In June 2020, Quaker Oats announced they were revamping their famous (infamous?) brand of breakfast products, Aunt Jemima. From the late 19th century to the late 1980s, Aunt Jemima products prominently featured the image of the Black mammy trope to sell the idea that all white families could have the comforting presence of a Southern Black cook in their homes. As always, there was immediately a backlash from Americans who appealed to the place Aunt Jemima holds in American nostalgia – but what many don’t realize is the way that the figure of Aunt Jemima was specifically created to provide that sense of nostalgia drawn from the long, racist history of Black women who were bound to serve white families. In this episode, we explore that history, and go back further to consider how even the staple foods of Southern cuisine originated in the horrors of slavery. 

Transcript for: Slavery & Soul Food: African Crops and Enslaved Cooks in the History of Southern Cuisine

Written by Sarah Handley-Cousins, PhD

Recorded and Produced by Sarah Handley-Cousins, PhD and Marissa Rhodes, PhD

Sarah: On the very day that I sat down to write the copy for this episode, something sort of remarkable happened: Quaker Oats announced that they were getting rid of the packaging imagery and changing the name of Aunt Jemima pancake syrup and baking mixes. Aunt Jemima has been a target of criticism for decades or more. For a century, the packaging imagery featured a smiling, plump Black woman, red kerchief tied on her head, evoking the iconic – and blatantly racist – image of the Southern Black mammy. The name and image were drawn from a character of late 19th century minstrel shows named Aunt Jemima, who portrayed the ‘mammy’ trope – happy, pleasantly plump, endlessly and selflessly serving her white folk – on stage.  In 1989, the image was revamped, making Aunt Jemima look more like a modern Black housewife, but the connotation that she was a domestic servant couldn’t be exorcised from the brand, as numerous scholars, students, and activists pointed out over and over again across the decades. Just as one example, when I was a senior in college, my American Studies comprehensive exam had a question about semiotics in American culture – and I wrote about Aunt Jemima. 

Marissa: But, in the wake of the sweeping change we’re living through at this very moment following the murder of George Floyd at the hands of the Minneapolis police, Quaker Oats finally decided it was time for Aunt Jemima to go. The imagery will come off the packages within the next few months, and the name will be changed sometime after that. It’s remarkable not because it’s shocking that the name and brand image are racist – that is not news to anyone – but that Quaker Oats finally admitted that it was, and that they’re finally, finally going to do away with it. It’s like they finally realized that had no other choice but to acknowledge the elephant in the room. 

Ad for Aunt Jemima pancake flour, from the November 7, 1909 edition of the New-York Tribune.

Sarah: Aunt Jemima is far from the only racist trope used to sell food. In fact, literally as I was typing this, the Mars corporation announced that Uncle Ben’s rice brand would ‘evolve.’ Something like 24 hours later, Cream of Wheat also announced they would ‘review’ their use of a Black chef in their brand imagery. And the reason that images like Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben have so often been used to sell food is because Black bodies have always been intertwined with American food culture, specifically, of course, the food culture of the South. Foods that we associate with Southern cuisine – yams, okra, black eyed peas, sorghum, watermelons, rice – all originated in Africa. Even Coca-Cola, that most quintessential of American beverages, was made from the West African kola nut, a flavorful, caffeine-containing nut known to make even the most unpalatable liquid sweet. 

Marissa: Historians Judith Carney and Richard Nicholas Rosomoff have noted that our image of Africa today is of a “hungry continent,” one chronically unable to feed itself, but that has not always been true. Carney and Rosomoff point out that Africans added “three important cereals, a half-dozen root crops, five oil-producing crops, a variety of beans, nuts, and fruits, in addition to the versatile gourd” to the world agriculture. Africa had its own thriving agricultural system, and its crops moved around the Indian and Atlantic Oceans in the same way that other crops we hear more about – tomatoes, peppers, corn, apples – did. American food, in many ways, is African food.  

