra, black-eyed peas, and gumbo into the plantation diet (125).
Bound to the Fire examines the experience of enslaved cooks from a variety of angles. Deetz begins her study with an analysis of the plantation kitchen—the physical space in which the enslaved cook worked. The architectural fea- tures of the kitchen—whether it was internal or external to the home, how it was organized, whether other forms of labor (such as laundry) were performed there, whether it doubled as the cook's living quarters—allow us to understand better both the ways that slavery shaped plantation spaces and also the conditions where the enslaved cook performed his or her work. It is to that work—its grueling nature, the challenging conditions, the training it involved, and the power it sometimes provided—that Deetz next turns. While plantation cooks often had privileges (mobility, access to food, even pay) that other enslaved people lacked, they also lived a uniquely "challenging and stressful existence" (72). Deetz moves from here to explore the lives of several "celebrity chefs" (73), from those who served in the presidential kitchens of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson to those who were notorious for poisoning their enslavers; and to examine the complicated dynamics of what she calls "black food on white plates"—what it means that "Behind every meal and in the shadow of every mistress was an enslaved cook who was responsible for creating" the "lavish" dinners for which Virginia high society became known (99). Bound to the Fire closes with a critique of plantation tourism, which largely buries the history of these critical figures, and a reminder of the importance of continuing to mine available evidence to understand that history better.
As this overview suggests, there is much fascinating material in Deetz's book: Bound to the Fire addresses everything from recipes to the garbage behind the slave kitchen, from "cook wanted" advertisements to family letters, from legal documents to...