Ole Missus vs. Mammy: Who Owns Southern Food?
A response to Cynthia Bertelsen's “Edna Lewis and the Mythology Behind Modern Southern Food.”
Illustration by Adam Waito.
"The cook should be an educated professional…I believe they could be more easily obtained and kept in order and discipline if they were Negroes, who are natural cooks generally."
—Major W.F. Spurgin, "How to Feed the Solider," Journal of the Military Service Institution, 1888
"TO TRAIN NEGRO COOKS: BLACK MAMMY MEMORIAL INSTITUTE TO BE ESTABLISHED IN GEORGIA: Athens, Ga. Sept. 23—Application has been filed for a charter for the "Black Mammy Memorial Institute," to be located here, having for its object the training of young Negro men and women in the culinary and other domestic arts."
—New York Times, September 24, 1910
Juneteenth celebrates the emancipation of enslaved African Americans in Texas by the Union army, drawing its name from June 19, 1865, when, according to the story, there were still enslaved black laborers who did not know they were free. It has grown in popularity among African Americans as an occasion to celebrate and help them come to terms with the legacy of emancipation. It's also a time to talk about African American foodways (June is National Soul Food Month) and the foods associated with the Juneteenth commemoration.
On June 19, 2016, we received a curious Juneteenth surprise: an essay by esteemed culinary historian Cynthia Bertelsen seeking to deconstruct the "myth" that enslaved cooks "wielded an enormous influence—verging on the mythical—in the kitchens of antebellum America, essentially creating Southern cuisine, and, by extension, much of what could be called traditional American cooking." She begins by decrying unspecified "voices" that are "powered" by the above "myth," "[claiming] ownership, hurling harsh accusations of cultural appropriation, and silencing and shaming contrary opinions."
Why are the voices Bertelsen speaks of unnamed? If they are so strident, deafening, and defiant of reasoned scholarship, how does she justify her call to urgency—without naming sources? She doesn't. Instead she levies her critique at the late, lauded African-American cook and cookbook writer Edna Lewis. Her indictment of Lewis as the originator of this "myth" begins with a quote from 1992, in which Lewis states, "It's [Southern cooking] mostly black since blacks did most of the cooking in private homes, hotels, and on the railroads." On this one quote hangs Bertelsen's thesis questioning the assertion that "a person from a certain cultural and culinary backgrounds cooking for people from other cultures [is] creating something new."
Her argument then shifts dramatically from questions of attribution to assessing the "power" possessed by the enslaved to influence the Southern kitchen. Here is where Bertelsen takes an unfortunate turn, invoking archaic views of American slavery and its cultural permutations, and affirming the sophistication and dominance of British cuisine in the Atlantic world. "I assert that those skilled cooks took the English and other recipes made available to them by the female relatives of British planters (and others) and learned to cook those recipes, recipes that underlie almost all of what is now termed so rapturously 'Southern cuisine.'"
I am no proponent of racial determinism. That's not what this is about. It's about having the courage to move past lazy and uncritical assumptions in search of something useful.
Bertelsen then calls for us to abandon racial essentialism, recalling the language of white commentators from the early 20th century, who attributed natural ability to the Black cook. She writes, "[Implying] cooking is in their DNA is akin to saying that all blacks are great dancers and musicians."
Wow. Debunked myths of magical cooking Negroes, moonlights and magnolias, oh my. Add to that my DNA, and this is where it gets personal and real.
As a culinary historian myself, I have to do the hard work of justifying my research. I have spent the past decade in historical interpretation and living history, delving into the food world of my enslaved ancestors, coming as close as I can to them, dish by dish, hearth by hearth. I have traveled the South armed with genealogies and family trees in tow, with DNA evidence of my ancestors' sojourn in and out of slavery, and the legacy of mixed bloodlines: African, European, and Native American. This is the precarious part. I have gone where trauma permits only a select number of African Americans to tread.
My journey went from learning about African American foodways to evaluating my own experiences and existence in terms of the African and African American journey with and through food. For many of us who work in this field (no matter our backgrounds) this discussion is not trivial. Although my project and book are called The Cooking Gene, I am no proponent of racial determinism. That's not what this is about. It's about having the courage to move past lazy and uncritical assumptions in search of something useful by which we can all, like Faulkner's Dilsey, endure.
Let's go in. Really in.