Sarah: It’s not just about individual crops, though. It’s also about the preparation of those foods. It’s about the literally hundreds of years that enslaved African and African Americans cultivated, cooked, and served those foods for the pleasure of white people – who then appropriated those foods as the Southern cuisine that dominates Food Network and is served up daily at restaurants like Cracker Barrel. Today, as part of our series on food history, we’re talking about the history of slavery and Southern food. 

I’m Sarah

And I’m Marissa 

And we are your historians for this episode of Dig. 

Sarah: I want to start by saying that, just like in so many of our episodes, we can’t cover every aspect of this topic. I asked for advice from experts on the topic, and followed their excellent reading recommendations, but you just can fit everything in. I’m especially indebted to Megan O’Sullivan, who shared numerous links about the history of Southern cooking, and UB PhD candidate Tory Nachreiner, who is an Africanist and shared the book that ended up making up the backbone of most of this episode. Once I got into the topic, I quickly discovered I just could not follow every lead that folks shared, though. This is a really big, and really important topic, so if it intrigues you and you want to know more, check some of these books out of the library or do some research on whatever thing I didn’t include enough of! And in fact, Elizabeth’s episode will be sort of like a part two for this episode, covering more of the 20th century part of the story of Black America and food, so you’ll want to stay tuned for that. 

Marissa: Nineteenth-century travelers and missionaries popularized an idea that Africa was a “dark” continent, one that was mysterious and unknown to the rest of the “civilized” world – but that ignores the continent’s long involvement in global trade networks. In the ancient and medieval world, African goods were much sought after, ranging from ivory and gold to melegueta pepper, also known as “grains of paradise,” which were prized in Europe and the Middle East. Food traveled too – sorghum, millet, and several legumes made their way around the ancient world. These crops traveled on trade routes, such as the Islamic trans-Saharan caravan routes across North Africa, which brought Ethiopian coffee to the Arabian peninsula and Middle East, and transported the kola nut and melegueta pepper to Europe. In fact, sorghum, a drought-tolerant cereal grain, was brought by migrant Berbers to Muslim Spain through Morocco, where it became a staple part of the Spanish diet. Ibn Khaldun, a Islamic scholar who lived in Seville, wrote that Spaniards were healthy because they subsisted on a diet of “sorghum and olive oil.” 

Sarah: The African crops that moved around the ancient and medieval world, revolutionizing Middle Eastern and European cuisines, also became a critical factor in making the Atlantic slave trade possible. Take, for instance, the banana. Domestication of the banana began in Southeast Asia. (It may also have been simultaneously domesticated in New Guinea). The banana, which was considered excellent food for sea voyages because of its starchy, edible, and hardy stem, then traveled with sailors across the Indian Ocean to East Africa. Bananas and their close cousin, the plantain, were then propagated in Africa, where they became part of the food culture in a variety of ways. The fruit is sometimes mashed into stews or baked or boiled, the roots eaten like a potato or sweet potato or fed to livestock, and the leaves are used as a cooking vessel. Bananas and plantains also have very high yields, making them common and easy accessible. They intertwine with the history of slavery when the Portuguese and Spanish began to colonize the Madiera and Canary Islands, off the coast of Morocco. 

Marissa: These islands were used to cultivate sugar cane. Averill put together an entire episode on sugar and slavery that we highly recommend that you listen to – it’s another good example of how food and enslavement are deeply interconnected. In that episode, she tells more of the story of the use of these islands for sugar cultivation and how it linked to the larger story of the trans-Atlantic slave trade, so we won’t cover that territory here. And as Averill discussed at length, sugar is extremely dangerous and laborious to produce – it requires lots of human labor, and human labor requires calories. That’s where bananas come in. During the late 15th century, the Portuguese began to replace the dwindling native Guanche population on the islands, who they had originally enslaved for sugar cultivation, with enslaved Africans imported from the continent. Judith Carney and Richard Nicholas Rosomoff believe that this was when bananas and plantains were first introduced to the Madeira and Canary Islands. The Portuguese and Spaniards were impressed with the fruits, which were easy to grow and pretty tasty. From these initial sugar islands, the banana traveled across the Atlantic, at first with exploratory expeditions and later on slave ships. 

