As a journalist at a bloggers workshop, I was feeling a little bothered while attending South by Southwest Interactive (SXSW) this week, like a wolf in sheep’s clothing, until I realized that the women who inspire me also lived as if there were four of them.
They published cookbooks. Operated retail food businesses. Invented culinary gadgets. Hawked food products. Taught home economics. Catered lavish events. Sometimes, all at once.
As an author, I loved getting to know Abby Fisher and Malinda Russell, and imagining the kind of intelligent and creative recipes that my ancestors might have published if given the opportunity.
This week, I find muse in Kentucky, looking for the perfect mint julep to serve at a catered event next month, where I will be speaking about and teaching southern food traditions, and maybe making a dish or two.
Who me? Multi-task?
The first artifact is The Blue Grass Cook Book, by Minnie C. Fox.
Although it was not written by a black cook, the University Press of Kentucky and I published the historic reprint of Blue Grass in 2005 because it is the first-known cookbook to offer an honest and revealing picture of the state of culinary affairs in the South at the start of the twentieth century. It features more than 300 recipes and a dozen stunning camera portraits – not caricatures – of African American cooks at work. They are pictured above.
More directly than anyone before them – or after, until mid-century – Minnie, and her novelist brother John, publicly acknowledged the black contribution to Southern foodways, Southern culture, and Southern hospitality in 1904. In what amounts to direct and explicit homage, Minnie applauds the “turbaned mistress of the kitchen” for her dignity, wisdom, and talent.
This picture casts a bold shadow of hope and grace on the Aunt Jemima make-believe.
John Fox’s introduction and the photographs of Alvin Langdon Coburn do for these great cooks what historians, cookbook authors, novelists, advertisers, and manufacturers simply did not: They single out for full recognition and credit the black cook as the near-invisible but indispensable figure who made Southern cuisine famous.
Meanwhile, as housewives produced textbooks that emphasized the technical basics of cooking at the turn of the twentieth century, Effie Waller Smith wrote poetry that made powerful statements about the competencies of her African American sisters in the kitchen.
The authority and observations in her collected works, which were discovered and republished by the Schomburg Library in 1991, include interpretation, so I’ve simply included my favorite poem here for you to enjoy, and hopefully to share.
Maybe next time, I’ll attend a meeting of anthropologists.
APPLE SAUCE AND CHICKEN FRIED
By Effie Waller Smith, 1904
You may talk about the knowledge
Which our farmers’ girls have gained
From cooking-schools and cook-books
(where all modern cooks are trained);
But I would rather know just how,
(Though vainly I have tried)
To prepare, as mother used to,
Apple sauce and chicken fried.
Our modern cooks know how to fix
Their dainty dishes rare.
But, friend, just let me tell you what!–
None of them compare
With what my mother used to fix,
And for which I’ve often cried,
When I was but a little tot,–
Apple sauce and chicken fried.
Chicken a la Francaise,
Served with some new fangled sauce
Is plenty good for me,
Till I get to thinking of the home
Where I used to ‘bide
And where I used to eat, — um, my!
Apple sauce and chicken fried.
We always had it once a week,
Sometimes we had it twice;
And I have even known the time
When we have had it thrice.
Our good, yet jolly pastor,
During his circuit’s ride
With us once each week gave grateful thanks
For apple sauce and chicken fried.
Why, it seems like I can smell it,
And even taste it, too,
And see it with my natural eyes,
Though of course it can’t be true;
And it seems like I’m a child again,
Standing by mother’s side
Pulling at her dress and asking
For apple sauce and chicken fried.
Author’s Note: Use caution if you purchase The Blue Grass Cook Book from Amazon. Applewood Books is offering a reprinted copy that does not include my historical background on the Fox family. If you would like to purchase an autographed copy of The Blue Grass Cook Book, please email me.
Last week, Hollywood helped me imagine a place in the spotlight for the women of The Jemima Code.
A world-renowned actor and a producer appeared on “Good Morning America” to discuss their documentary film. The project tells the story of unsung heroes, tracing obscure African-Americans from the earliest days of the republic through today. Historical documents illustrate the struggle. Archival materials expose unknown contributions to American culture. Dramatic and emotional readings by noted Hollywood personalities give life to their thoughts.
The film is called For Love of Liberty: The Story of America’s Black Patriots, but it could just as easily have been titled after this blog: The Jemima Code: The Story of America’s Black Cooks.
Take a look at Southern cookery literature from the colonial era to Reconstruction and post-World War I and you’ll see stories of real women cooking, feeding and nurturing families as those folks went about their daily work. But you’ll have to look carefully. The recorders of history mostly overlooked the contributions made by these people.
To hear the antebellum plantation mistress tell it, she acquired a new recipe, read it to her kitchen slave, and then stood over the cook while she prepared the dish. The cook might later apply some African technique, or add a local ingredient, incorporate a leftover into it, or simply adjust the formula because of an environmental factor — like humidity or uncooperative chickens who didn’t lay enough eggs that morning. Over time the dish became something new and original – a “Southern creation.”