"Miss Lewis's English culinary heritage is glaringly apparent not only in her cookbooks, but also in the cookbooks written by Virginia aristocrats such as Mary Randolph, as well as in a multitude of other cookbooks, many imported from England to the American colonies in large numbers. These books would have been crucial in providing the material passed on to slave cooks. Preserving, pastry, baking were not techniques nor traditions in African cuisines, so the chief place where slave cooks, and indentured servants for that matter, learned these methods came from the kitchens of women such as Martha Jefferson, who—in a well-documented and much-quoted anecdote—was remembered in the memoirs of a slave named Isaac Jefferson as reading out recipes to his mother, an enslaved cook of the Jefferson family. In many cases, the mistress of the house actually measured out all the ingredients used daily by the cooks, as did Sally Baxter Hampton at Woodlands Plantation close to Columbia, South Carolina. This speaks of very tight control."
—Cynthia Bertelsen, "Edna Lewis and the Mythology Behind Modern Southern Food"
The first problem with this paragraph is that it is misleading. Speaking for my own work, I have written several extensive published pieces about Edna Lewis, all of which have noted that she lived in the same region where the kitchens of Madison, Jefferson, and the Randolph in-laws had their flourished. That inflorescence is a two-way street, and all of the food eaten on those plantations came to table through the labor of an extensive network of enslaved people. To my knowledge, no one to has ever claimed that blancmange or damson preserves came from Africa—not even Edna Lewis. Yet we are hit with the next claim that preservation and baking were not African when "preserving, pastry and baking" were certainly extant techniques in traditional Africa; the latter two become amplified after contact with the Portuguese and French, in particular in the settlements near slave castles. Preserving methods—necessary to food production since the beginning of humankind, which incidentally also began in Africa—including drying, smoking, salting, spicing, and burying foods, are without question endemic to the African continent.
Some gentry women might have instructed enslaved cooks in food preparation by reading to them or measuring ingredients, but this version of history privileges white interaction with enslaved people in the least common scenario (gentry planters were the minority of slaveholding families) and frames the scene only from the viewpoint of the white "mistress." Slavery was colloquial and discretionary—nobody can paint slavery with a brush broad enough to illustrate the entire story. Also, are we really to believe that in every situation where enslaved people were cooks, the white woman was measuring ingredients and dictating the terms of the Southern kitchen every day? Wouldn't that have obviated the need for cookbooks for people who had never done much (or any) cooking during or after the war?
For nearly two centuries, the archetypal image of the accomplished Southern cook has been the maternal caricature of a Black woman, not the white mistress nor the white homemaker. When they wanted to erect a statue on the National Mall in 1923, they turned to Mammy, not "Ole Missus" or "Mee-Maw." The motif recurs in Southern antebellum literature: the black cook, female or male, who rules the kitchen with an iron fist. Black people didn't invent a myth to feel proud—it was a concession of Southern whites. Elizabeth Swanson, former wife of the governor of Virginia, said in 1911, "It takes a big fat Negro mammy with a round shiny face to cook a ham, and the secret she can never impart. It is a sort of magic … and when you get some of that kind of dainty, you are eating indeed." Edna Lewis wasn't even a thought when this quote was uttered.
Primary sources from the antebellum period again and again attest that for many enslaved people, the kitchen remained a place of subtle resistance and disproportionate power, despite the fact that they were still under the authority of their slaveholders. The fact so many enslaved cooks performed other domestic roles, like the raising of white children, further complicates Bertelsen's depiction. Slavery might have had some dictating white divas, but these same women were often raised by Black women or supplanted by Black women in bed (or more frequently on the kitchen floor, as my DNA attests. This complicated sisterhood, fraught with serious rage and undeniable trauma, is a more important arena to examine than authoritative formulas for lemon chess pie.Guides were written from grandmothers to their granddaughters incorporating an array of recipes with origins as miscegenated as my own blood—the key being that much of the food was crafted, touched, and revised by the tastes, aesthetics, and flavors preferred by the Black cook.
For example, Mary Randolph's The Virginia Housewife is a cookbook based mostly in Anglo-American cookery but is distinguished as the first Southern cookbook. But what makes it Southern? It's written by a woman who would have had the books—but she also had the people. At Tuckahoe, Mary Randolph, "was in the minority and surrounded by women from West Africa or only one or two generations removed from their homes in Biafra (Igboland) or the Gold Coast Akan states. Her enslaved cooks knew those British recipes, but from the likes of their grandmothers came black-eyed pea cakes and fried chicken, okra soup and stewed okra, chicken with sweet potatoes and curried catfish, and turnip greens and hot pepper sauce that bridged several centuries of African-European culinary interaction (with Native and Asian influences), coupled with ingredients indigenous to the Americas. Randolph was no purist, and she herself was born into a world known in the Virginia Tidewater as "New Guinea," since six out of every ten people in central Virginia were of African descent, a world in which their involved role in cultural transformations were turning everyone, white and black, into Americans.
