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.

Monday, November 28, 2016

In Print in Ohio Valley History

Back during my latest dry spell of posts here on "Random Thoughts" (October) I was honored to receive several complimentary copies of the Ohio Valley History journal's (Vol. 16, No. 3 - Fall 2016) issue that my article, "Telling Testimony: Slavery Advertisements in Kentucky's Civil War Newspapers" appeared in.

This project began as a twelve-page paper for the Symposium on the 19th Century Press, the Civil War, and Free Expression at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, which I presented back in November 2013. I had presented at this conference in 2012 on Kentuckians' reactions to John Brown's raid and had received some nice feedback. The John Brown paper was later selected for publishing in A Press Divided: Newspaper Coverage in the Civil War (Transaction Publishers, 2014), so I though I'd try again on a different topic and see if a similar positive outcome resulted.

While researching the John Brown paper I often became distracted by the diverse advertisements in newspaper sources. Doing so developed my curiosity and caused me to question how slavery advertisements changed over the course of the Civil War in Kentucky.

The time spent researching the various slavery advertisements in Kentucky's Civil War newspapers amounted to countless hours spent in front of microfilm machines at various repositories across the Commonwealth. Then the many hours developing and populating the databases for cataloging the owner posted runaway ads and the jailer posted captured runaway ads, as well as the writing and revising of the paper made me wonder more than once if it all would be worth it. Well, the paper ended up being awarded at the conference, so obviously I was pleased.

In 2014, I submitted the paper for inclusion at a conference being held a the Filson Historical Society in Louisville. I admittedly was a little disappointed that it was not accepted. However, it was not much longer after that that I was contacted by the editor of Ohio Valley History, who is affiliated with the Filson. She explained in her email that she found my research topic intriguing and wondered if I might perhaps be able to expand the study and develop a strengthened argument for potential consideration in an special issue on emancipation the journal was anticipating publishing.

Fortunately, I had kept my thorough notes and the databases that I had developed. These helped me add significantly to the orthogonal conference paper. Then with constructive criticism from a couple of anonymous peer review readers, as well as grammatical help from the editors, the paper was accepted and included in the fall 2016 issue, the cover image of which is shown below. I must say that I am very pleased with the final product and the experience was one that I feel with benefit me in the future.

If anyone has access the article, I would be interested in your thoughts about it.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Recent Acquisitions to My Library

As one can infer from the majority of my posts, my main regional interest is Southern history. However, my interest in the Northern home front was piqued recently by reading a collection of essays titled, Union Heartland: The Midwestern Home Front during the Civil War, so I am looking to add to my growing knowledge of how the war was experienced outside the South.

I purchased this book before attending a lecture at Statford Hall two weekends ago, titled "Cookin' for the Big House: Virginia's Enslaved Cooks and their Kitchens," but did not get around to reading it until after. I thoroughly enjoyed it and I highly recommend it to anyone looking to learn more about how African foods and African American cooking has influenced America's palate at large.

This book is one that I had on my reading wish list for quite a while and finally purchased it after a visit to the National Park Service's Chimborazo visitor center and museum in Richmond back in late September. Although first published in the early 1980s, this study stands the test of time and provides a wealth of information about how slaves treated themselves and how masters sought to keep their enslaved workers healthy.

The experiences of those who flocked to contraband camps is an area of my Civil War knowledge that could use some improvement. Therefore, I'm looking forward to diving into this recently published volume very soon.

Slave breeding is a controversial topic that historians seemingly avoided or just lightly touched upon until quite recently. Scholars have debated whether organized slave breeding for profit existed, and if so to what extent. Hopefully this work will shed new light on this dark subject.

Other than the 1800-1880 time period, my next favorite era would probably be the 1930s and 1940s. Like my favorite historical period, the 30s and 40s were a time of extreme change. The story of the Dust Bowl is one that I look forward to learning about more. Being an Oklahoma Sooners football fan this particular subject has a significant tie in. It was largely through the experience of the double-whammy that was the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl that deprecating titles such as Okies and humiliating images of extreme poverty emerged and that University of Oklahoma sought to banish by developing a championship caliber football team in the late 1940s.

Gen. Robert E. Lee once mentioned something to the effect that he could not imagine the army without music. The impact of music on the soldiers in the field, as well as the citizens at home, was indeed enormous. That impact resonated long past the silence of the guns. Many of the tunes that developed during the Civil War years remain with us as part of American culture. This looks to be an intriguing read. 

Thursday, November 24, 2016

Enslaved Cooking

Although Thanksgiving did not become an official national holiday until a presidential proclamation in 1863 (and then only initially in the Union states), the weeks and months after harvest in the antebellum South often came to be viewed as a time of plenty. In the autumn, food larders were replenished from the gathering and processing of that year's subsistence crops and the annual fall animal slaughters. As the leaves from the trees fell, food seemed to be in more abundance than at any other time of the year.

In the time before food was prepared on wood stoves, most culinary skills were honed by open hearth cooking. Like the field slaves' work, domestic slaves' duties of cooking and cleaning were labor intensive, and dangerous. Preparing three daily meals for the slave owning family (and probably more during the holiday season) meant long hours and aching muscles for the enslaved cook.

The process of cooking at the time did not just involve policing the goodness frying in the pans, boiling in the pots, and baking in the dutch ovens; the work to prepare for the cooking process alone was more physical work than some people did all day. Wood for fuel had to be chopped, spit, and carried to the hearth. Water had to be drawn from the well and toted to the kitchen for both cooking and cleaning. Poultry had to be killed, plucked, and dressed. Ingredients had to be gathered and measured.

Open hearth cooking was dangerous work. Clothing fires were not uncommon. Some female cooks had to wet their skirts or aprons to avoid their catching fire. The closeness to heating sources was also a problem due to breathing in wood smoke and the potential contact of hot metal handles with bare skin hands. Bending over heavy pots and pans to reach them on the hearth floor, where the cooking was completed to help control the piles of embers, and thus the various required temperatures, meant sore backs, necks, shoulders, knees, and legs.

Enslaved cooks probably received little recognition for their labors. A congratulations may be forthcoming if the mistress was in such a mood. A little taste while cooking or potential leftovers were sometimes the only compensation they received. All of which was little consolation knowing that the whole process would need to be started again almost immediately for the next meal. The cooks knew it would be the same the following day, and the next, and the next. And unlike the enslaved field hands, the domestic slaves more often than not did not get to enjoy a day of rest during the week. Is there any surprise then that if given an opportunity to escape their condition, it was the domestic slaves who often made first efforts?

Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.