Tuesday, November 29, 2016

"The Cook" as experienced by Porte Crayon

I mentioned in my recent post "Enslaved Cooking," about attending a lecture earlier this month at Stratford Hall titled "Cookin' for the Big House: Virginia's Enslaved Cooks and their Kitchens." In the lecture, the speaker used the above image in her PowerPoint presentation. The drawing, which was later converted into an engraving for printing, appeared in the article Virginia Illustrated: Containing a Visit to the Virginia Canaan, and the Adventures of Porte Crayon and his Cousins, by David Hunter Strother (aka Porte Crayon).

During his early 1850s adventures through Virginia, Strother and his traveling party stopped in Amherst Court House, Virginia, just north of Lynchburg. He wrote:
"In Virginia, the village or collection of houses in which the seat of justice is located is called the Court House. Sometimes you find nothing more than a tavern, a store, and a smity. Besides the county buildings, Amherst Court House contains about a dozen houses, and has probably not attained the dignity of a corporate town. The soil of this, in common with many other piedmont counties, is of a bright red in many places, generally fertile, but poorly cultivated. The world down here seems to have been asleep for many years, and an air of loneliness pervades the whole region. As the roads were heavy, and the chances of finding entertainment but few, the driver stopped at an early hour in front of a house of rather unpromising exterior. Porte Crayon, who has the facility of making himself at home every where, when to the kitchen with a bunch of squirrels, the spoils of his German rifle. He returned in high spirits.

'Girls, we will be well fed here; we are fortunate. I have just seen the cook: not a mere black woman that does the cooking, but one bearing the patent stamped by the broad seal of nature; the type of a class whose skill is not of books or training, but a gift both rich and rare; who flourishes her spit like Amphitrite does her trident (or her husband's, which is all the same); whose ladle is as a royal scepter in her hands; who has grown sleek and fat on the steam of her own genius; whose children have the first dip in all the gravies, the exclusive right to all the livers and gizzards, not to mention breasts of fried chickens; who brazens her mistress, boxes her scullions, and scalds the dogs' (I'll warrant there is not a dog on the place with a full suit of hair on him). I was awed to that degree by the severity of her deportment, when I presented the squirrels, that my orders dwindled into a humble request, and, throwing a half dollar on the table as I retreated, I felt my coat-tails to ascertain whether she had not pinned a dishrag to them. In short she is a perfect she-Czar, and may I never butter another corn-cake if I don't have her portrait to-morrow."  

Strother's description implies that this enslaved cook (as was certainly the case with many others) exuded a certain disposition and exercised a certain level of power due to her skills and the importance of her role. Comparing the cook to the sea goddess Amphitrite, the wife of Poseidon, shows her strength, and his claim that she "brazens her mistress," and orders around those under her charge only seemed to impress him and cow him to an individual who he would have normally required deference.    

Strother (pictured above) was a native Virginian, born in Martinsburg (later West Virginia) in 1816. As a young man showed a talent at art and thus studied drawing and panting in Philadelphia and New York City. A job as author and illustrator with Harper's Monthly Magazine  soon developed with Strother using the pen name Porte Crayon. One of Strother's most remembered sets of works were those he captured shortly after John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry in 1859. During the Civil War he followed many of this fellow western Virginia Unionists by joining the Federal army in 1862. He served as a mapmaker, and later on the staff of his distant cousin, Gen. David "Black Dave" Hunter, before assuming command of the 3rd West Virginia Cavalry.

Image of "The Cook," Image reference HARP01, as shown on www.slaveimages.com, compiled by Jerome Handler and Michael Tuite, and sponsored by the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities and the University of Virginia Library.
Image of Strother courtesy of the Library of Congress.

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