If anyone is responsible for a myth, it is likely the former enslavers looking back on a lost cause, celebrating themselves as grandees responsible for the best of Southern culture. The travels of non-Southerners like Frederick Law Olmstead, among other commentators, don't have very many kind things to say about Southern whites and their foodways: They were called "the plain folks" for a reason. This is not to say some of the great examples of country cooking didn't come from white families without enslaved laborers, but if it did, not many people traveling the South and writing at the time gave it much notice beyond criticism for its rustic simplicity and crude repetition.
We know there was a moment of panic when the Civil War was over, because following the War, "the servants" so often mentioned in cookbooks penned by antebellum women were not found unless they were paid. Guides were written from grandmothers to their granddaughters incorporating an array of recipes with origins as miscegenated as my own blood—the key being that much of the food was crafted, touched, and revised by the tastes, aesthetics, and flavors preferred by the Black cook. A recipe for cymlings (or pattypan squash) in Housekeeping in Old Virginia warns the white woman to slip into the kitchen so that she might discourage the Colored cook from making them greasy with bacon. This is not a cuisine dictated from Britain to Africa; this is a cuisine negotiated, cook by cook, personality by personality. In the post-bellum world, it was taken as gospel truth that "[the] Negro is a born cook; he could neither read nor write and therefore he could not learn from books. He was simply inspired; the god of the spit and the saucepan had breathed into him; that was enough," as Charles Gayarre said in 1880 in Harper's Magazine.
Genetic destiny is less important here than constant engagement. The stereotype that some Jews are "good with money" (I happen to be Jewish) is certainly not just because we are Jews; it is because we became important to Western capitalism since our occupational opportunities were limited to loaning, lending, tax collecting, and other elements at the fringes of the economic system. Limited opportunities funneled us into things that we mastered simply because other windows were closed, and the same can be said for African Americans in the kitchen. In the words of Gilliard Hunt in 1914, "The professional cooks of the country were Negroes, and the national cookery came from them."And you know what happens when the one drop gets dropped? It means you are no longer white bread. You're whole wheat.
One of the things I take great umbrage at in Bertelsen's essay is that she ignores the acres of white Southerners who wrote home seeking a recipe from the mind of an enslaved or recently emancipated Black cook. She ignores the acres of writing exploring the stubborn, resistant, and self-empowered Black cook—some of them as gay and sassy as me, some dignified and fatherly, some maternal and very un-"Mammy" like. She says not every cook was a great cook—and I know what she means—but this ignores the reality that an enslaved Black cook who could not perform satisfactory duties would have been sold, demoted, beaten, or in the extremely rare case of one Caribbean plantation, burned alive in the bake oven for burning a cake.
These were human beings of high value, some of the most sought-after products offered on the auction block—they were not KitchenAids with bandanas. Their presence transformed what they touched, just as West African cooks had done with the foods of Europe, Southeast Asia, the Arab world, and Native America for centuries, and so often this was on their own terms. It's those terms that both excite us and keep us delving for more, not making the "myth" to which Bertelsen ascribes our passion. The most consistent element is the presence of the African and Afri-Creole cook—as contributor, assimilator, translator, and disseminator—all of these roles are distinct but they can also be concurrent and layered.
The Anglocentrism inherent in Bertelsen's argument would have one infer that the only slaveholders in the early South were British, or that the West and Central African engagement with Western cuisines began in the Americas at the beck and call of a white mistress—and not, in fact, on the coast of West Africa and in Europe. Early American slaveholders were predominantly English, but they were also Highland Scots, Scots-Irish or Lowland or Ulster Scots. They were Cherokee and Sephardic Jews, French Huguenots and Catholics, Spaniards and Germans. The indentured servants, lower and enslaved classes (which included Native peoples) are also critical to this story because it is through them that the majority of cultural mixing with non-Blacks would have the greatest impact, contrary to the truly mythical narrative of the all-powerful "Massa." Sex, play, mealtimes, and pastimes: This is how the strongest creolizations in the early American South took place.