Sarah: You likely are already quite familiar with the Columbian Exchange, the exchange of crops and livestock between continents around the Atlantic World. (Sarah: This was like, a big deal at the time I was teaching US history to 7th graders, for instance.) However, traditionally, African goods have not been understood as a significant part of that exchange. Take, for instance, this quote from Alfred Crosby, the historian who actually coined the term in his 1972 book The Columbian Exchange: “The. Importance of American foods in Africa is more obvious than in any other continent of the Old World, for in no other continent, except the Americas themselves, is so great a proportion of the population so dependent on American foods. Very few of man’s cultivated plants originated in Africa … and so Africa has had to import its chief foods from Asia and America.” (Side note: talk about portraying Africa as the “hungry continent,” unable to feed itself without the help of non-Africans.) Not only have we underappreciated Africa’s role in the Columbian exchange, we also typically think of the Columbian Exchange as being about the transport of crops specifically to be cultivated for production. In other words, we think about the tomato being transported from the Americas to be grown in Spain and Italy, and the apple being carried from Europe to be grown in, say, New England specifically for agricultural purposes. But a significant factor that sometimes gets lost is that a significant number of crops – and largely African crops – were transported with the sole purpose of serving as provisions on slave ships. The Atlantic slave trade was entirely profit-driven, and while we should all, of course be very familiar with the nature of the middle passage – the ways that infectious disease ravaged these ships, the high death tolls, and other horrors – the goal was to deliver saleable human cargo. To keep enslaved Africans in a state of relative health, slave ships needed to have stores of nutritious food. 

Marissa: Europeans initially tried to provision themselves and their slave ships with their own goods, but found it difficult. They typically only partially loaded ships while in home ports, meaning they needed to take on the bulk of their provisions in African ports. This wasn’t their first choice – while it wasn’t entirely clear in the sources why exactly they couldn’t just  fill up with stuff in Portugal or Spain, it seems reasonable to assume it was more costly and that it meant that goods spent longer on the ship, increasing the chances it would go bad well before arrival in the Americas. The first attempt at a solution was to cultivate European foodstuffs in Africa, but they quickly found that even crops that enjoyed the sunny Southern European weather were not hardy enough to survive the tropics. This is maybe a side note, but this became sort of a cultural sticking point. As we’ve seen time and again (in our Ghost Dance religion episode, for instance) a sign of ‘civilization’ was European style agriculture, with heavy emphasis on wheat production. In both the Spanish and Portuguese colones in the Americas and Africa, wheat was deemed particularly critical because it was the grain that had to be used to make the bread used in communion – but wheat would not grow in either location. At first, this was sort of panic-inducing, but eventually, Europeans were forced to throw up their hands and agree to allowing for communion wafers made from indigenous grains. Anyway, what this also meant was that they couldn’t grow European crops in Africa for use on slave vessels, and instead had to rely on indigenous African foodstuffs. 

Sarah: There are two exceptions to that, however. As slaving expeditions began to diminish the population in west-central Africa, and the Atlantic slave trade placed increasing demands on food production, it became difficult to buy sufficient quantities of African crops to support the immense needs of the slave trade. Frustrated with the time it took to produce African grains like millet and sorghum, and unable to grow European crops in Africa, the Portuguese began to stock their ships in the Americas with American crops – particularly manioc and maize – before setting off on return trips to Africa. Manioc is a root, also called cassava or yuca, that can be pounded into flour. It resisted rotting even in heat and humidity, and is calorie-rich, perfect for use on slave ships. On example of how perverse the slave systems of this era became, the Portuguese used enslaved indigenous people in the Americas to produce and prepare manioc flour to be transported to Africa, to provision garrisons, to be traded for enslaved Africans, and to provision slave ships. Eventually, Europeans cut out the American leg of this trade by bringing manioc and maize to West Africa to be cultivated and prepared by enslaved Africans themselves, particularly by Africans considered less marketable in the trans-Atlantic trade, specifically children and the elderly. So to harken back to Alfred Crosby’s quote about Africa not contributing to the Columbian Exchange, and instead just sucking in resources – well, if that was the case, it was likely because European slavers made it necessary.  

