New book by William and Mary grad offers history lesson through food stories

Kelley Fanto Deetz’s new book “Bound to the Fire” is about both cooking and history — but she is very clear about which part of the narrative is more important.

The book, subtitled “How Virginia’s Enslaved Cooks Helped Invent American Cuisine,” traces the roots of many traditional dishes back to cooks who were held as plantation slaves.

“When I give talks, the majority of people come to hear about food,” Deetz said in a phone interview from her home in Lynchburg. “But I call the book a gateway drug into talking about slavery. They come to hear about pies and puddings and stews, but the story is all tethered together. You can’t have the romance of the food without the pain of slavery — there’s this holistic understanding of what their lives were like.”

Yes, there are recipes — Deetz, a trained chef, admits she is particularly fond of the okra stew.

But this is not a cookbook.

“The recipes are there, but the majority of the book — maybe 98 percent — is social history,” she said. “The recipes are used to illustrate the labor that went into making a dish, more than telling you how to recreate it. The point of citing the recipes is how labor-intensive they were.”

Deetz got her undergraduate degree in African-American history from the College of William and Mary in 2002. A California native, she got her master’s and her doctorate from Berkeley. The book, which came out earlier this month, started as her doctoral dissertation.

Much of her research was done at the John D. Rockefeller Jr. Library at Colonial Williamsburg. That was where she perused 18th-century publications and kept seeing ads for the buying and selling of cooks — the purchase of human beings.

The concept wasn’t new to her, of course, but the stark language of the ads caught her attention, and when she tried to learn more online she found very few published works that covered this specific story before Reconstruction.

“I just thought, wow,” she said.”I have all this training in history and in archaeology, and I had so many questions. What did their kitchens look like? What was it like to labor on a plantation? What kind of training did they have? It hit me like an avalanche.”

As she studied the topic, she began learning not only about the food and the living conditions, but about the people as well.

In the book she writes about enslaved cooks such as Fanny Goode and Delp Mitchell, both of whom were hanged for poisoning their owners. She was fascinated by the story of a Surry County cook who died at age 50 from a hemorrhage in her womb — not related to childbirth, but to a lifetime of hard labor in the heat of a plantation hearth.

And then there is the saga of Hercules, who cooked for George Washington and became “America’s first celebrity chef,” Deetz says. She describes how Hercules dressed fancy and was greeted with respect in the streets of Philadelphia — and how Washington would shuttle him back and forth to Mount Vernon every few months to get around Pennsylvania laws that limited the amount of time a slave could be held. Deetz says Hercules eventually was demoted to stable duty, but escaped — leaving his children behind — and may have made his way to Europe to resume his culinary calling.

After spending years researching and writing the book, now she is busy promoting it.

Reviewer Emily Dzuibun, writing on the Booklist website, called the book “scholarly yet readable,” and noted that it “honors these American ancestors by reclaiming their rightful places and stories.”

Deetz knows that many people will pick up the book because of their interest in food and traditional Southern cooking. She hopes they will learn something from the rest of the story.

“It’s really about teaching history through different lenses,” Deetz said. “It took a lot of time to really look into the full story. So much of what has been written before this is about post-Emancipation. That’s still very important, but it’s a very different thing than being in bondage.”

Holtzclaw can be reached by phone at 757-928-6479 or on Twitter @mikeholtzclaw.

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