What’s Cooking? Researcher Mixes U.Va.’s Slave History with Foodways

Combining her love of cooking and foodways with early African-American history was an easy choice for her academic career, University of Virginia researcher Kelley Fanto Deetz said.

“Foodways” refer to the cultural, social and economic practices relating to the production and consumption of food of a people, region or historical period.

Even as a child, when she accompanied her father, the late historical archaeologist James Deetz, on research trips to Virginia plantations, the first thing she would do was run to the kitchen. “I had a million questions about what happened within those walls,” said Deetz, who came to U.Va. from Roanoke College, where she was an assistant professor of history and director of the school’s Public History Program.

The President’s Commission on Slavery and the University gave Deetz a three-year appointment as a postdoctoral researcher this fall to spearhead investigations into slavery in U.Va.’s history and help with public outreach and commemoration. She also will participate in the commission’s upcoming symposium, “Universities Confronting the Legacy of Slavery,” to be held Oct. 16 and 17.

“She’s a very promising young scholar,” said Kirt von Daacke, an associate professor of history who co-chairs the slavery commission with Dr. Marcus Martin, vice president and chief officer for diversity and equity.

In addition to working in historical archaeology, Deetz has studied slavery in Virginia formally for the past 17 years. She wanted to take the U.Va. job, she said, “because the research will be ground-breaking and high-profile. I’ve been following similar projects at William & Mary and Brown University for years, and this was too exciting to pass up.

“Bringing the history of the enslaved to the public in this particular venue is long overdue. It’s incredibly important to acknowledge the past and its legacy on contemporary race relations,” she said.

She will work with commission groups on researching and disseminating new historical information about the enslaved laborers in U.Va.’s early history. They’ll explore how best to commemorate the lives of the enslaved people who worked at the University.

“We want to respectfully memorialize this history in ways that bridge the people of the past with the living,” she said. “Memorializing something so horrific and tragic is a complicated task, and one that needs much care and respect. Memorials are, in essence, for the living, but must be honest and true to those being honored. It is important that we remember their status as slaves, but not forget the individuals and their perseverance.” 

Deetz will map out a three-year research plan, focusing on the people who worked on the Grounds and in the pavilions and the hotels of the Academical Village, paying special attention to the enslaved cooks and domestic workers.

After earning bachelor’s in black studies from the College of William & Mary, she earned an M.A. in African-American studies and a Ph.D. in African diaspora studies from the University of California, Berkeley, writing her dissertation on enslaved cooks and their influence on plantation life. She is currently working on a manuscript, “Bound to the Fire: Virginia’s Enslaved Cooks and their Kitchens.”

This fall, Deetz is also teaching two college advising seminars for first-year students, one with Von Daacke on race and racism in modern America and another on enslaved cooks, Virginia’s plantation kitchens and foodways.

“Enslaved cooks were highly valued by their enslavers, as seen in letters, diaries and handwritten cookbooks. The records show that they were either the most valuable or second to the butler,” she said. “I’ve also found evidence of complicated notions of dignity within the bonds of slavery.”

Because they were feeding the white families and oftentimes their guests, cooks had a certain kind of power that was very different from the enslaved folks working in the fields, Deetz said. “The mistress had a vested interest in the cook’s ability, not to mention avoiding the threat of poisoning. There was a constant negotiation happening in those kitchens.”

From tracing primary sources, Deetz sees how 18th to 19th-century European-American cuisine changed, incorporating elements of West African cuisine in dishes such as okra stew, gumbo and “pepper pot,” a spicy seafood soup.

She also examines provisions and inventory lists to see “what was in the pantry, what was going to be served.” Reading between the lines, she analyzes and interprets the time and labor involved in making meals, under conditions of cooking over a fire in the hearth.

While growing up in Berkeley and after moving to Virginia, Deetz logged in more than a decade as a professional cook, so she has a sincere appreciation for the enslaved cooks’ variety of skills and techniques. She discusses their intensive labor in her recent chapter in “The Routledge History of Food,” an edited volume that will be available Oct. 7. 

Oyster soup, for example, was a common meal:

“Approximately 40 to 60 oysters compile a pint. This means the cook had to first shuck them, which requires a hard, sharp tool, a firm and steady hand, and finesse to shuck without getting shells in the meat. After forcefully prying open dozens of oysters, the cook would then have to sear them over a hot fire, push them through a metal sieve (making an oyster mush), remove their individual beards and add items such as floured butter (which, as seen previously, took its share of labor) and anchovy liquor (another complex recipe). This entire process could have taken over an hour if not more.”

For anyone who’d like to give it a try, here’s the recipe:

  • 100 oysters
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon black pepper
  • 1⁄4 pound butter
  • yolks of three eggs
  • 1 pint rich milk, perfectly fresh
  • 3 tablespoons flour

Separate the oysters from the anchovy liquor; put the liquor to boil; when boiled, add salt, pepper and butter, then the flour, having previously made it into a batter. Stir all the time. When it comes to a boil, add the egg yolks well beaten, then the milk, and when the mixture reaches a boil, put in the oysters; let them also just boil, and the soup is done. Stir all the time to prevent curdling.

Media Contact

Anne E. Bromley

University News Associate Office of University Communications