Marissa: The demand for goods to provision slave ships literally changed the landscape of West Africa. Not only did the introduction of American crops change the African agricultural landscape and diet, it led to a redistribution of the West African population. All along the coast, European colonizers built forts called ‘castles,’ often designed to hold enslaved people before they were loaded onto slave ships. Populations then shifted to establish towns around those castles, drawn by the immense need the Europeans had to feed those in their garrisons – both working Europeans and captive Africans – and to stock the slave ships. As early as 1602, travelers to the Gold Coast (now part of Ghana) remarked on the bustling markets that surrounded the Portuguese castle Mina (which the Dutch later renamed Elmina, which later became one of the largest slave trading forts in West Africa). By the close of the 17th century, the town around Mina swelled to between 15,000 and 20,000 people and was the largest European outpost on the African continent. 

Sarah: The passage from Africa to the Americas was long and arduous, and required massive amounts of foodstuffs to feed enslaved cargo and even, to a certain extent, the crew. Slave ship captains leaving Angola budgeted two liters of manioc flour per captive per day, plus smaller amounts of beans, corn, and other forms of flour. The French ship The Diligent stocked African grown millet, cowpeas, and one thousand plantains. Once on board, enslaved women were most often made to do food preparation. This meant freeing up the white crew to do the work of keeping the ship moving, while also saving the cost of having a white cooking crew. The unique needs of food preparation for an enslaved population influenced the very design of slave ships. While cooking areas were typically below decks, on slave ships at least one cooking space (usually the wood-burning cooking hearth) was kept on the deck so that enslaved women could be watched while they cooked. Another cooking space was below in a space near both the officers’ quarters and the area where enslaved women and children were held, keeping both authorities and cooks in close proximity of the cooking space. 

Marissa: The work of feeding those on the slave ship was physically demanding and difficult. Rice was often purchased in the hull because it was cheaper, which meant that women needed to remove the hulls using the traditional African tools of mortar and pestle. The labor of food preparation intermingled with the horrific experience of bondage on the slave ship. One lithograph that Carney and Rosomoff described in their book depicted a large pot of food being passed from the cooking area to enslaved men in which both food and weapons were featured prominently. In the 1770s, British naturalist Henry Smeathman wrote “Alas! What a scene of misery and distress is a full slaved ship in the rains. The clanking of chains, the groans of the sick and the stench of the whole is scarce supportable … two or three slaves thrown overboard every other day dying of fever, flux, measles, worms all together. All the day the chains rattling or the sound of the armourer riveting some poor devil just arrived in galling heavy irons. The women slaves in one part beating rice in mortars to cleanse it for cooking.” So we see food preparation portrayed as one of the miseries of bondage.     

Unhusked African rice
Unhusked African Rice

Sarah: Incidentally, the unhusked rice that was cheaper for ship captains to stock up on was also still viable as a seed, meaning that what was brought to the Americas on ships for provisions also, both accidentally and intentionally, planted in the “New World.” While it seems that most of the African rice that grew in the Americas was accidentally distributed, there are also powerful oral histories that exist across South America that tell the story of rice planting as a form of resistance. In Guyana, there’s a story of an enslaved African woman who carries grains of rice in her hair, which she brought to the Maroon community she later lived in – this is how rice cultivation was brought to Guyana’s Maroon descendants. In another version of that story, from Brazil, the enslaved women tucks grains of rice into her children’s hair, so they will have them should they be sold away from her. In yet another version of that story, also from Brazil, follows the children to the plantation where they were sold. Their white master discovers the grains of rice in a boy’s hair and the boy explains that the seeds are an African food. Given that this area in Brazil developed rice plantations, we see how the enslaved used food to maintain a link to Africa and how Europeans in the Americas benefited from both African crops and African expertise in how to cultivate those crops. 

