Bound to the Fire: How Virginia’s Enslaved Cooks Helped Invent American Cuisine

Time Period
16,000 BCE to 1622 CE
1623 to 1763
1764 to 1824
1825 to 1860
1861 to 1876
1877 to 1924
1925 to Today
Media Type
Black History
Business & Industry
Dr. Kelley Fanto Deetz

In grocery store aisles and kitchens across the country, smiling images of “Aunt Jemima” and other historical and fictional black cooks can be found on various food products and in advertising. Although these images are sanitized and romanticized in American popular culture, they represent the untold stories of enslaved men and women who had a significant impact on the nation's culinary and hospitality traditions even as they were forced to prepare food for their oppressors. On February 27, 2020, Kelley Fanto Deetz delievered a Banner Lecture that drew upon archaeological evidence, cookbooks, plantation records, and folklore to present a nuanced study of the lives of enslaved plantation cooks from colonial times through emancipation and beyond. She reveals how these men and women were literally “bound to the fire” as they lived and worked in the sweltering and often fetid conditions of plantation house kitchens. These highly skilled cooks drew upon skills and ingredients brought with them from their African homelands to create complex, labor-intensive dishes such as oyster stew, gumbo, jambaya, and fried fish. Deetz restores these forgotten figures to their rightful place in American and Southern history.

Dr. Kelley Fanto Deetz is the Director of Programming, Education, and Visitor Engagement at Stratford Hall and teaches part-time at the University of Virginia. She works as a historical consultant for several museum sites throughout the Mid-Atlantic, and has partnered with National Geographic to work on projects related to Nat Turner. Her work is highlighted in National Geographic’s documentary film, "Rise Up: The Legacy of Nat Turner." She is the author of the critically acclaimed book, Bound to the Fire: How Virginia’s Enslaved Cooks Helped Invent American Cuisine.

The content and opinions expressed in these presentations are solely those of the speaker and not necessarily of the Virginia Museum of History & Culture.

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