Cooking in Other Women's Kitchens: Domestic Workers in the South, 1865-1960

By Rebecca Sharpless; Waldo E. Martin et al. | Go to book overview

Introduction
AFRICAN AMERICAN WOMEN, FOOD, AND COOKING

For more than three hundred years, from the first importation of slaves into Jamestown until the 1960s, African American women served as cooks for privileged white families in the American South.1 Through their labor and their talents, they fed fifteen generations of white southerners. After emancipation, the work of these women also fed their own families, in the form of wages and food left over from their employers’ tables. How did African American women become the iconic—and actual—cooks of the South?

Cooking is one of the most basic human activities: the transformation of raw ingredients into something else, more tasty or digestible than in its uncooked form, a process that turns natural elements into something usable by people. The strategic application of heat or fire to raw foods is as old as humanity itself.2 The process has changed over the centuries, with developments in techniques of baking, braising, frying, and so on. Ingredients and products continue to evolve as well.3 Cooking is also ephemeral, as a meal over which the cook has labored for many hours is often consumed within a matter of minutes.4 The result of a successful meal—sated diners who have received good nutrition—is basically invisible, and its effect lasts only a few hours, as the eater’s body turns the food to fuel and soon needs to fill up again. Because of the fleeting nature of its product, food preparation is repetitive, for people typically like to have at least two meals a day and frequently more. A cook can never point to something permanent as the product of her labor. But cooking is easier to document than other types of domestic work. Although transitory, it creates at least a temporary physical product, more tangible than those of some other types of labor. We can, therefore, think about the meals that cooks

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