Marissa: We know from primary accounts that some African crops, like rice, fruit bananas, and millet, were first propagated by Europeans in the Americas trying to find ways to feed huge populations of enslaved laborers. But we don’t have direct evidence of how other crops, like the yams, other tubers, and plantains, were first planted in the Americas, and oral histories – like those ones Sarah just shared about rice – often claim that African crops were introduced by Africans themselves. And there is evidence of Europeans first encountering certain crops that we know originated in Africa in their slaves’ gardens. Carney & Rosomoff call this a “shadow world of cultivation,” where Africans cultivated crops, likely from leftover from slave ship provisions. European plantation masters and overseers encouraged enslaved men and women to cultivate their own food in their own gardens because it made their jobs easier. As a missionary in the Danish colony on St. Croix wrote in the mid 18th century: “From this plot, they are to procude their own means of sustenance. The yield is generally great enough that it provides the diligent cultivator with a surplus beyond his basic needs, and from this he can provide himself with other commodities. This arrangement relieves the master of any further cares concerning the slaves than when the essentials for their substances are handed to them in kind, as is the case on several English plantations on St. Croix.” 

But whether they first planted the crops or not, enslaved Africans shaped the food landscape of American slavery through the agricultural knowledge that they brought with them. After all, as Carney and Rosomoff point out, of all the peoples who came to live in the Americas, enslaved Africans were the only ones who had any familiarity with the crops that would survive in a tropical or semi-tropical climate or who had any experience with cultivation. In Barbados, Englishman Richard Ligon wrote that taro, a root that became a staple component of slave diets, was introduced and grown by enslaved Africans themselves, likely initially planted from the stores of the root used during the middle passage. In the Carolinas, three West African staples – rice, cattle and cowpeas – became so entrenched in the colony’s agricultural economy that they ended up feeding much of the British West Indies, then later, Carolina exported rice to much of the Atlantic World. 

Sarah: I want to shift here a little bit away from crop exchange, and spend the rest of the episode talking a bit more about how those foods – and the people who prepared those foods – came to shape what we think of now as American Southern cuisine. We’ve already established that many of the foods that have become staples of Southern (and American) cuisine came from Africa by way of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. But as black chattel slavery became an institution, those foods became more than just subsistence crops grown to feed large populations of enslaved laborers, like they originally had been in the sugar islands. And this process happens outside of the United States, too, of course – African foods and enslaved cooks shaped the cuisines of many cultures across the slaveholding Atlantic World – but I want to drill down and focus just on American Southern cooking. We started the episode by talking about Aunt Jemima, the iconic and problematic image used to sell pancake mixes and fake maple syrup. (Which is a sin in and of itself.) Aunt Jemima was a character that emerged from black face minstrelsy, based of course on the stereotype of the beloved Southern mammy. Even if you’re sketchy on the history of all this stuff, you’re very likely familiar with the mammy stereotype– she’s an older, sexless, matronly Black woman, wearing in a simple dress, kerchief and apron, usually with another kerchief on her head. For decades, that’s how Aunt Jemima appeared. 