The “exotic-sounding preparations were first known through English cookbooks, contained various strands of direct Indian influence, and, were developed by African American ingenuity and creativity,” says historian Karen Hess, but Aunt Dinah entered history as the provider of labor.
Without property rights, the cooks lost ownership of the hybridized cuisine they created when their “soul” food, (black-eyed peas and wild greens) passed from the cabin to the Big House. They were like the slaves who produced ironwork, baskets and architecture: they transmitted their craft orally and left little written proof of their accomplishments.
Once in written form, these “new, original” American formulas were sold to an eager cookbook-buying audience, rarely acknowledging any debt owed to the servants who modified the English recipes – whether the cooks were the indentured servants of the North, or the slaves of the South.
Consider the diary of Emily Wharton Sinkler.
Emily was evidently a very busy low-country plantation mistress. In her journal and letters she describes the anticipation of arriving visitors. Mixing and mingling at the horse races. Scouring the countryside for cuttings and root clippings for her gardens, and days filled with reading, writing, music, long walks, and horesriding. The portrait of Emily also details her love of traveling and shopping in Charleston and Philadelphia, the wonderment of lavish dinner parties, her housekeeping experiences, rigorous Bible studies, and the family’s strict observation of the Sabbath.
Her receipt collection is just as full as her schedule, boasting recipes for numerous items produced by her family’s enterprise, including recipes for household cleaning solvents, dyes, soap, and candles.
Interestingly, there is little mention of Emily’s servants, even though some of her favorite dishes reflect the African influence. Like other authors of the era, Emily “consigned cooks to anonymity, depicting them in condescending caricatures as bandanna-headed mammies, and kindhearted, but formidable servants,” says culinary historian Barbara Haber. And, I can’t help but wonder: When did hard-working Emily sleep?
Fortunately for disparaged cooks like Chloe, modern copyright law validates a notion popularized by the America Eats Project, that: “The making of the masterpiece does not lie in the food, but in the preparation.”
The culinary publishing industry has long presumed, that changing a single ingredient or step in the method spawns a new dish and therefore new ownership. This standard allows that even a cook whose imagination is first stirred by a written recipe, but who substitutes key lime juice for lemon, opts for a different cut of meat, increases the amount of sweetening, or for that matter changes sugar to molasses can and should expect her name to follow the recipe title.
If that is true, then the recipes slaves like Chloe created while crossing culinary boundaries in the Sinkler household are a strong witness to the African American cook’s reputation, and testify to their value as worthy documentary subjects.
No, these women didn’t risk their lives for their country. They just provided the nourishment for those who did.
In the introduction to An Antebellum Plantation Household, author Anne Sinkler Whaley LeClercq writes that Emily had various receipts for pea soup, and she especially prized fresh peas. The addition of salt pork and black-eyed peas to Emily’s recipe for Winter Pea Soup shows the slave influence. I adapted her recipe for modern tastes. It is perfect for the end of winter and is dedicated to Chloe, her cook and to Maum Mary, shown above picking peppers. The dish is already rich in fiber, but if you want to make it a power-house, go ahead and stir in cooked black-eyed peas to your liking.
In Her Kitchen
Split Pea Soup
- 2 cups green split peas
- 1 ham bone
- 1 cup chopped onions
- 1 large carrot, diced
- 1 large stalk celery, diced
- 1 large clove garlic, minced
- Salt, pepper
- Place peas in a large saucepot and add enough water to cover. Soak overnight and drain. Or, to reduce cooking time, bring the peas and water to boil and boil 2 to 3 minutes, then turn off the heat and cover. Let stand 1 hour. Drain. Add 2 quarts water, ham bone, onions, carrot, celery and garlic to the pot. Bring to boil, then reduce heat and simmer gently about 1 1/2 hours, or until peas are tender. Remove bone from soup and cut off the meat. Dice and return to the soup. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Number of servings: 6
In Her Kitchen
Yesterday, the First Lady announced an ambitious initiative designed to “eliminate childhood obesity in a generation.” Her nationwide campaign, entitled “Let’s Move,” was kicked off with a presidential memorandum that established a plan to evaluate and coordinate public and private services, and to improve health information so that parents can make better decisions about their children’s diets.
In a news conference announcing a multi-agency task force, Michelle Obama explained that our children aren’t responsible for the epidemic that confronts this country — 1 in 3 children is considered obese, while this country spends $150 billion each year treating obesity-related illnesses. Michelle also explained to reporters that the idea for the program came to her as a response to advice from Sasha and Malia’s pediatrician, who suggested that she “…might want to do things a little bit differently.” After all, Michelle Obama reminded viewers, it is parents who are responsible for making healthier food choices available and appealing to youngsters, and who can and should encourage kids to spend less screen time, and more time engaged in physical activity — preferably outdoors.
I wasn’t surprised at all by the First Lady’s commonsense approach to today’s confusing health messages, food labeling chaos and the dearth of wholesome, fresh food in some urban communities — what she called, “food deserts.” Michelle descends from a legacy of women who made survival in difficult times an art form.