You cannot isolate the food component from the rest of the culture. These were Native American ingredient-farming, African-style-eating, British-baking, German-pickling, "Negro jig"-dancing, Plantation Creole- and Gullah-speaking white people, far into the 19th-century. If I were to say this was a cuisine of Native American ingredients cooked in an African pot stirred by a European hand—and kept changing those variables into an endless array of combinations—I would likely be completely right, because it all could have happened. And because it did, we have an American South.
For African Americans and other people of African descent, ownership is not about gatekeeping and it's not about exclusion. Ownership is about ensuring that this fragmentation of our culture is not perpetuated, and that we take responsibility for its stewardship and for our own sense of cultural memory and the practice of legacy. There are deep health issues—as well as mental health—surrounding the nature of the legacy of slavery, and this includes food. Ownership of traditional vernacular cultural artifacts isn't a call to demolish the white or Western European or European American role in our culture, but that's just it: We've always had to acknowledge the white man in our woodpile, and it's about time that white people acknowledged their "one" drop.
And you know what happens when the one drop gets dropped? It means you are no longer white bread. You're whole wheat.
As Bertelsen's piece winds down, we are asked to consider the role of Africa. First you need to know this: There was an extensive introduction of Eurasian and Native American plants to West and Central Africa that were largely adopted and adapted into local diets. This was selective and careful, not arbitrary. It began with the Portuguese planting crops to make the Eucharist and expand Lusophone culture, and ended with Atlantic creole women on St. Louis and at Ouidah making French food with indigenous African ingredients and a mixture of techniques. Furthermore, the cuisines of West and Central Africa have a remarkable singular "grammar." From Senegal all the way down to Angola, and over to Mozambique in southeastern Africa, you can find porridges, mashed tubers, okra soup, peanut soup, smoked fish, hot peppers and spices used to enhance the funk of muddy fish and wild game, rice dishes and the like. I should know—every part of the slave trade to North America is reflected in my genetic record.
Whenever the culture of Africans was agreeable to the white powers that be or was parallel to already accepted custom or tradition, it had staying power—especially in food.
This brings me to another problem with Bertelsen's argument: the mistaken assumption that creolization was a linear process by which African culture was diluted from a "pure" form. Like most African Americans, I have ancestors who arrived across three centuries in different blocs of ethnic groups brought to distinct regions of the southeastern coast. In other words, I have ancestors who were here in the 17th century in Virginia, in the mid- to late 18th century in the Chesapeake and Lowcountry, and the tens of thousands who arrived during the last burst of the slave trade in the early 19th century. All of these people integrated themselves into already established Black populations while simultaneously relating to different groups of Europeans in different stages of acculturation. In the African Atlantic world, each culture in enslavement became creative with concealing power and preserving their culture in plain sight. Whenever the culture of Africans was agreeable to the white powers that be or was parallel to already accepted custom or tradition, it had staying power—especially in food.
We live in a world where many people want us to forget slavery in a way that no other people have been asked forget the historical traumas that have shaped their destiny. Bertelsen didn't suggest we forget its destructive power, nor did she say that Africans and African Americans haven't made contributions to Southern foodways, but her piece suggests we should stay with the tertiary role we have traditionally been assigned—a side piece rather than an entrée.
Let's recognize the humanity of the Black cook and the judgment and vision of African and Afri-Creole cooks and their descendants in selection and judging food appearance, aesthetics, flavors, and choices. They were discerning minds, not machines, no matter what cuisine they were preparing. We exalt our culinary ancestors Emeline Jones, Aunt Sukey, James Hemings, Thomas Dorsey, Pierre Augustin, Perrine, Hercules, Nat Fuller, Tom Tully, Aunt Lucy, Abby Fisher, Malinda Russell, Rufus Estes, Uncle Emmanuel, and my great great great grandmother Jane Lewis and my great great grandfather Elijah Mitchell, not only because they passed on to us precious parts of African civilization that were nearly lost, but because they had command of the cuisine of the master class and then used their skill in the kitchen to master them.
There is no culinary reverse racism going on here—not with the departed or the living. None of the major players in this discussion—Toni Tipton Martin, Leni Sorensen, Jessica Harris, Edda Fields-Black, Judith Carney, Adrian Miller, Therese Nelson, Tonya Hopkins, Ashbell Mcelveen or myself—has ever made outrageous claims of cultural hegemony to feel good. We aren't allowed to. We are put on the block and made to answer for our claims each and every time. I simply ask that Bertelsen, whose heart is in the right place, but whose pen in this essay was apparently not, should have to answer for hers.
In the words of art historian Robert Farris Thompson, "Until you know how African you are, you will never know how American you are."