Marissa: The ‘mammy’ figure represented a romanticized version of the Black women, both enslaved and working after emancipation as domestics, who raised white children in wealthy Southern households. The mammy was central to the re-writing of antebellum Southern history because she embodied (in the minds of whites) the love that enslaved women had for their white families. In fact, the mammy was so central to Southern Lost Cause mythology that in 1923, the United Daughters of the Confederacy worked to get a memorial built in Washington, DC to honor the mammies of the Old South, who, according to North Carolina Congressman Charles Stedman, “desired no change in their condition of life” and who now “look back at those days as the happy golden hours of their lives.” But mammy characters also harkened to the centuries-old history of Black women cooking for white families, both while enslaved and after emancipation as domestics. The long history of Black women preparing food for white families, nourishing their bodies in a fairly intimate way, was white-washed and romanticized into a comforting memory. This memory was embodied by Aunt Jemima, who was used to sell convenience foods to white women who might not be able to afford a Black domestic, but who could at least imagine themselves eating the comforting foods a mammy like Aunt Jemima might prepare. The trope begins, of course, in slavery. Historian Kelley Fanto Deetz illustrates the intimate history of enslaved cooks in her book, Bound to the Fire. One chapter opens with the story of Sookey, a cook on a plantation in Surry County, Virginia. She arose well before sun up to bake bread and begin preparations for her white master’s meals. She planned meals and cooked to order. When guests came to the plantation, she planned menus and oversaw the cooking of elaborate feasts. 

Large billboard sign saying "southern cuisine" at Granny Cantrell's Whistle Stop Café in Pensacola, FL
“Southern cuisine” at Granny Cantrell’s Whistle Stop Café in Pensacola, FL. Creative Commons

(Sarah interject: my favorite example of the trope of Black woman cooking for white families is in Forrest Gump, where they depict Bubba’s mother’s ancestors, who all cooked for white families – but then when Forrest gives Bubba’s mother the money from the Bubba Gump shrimp company, the first thing she does is hire a white woman cook.) 

Sarah: We sometimes hear that the enslaved who worked in the so-called ‘big house’ had easier lives and more privileges than those used in agricultural labor. But Sookey’s life as a cook required skill, difficult physical work, extreme temperatures, and confined her to a very small space for twenty-four hours a day. When the final work of the day had been completed, she slept upstairs in the kitchen building – and in the high heat of summer, sometimes she slept in the kitchen yard. But her work was never-ending, even during the night, when she had to tend to fires, ensure that food prep was completed for the following day, and the day’s cooking mess had been cleaned up. And like field hands watched carefully by an overseer, Sookey and other cooks like her were surveilled closely by white mistresses. After all, enslaved cooks were entrusted with expensive stores of sugar and spices, alcohol, sharp knives, fire, and, of course, the very nourishment for white bodies – which could easily be poisoned, spat in, or otherwise adulterated. 

Marissa: There was a fine line between surveillance and separation, though. Virginian plantations, for instance, as Kelley Fanto Deetz describes, were largely built with external kitchens. For decades, tour guides on plantation tours explained that these external kitchens were build because of fire risk – but Deetz points out that this is a weak explanation, since plenty of other homes and buildings around the United States and Europe were built with kitchens inside the house. Instead, Deetz argues that external kitchens were a way of creating a separation between white space and Black space, removing enslaved cooks from the formal spaces of the main plantation house. Between the main house and the kitchen were often covered walkways, sometimes called “whistling walks.” Tour guides often explain that this was to ensure that rain or other stuff couldn’t fall into the food. Still other versions recount that whistling walks were so named because enslaved cooks and servants were required to whistle while they carried trays of food from the kitchen to the dining room to prove that they couldn’t be eating the foods designated for the white family or guests. (In Michael Twitty’s memoir, in which he recalls years of working on these historical plantations reenacting Black kitchen staff, he writes that the story of whistling walks was always told with a sense of cutesy charm, like it was a quaint relic of the Old South.) But in reality, Deetz explains, these covered walkways were actually designed to make it harder to see the enslaved cooks and servants carrying food into the main house. Constructed largely in the early 19th century as slavery was becoming the topic of major debate around the US and the world, these passageways helped to obscure the reality of just who was doing the work of cooking. 

Sarah: Another, sort of weird example of this is our old friend Thomas Jefferson, who as you probably know constructed all sorts of strange contraptions in his home, Monticello. In his formal dining room, he had a system of dumb waiters built so that food could appear in the dining room without enslaved people having to make an appearance at all. He even used a tiered table that could hold all the courses of the meal in sort of layers, so guests could serve themselves. 

