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  • Bound to the Fire: How Virginia's Enslaved Cooks Helped Invent American Cuisine by Kelley Fanto Deetz
  • Carrie Helms Tippen (bio)
Bound to the Fire: How Virginia's Enslaved Cooks Helped Invent American Cuisine. By Kelley Fanto Deetz. (Lexington: University of Press of Kentucky, 2017. $29.95 cloth; $29.95 ebook)

Deetz builds this examination of Virginia plantation cultural history around a metaphor that emphasizes the importance of the enslaved cook in both the domestic life of a slaveholding family and the public life of the Virginia planter society. In Bound to the Fire, Deetz describes the plantation home as a public theatre where performances [End Page 594] of wealth, race, gender, and regional identity were displayed front and center. The wealthy white host, hostess, and guests used the opportunities of commensality and the props of the dining room to play out their own narratives of white supremacy, financial security, gender ideologies, and a particularly Virginian brand of hospitality. All this work on the "front stage," Deetz argues, is supported entirely by the creativity and skill of enslaved laborers "back stage," while deliberately designed to make black bodies and work invisible.

Though the conclusion that enslaved Africans are responsible for innovating a distinct Southern or American cuisine is well established, Deetz's contribution to the conversation is explaining how architecture and material culture reveal the purposeful and systematic reification of racial hierarchies through the kitchen. In chapter one, "In Home," Deetz argues that Virginia's plantations began building kitchens as outbuildings as a direct result of racial ideologies (p. 18). The Georgian-style plantation home separated the kitchen and slave quarters from the private home, not for the commonly stated fear of fire, but to physically reinforce a social hierarchy and to remove black bodies from the public-facing spaces of the home (p. 21). As the Civil War loomed and slavery became less universally accepted even in polite Virginia society, slaveholders developed other architectural tools to remove enslaved people from public spaces while benefitting from their labor. Covered walkways and tunnels from kitchens to the public spaces hid the movements of black slaves from view. Deetz even suggests that Thomas Jefferson's "system of high-tech dumbwaiters" at Monticello was not merely evidence of a respect for technological innovation but a racist tool "to allow the presentation of food without blackness" (pp. 36–37). The author emphasizes how abstract racial ideologies are made manifest in the material landscape of the plantation. As Deetz makes clear, the kitchen is a kind of threshold between worlds where differences are at once broken down and reinforced.

While Deetz's overall claims are significant and well supported, the book does not make the most of its primary sources. The final [End Page 595] pages make a strong plea for kitchen archeology, but the passages in Bound to the Fire that draw on this evidence are few, brief, and sometimes too hastily concluded for this reader's satisfaction.

The book's best chapter, therefore, is also its most specific. "In Fame and Fear: Exceptional Cooks" outlines the lives of two enslaved cooks notable for their skill and public acclaim (Chef Hercules, enslaved by George Washington and James Hemmings, enslaved by Thomas Jefferson) as well as cooks accused of poisoning their masters. The story of Chef Hercules, in particular, illustrates how keenly aware white slave owners like Washington and Jefferson were of the importance of enslaved cooks to their public reputations and how closely they controlled the appearance of these slaves in public spaces. Apart from good stories, this chapter demonstrates an equal interest in the primary sources as well as the conclusions drawn from them.

Perhaps the most significant contribution of this monograph to the study of food and history comes in the final moments of Bound to the Fire. Deetz crystalizes a trend in Southern food discourse that vitally needs unsettling. Plantation homes present their kitchens to tourists as an acknowledgement of slavery which Deetz suggests is a "safe space," while slave quarters or other sites of enslaved labor would be "too controversial" (p. 135). But as Deetz also notes, the discussion rarely moves to the realities of slavery and racial...


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pp. 594-596
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