We are all busy. Food portions are huge. Chemicals and artificial ingredients are hidden from view. And, yes, sugar is everywhere. But that does not mean we have to live as victims. With inspiration from our foremothers, we can choose dietary balance and moderation without resorting to packaged, artificial foods for convenience.
Just consider the focus, and imagination of slave cooks, unable to read or write, as they performed multiple tasks at one time, and demonstrated remarkable feats of recall, memorizing dozens of English recipes as they prepared meals in Big House and cabin kitchens. In a patriarchal system that didn’t even offer slave women control over their own sexuality, choosing a particular food, and a particular means of preparation, contributed to their sense of self-esteem because it offered them a small element of control. These women managed to maintain vestiges of their African cultural past while preparing meals for the master’s family and their own without the constant eye of the “missus” looking over their shoulders.
We can live with minimal exposure to the world’s apple, too.
The traditional view of a slavewoman’s responsibility for preparing and serving meals in her master’s hot cookshop mirrored her image as a lowly servant charged with the most onerous and arduous tasks of the household. But, the role of food and cooking took on immense cultural and ideological significance when she returned to the privacy of her home in the slave community.
Lizzie Farmer of McAlester, Oklahoma, remembers family cooking with some fondness; it was a time for women “to spend the day together,” trying out new skills and preparing fresh, seasonal foods:
“Young mistress taught me how to knit, spin, weave, crochet, sew and embroider,” Farmer told an interviewer for the Works Progress Administration. “In the cullud quarters, we cooked on a fireplace in big iron pots. Our bread was baked in iron skillets with lids and we would set the skillet on de fire and put coals of fire on de lid. When we want to cook our vegetables we would put a big piece of hog jowl in de pot. We’d put in a lot of snap beans and when dey was about half done we’d put in a mess of cabbage and when it was about half done we’d put in some squash and when it was about half done we’d put in some okra. Then when it was done we would take it out a layer at a time.”
Like French chefs who recalled their “old ways” when dealing with unfamiliar foodstuffs and working with “inferior substitutes” following wartime, slave cooks, applied “African grammar – methods of cooking and spicing from remembered recipes, and ancestral tastes to the grains, fruits, vegetables, meats of the New World,” says historian Charles Joyner. They demonstrated technical knowledge and skill, took their time, and followed directions with discipline and order.
Food rations varied little from plantation to plantation – cornmeal, pork fat, molasses, and sometimes coffee, depending upon the master, making food collecting a necessity slave women turned into a luxury to maintain cultural continuity with Africa. All across the south, black cooks enlivened the family’s monotonous diet, before and after their work day by hunting, fishing, crabbing, oystering, clamming, foraging for wild nuts, fruit and vegetables, and gardening in small plots.
They evaluated the quality of ingredients at their disposal and determined their flavor profiles. They considered how one food might work with another according to taste, aroma, and appearance. They understood the importance of food safety and maintaining freshness, and identified the proper way to store and hold various ingredients. And, they relied upon rudimentary tools such as mortars and pestles to pound out “sarakas” flat rice cakes.
Mom Hester Hunter, of South Carolina, explains that cooks balanced work and home with advance preparation and organization. In her WPA interview, she said: “De peoples sho cook dey dinner for Sunday on Saturday in dat day en time.”
Slave women also applied classic techniques (like those taught in today’s culinary academies) to common ingredients. They supplemented meager stocks and broths with fresh meat scraps. They braised meat bones and aromatic vegetables into stews; roasted wild game; stewed wild leaves and greens; thickened meal into mush; preserved seasonal fruits into jelly, substituted sweet potatoes for rice, cured ham. They coped with the differences between “tenderness and putrefaction;” understood timing, frying, poaching, sautéing, galantines, fermentation, custards, and forcemeats.
Michelle Obama’s new initiative doesn’t tell us exactly how to improve our health and slow the pace toward obesity, but even casual observers can see some clues in our ancestry: Simple, fresh ingredients. Plucked from the garden. Made from scratch. Following standard techniques. Spiced with cultural seasonings. Portion control.
What were some of your mother’s food rules? “Clean your plate; eat your vegetables?” Click Comments below to share them with us.
In Her Kitchen
Collard Greens and Turkey
- 3 ½ quarts water
- 1 smoked turkey leg
- 1 onion, chopped, about 1 cup
- 3 garlic cloves, minced
- 2 pounds (2 bunches) collard greens, chopped
- Salt, pepper
- Bring water, turkey, onion and garlic to boil in a large kettle, then reduce the heat and simmer 20 minutes. Meanwhile prepare the greens. Cut off and discard about 4 inches of the stem. Stack 5 or 6 leaves, roll up, and slice greens into 1-inch strips. Roughly chop, chopping stems more than the green tops. Add greens to the turkey broth, cover, and cook over medium heat about 2 hours. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Number of servings: 8
In Her Kitchen