(As an aside, Jefferson also had covered porches built around the outside of Monticello that were enclosed with louvered blinds – Annette Gordon-Reed argues that those were designed particularly to make it possible for Sally Hemings to enter and exit Jefferson’s private rooms without being seen. And I’m using passive voice here because you know he did not build them himself!) 

Hiding black cooks was also important to maintaining the image that it was white plantation mistresses who were the masterminds behind delicious recipes and elaborate feasts. While enslaved cooks certainly had more knowledge of cooking and ingredients than their mistresses, mistresses believed (or wanted to believe) that they the ones controlling it all from above. One account from after the Civil War tells the story of a cook named “Lishy,” who the mistress believed was stupid and lazy. She told Lishy exactly how many biscuits should be made from two quarts of flour, not just because she wanted 36 biscuits, but because “Grandmother was safe-guarding Lishy’s morals and family interests with a prevision that was second nature. Oh! The elegant thrift of those Southern housewives, more productive of comfort than the most lavish expenditure!” White mistresses – at least in their own minds – had to keep a close eye on Black cooks, who had to be trusted, and also could not be trusted. Controlling ingredients allowed white mistresses an amount of control while they could not really control Black cooks. As Deetz writes, “the only real control the mistress had was her ability to dole out provisions such as sugar, spices, and butter.”

Marissa: Cooking did sometimes allow enslaved people a measure of freedom. George Washington’s chef, Hercules Posey, became something of a celebrity when he came to Philadelphia to cook at the President’s House. Hercules was renowned for being an extremely talented chef. He was handsome, charismatic and well-dressed. Deetz refers to him as “America’s first celebrity chef,” because he was more like Gordon Ramsey than a plantation cook – he demanded respect and controlled the kitchen with “iron discipline.” Keeping Hercules in Philadelphia was tricky, though, because Pennsylvania had a state law that automatically freed any slave that lived in the commonwealth for six months – so Washington took Hercules back to Virginia at regular intervals to circumvent the law. Eventually, in 1797, during a trip back to Mount Vernon, Hercules ran away, never to return – and never to appear in the historical record again. 

Mount Vernon from the north. Hercules was one of two cooks listed in the 1786 Mount Vernon Slave Census.
Mount Vernon from the north. Hercules was one of two cooks listed in the 1786 Mount Vernon Slave Census.

Sarah: Thomas Jefferson also had an enslaved chef, James Hemings, brother of Martha Wayles Jefferson and Sally Hemings, Jefferson’s white wife and his enslaved lover. Jefferson inherited the Hemings family when his father in law passed away, and at Monticello, James learned to cook under other enslaved cooks. But when Jefferson moved to France in 1784 to act as the American ambassador, he took James with him out of his Francophile desire to have a classically trained French chef. James learned French and received formal training in the kitchens of renowned chefs. Almost ten years later, after using his training to cook for Jefferson and his guests for countless fancy French meals and becoming well-known for his skill, he negotiated his freedom with Jefferson under the condition that he would train his brother Peter in the ways of French cooking. When he completed that task in 1795, Jefferson manumitted him. James then moved around a lot, lived back at Monticello for a time, and in 1801 died by apparent suicide. 

Marissa: Most plantations did not have cooks trained in French kitchens, but instead had enslaved cooks who learned to cook as apprentices to older enslaved cooks, part of generations of enslaved cooks. White slaveowners not only reaped rewards from that by eating delicious food, as Washington and Jefferson did, but also by claiming the very cuisine as their own. Even today, Southern culture boasts of “Southern hospitality,” a unique sense of welcome and abundance shared with guests. Virginian mistresses were expected to provide this hospitality with lavish picnics and parties, and could gain reputations as excellent hosts if they were successful. But that hospitality was not actually a result of the work of the mistress, but the enslaved. Deetz writes about the Ingleside Plantation near Norfolk, VA, which had a reputation for its lavish hospitality. Writing later in her life, a girl who grew up on the plantation recalled “home cured hams and great platters of fried chicken, roasts and joints and vegetables innumerable, such big pones of “lightened” cornbread and “beaten biscuits,” the like of which only the old time southern cooks could make.” Of course, by “old time Southern cooks,” the author of this reminiscence is actually referring to enslaved cooks. 

Sarah: So it wasn’t just African crops sowed by enslaved hands that shaped Southern cuisine, but enslaved cooks who designed menus and prepared feasts that trained white Southern palates. Michael Twitty, who is sort of the modern day evangelist for reminding Americans of the Black roots of Southern food, recounts a story about Robert E. Lee praising the “cow pea” (or black eyed pea) for keeping the South fed during the lean years of the Civil War, saying that the beans were “the only unfailing friend the Confederacy ever had.” The black eyed pea – you guessed it – came from West Africa and was grown in the American south by the very people the Confederacy was fighting to keep in bondage. Today, Southern cuisine owes much to the work of both enslaved and free Black cooks. Take the woman who used to be the ‘queen of Southern cooking,’ Paula Deen for example. Deen ran a restaurant in Savannah (which I went to), and later became a Food Network staple, wrote tons of cookbooks and published a magazine. She even came to sort of embody Southern hospitality with her thick Georgia accent – one article I read actually referred to her as a “white Mammy” figure. But starting in 2012, allegations came out that Deen was hella racist and abused her black waitstaff. She helped her brother to host his dream of an Old South themed, “traditional” Southern wedding, complete with “blacks serving whites.”  She admitted to using the n-word. More specific to our topic here, Deen also apparently made her career on the recipes of a Black woman named Dora Charles, who cooked at that Savannah restaurant, The Lady & Sons, and developed many of its recipes. But you could also say that all of white America has learned to take Black food cultures and reap benefit from them – remember the hysteria around Brooklyn barbecue restaurants (with their anemic cuts of meat) from a year or so ago? Barbecue is, according to Lauren Michele Jackson, “the Blackest cooking technique within US borders,” but rarely do we see Black barbecue joints in Food and Wine magazine or the pages of the New York Times. 

There is so much more to the story of slavery and Southern food, and Black history of Southern food. There’s the history of Black farmers during Reconstruction and the Black women who fed Civil Rights activists. There’s the history of barbecue! But we just can’t cover it all. So get out there and read, ya’ll! 

Before I forget, I want to say a big thank you to Kelly Sharp, a historian at Furman University, who very generously offered to share her excellent forthcoming article on race and farming in Charleston, South Carolina, which I had every intention of including – but I ran out of time, space, and energy to get it into this episode. So I just want to say THANK YOU, Kelly, and encourage all of you to check out her work. Her article, which will be out soon in Agricultural History, is called “Sowing Diversity: The Horticultural Roots of Truck Farming in Coastal South Carolina.” She also has a book coming out next April with Oxford University Press called Provisioning Charleston: How Race Shaped Food and Eating in the Antebellum South. So if this topic has intrigued you, make sure you get out there and check out Kelly’s work! 


Judith A. Carney and Richard Nicholas Rosomoff, In the Shadow of Slavery: Africa’s Botanical Legacy in the Atlantic World (Berkley: University of California Press, 2009).  

Kelley Fanto Deetz, Bound to the Fire: How Virginia’s Enslaved Cooks Helped Invent American Cuisine (Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 2017). 

Annette Gordon-Reed, The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family (New York: W. W. Norton, 2009). 

Michael Twitty, The Cooking Gene: A Journey Through African American Culinary History in the Old South (New York: Harper Collins, 2017). 

John T. Edge, The Potlikker Papers: A Food History of the Modern South (New York: Penguin Books, 2017). 

Karen Cox, Dreaming of Dixie: How the South Was Created in American Popular Culture (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 2011). 


Leave a Reply

Avatar placeholder

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.