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Op-Ed: From Black Hands to White Mouths—The Story of the Enslaved Cook

Kevin Mitchell

November 08, 2017

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Photo: Jonathan Boncek/Boncek Images

We all eat, which means food policy touches individuals from every walk of life, from rural rancher to cubicle dweller and everyone in between. This diversity is part of what makes the food movement so powerful. In our new op-ed series, we’re featuring voices from the culinary community to weigh in and express their personal positions on the food-system issues they’re most passionate about.

Our latest piece comes from chef, culinary instructor, and JBF Chefs Boot Camp for Policy and Change alum Kevin Mitchell. Mitchell recently took a break from his position as a culinary instructor at the Culinary Institute of Charleston to pursue a master’s degree in Southern Studies from the University of Mississippi. Below, Mitchell shares his motivation for going back to school, the driving force at the core of his studies, and his life’s mission: to elevate the voices and history of enslaved cooks in the Antebellum South.

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“To be a chef today is to center yourself in the traditions of your roots and use them to define your art and speak to any human being about who you are; your plate is your flag.” – Michael Twitty, Culinary Historian

Michael Twitty’s words confirm my belief in the path that I am taking. As a chef who has temporarily put down his knives to pursue an advanced degree in the Southern Studies program at the University of Mississippi, I continue to search for my roots in the history of my African American ancestors. This journey started at my grandmother’s knee, where she gave a young boy of six his first lessons in how to cook the food that has been passed down in our family, along with the rich history surrounding its origins. My search has continued as I worked through my culinary education and numerous positions.

I have often been asked why my passion for sharing the stories of the enslaved cooks is so strong. Through a long period of history, black cooks and chefs were romanticized as Aunt Jemimas and Uncle Toms. This cartoonish portrayal has been seen everywhere from newspapers to grocery stores to television. The imagery has stuck with me, and it has become critical to me that these caricatures are not what Americans think of when they speak of black cooks.

Food, and the cooking of it, was part of African heritage long before enslaved Africans were taken to America. Many dishes traveled with them when they came. However, as stated by author and Southern Foodways Alliance founder, John Egerton, “Southerners, black, white, male, female often worked side by side in the fields and the kitchen to bring food to the table—but rarely if ever sat down together to share in the fruits of their labor.”

Some enslaved cooks enjoyed power and praise as the result of their skill in the kitchen. However, owners required other abilities, and the cook who was also a washer and accomplished ironer of the planters’ starched table linens was prized even more. Plantation life relied on the scullion who washed the pots and pans, the young children who weeded the vegetable garden, and the servers who marched from the kitchen to bring the food to “the big house.” But even as they were depended on, there are many stories about the abuse they suffered.

A seminal moment in my personal journey came in April 2015, when I represented the famous Charleston chef and caterer, Nat Fuller, in a recreation of the reconciliation dinner he held at the end of the Civil War. Fuller, formerly a slave, invited a mix of both black and white citizens to a celebratory feast at his restaurant, the Bachelor’s Retreat. According to published reports, toasts were made, lavish dishes were served, and songs were sung about President Abraham Lincoln and freedom.

When I was asked to stand in his place, I was overwhelmed with what that truly meant.  How was I going to match the great meal prepared 150 years prior? Would my meal leave a similar legacy behind? As I walked into the kitchen I focused my mind on channeling Nat Fuller in my execution and my intentions. With his life as inspiration, I continue my work: to expose the stories, the recipes, and the legacy of these great enslaved chefs, to show how their stories shaped the ways we eat in the South today.

For years, black chefs have run away from their culinary heritage. Much like the enslaved cook who had to also be the proficient ironer, I personally have cooked (and taught) multiple cuisines that were necessary for me to make a living. But Michael Twitty’s words are now etched onto that special place in my heart that drives me to continue my mission, and to honor the legacy of the enslaved cooks that came before me. It is through them that we can tell the story of southern foodways as it should be told—with knowledge and respect.

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Kevin Mitchell is a Nathalie Dupree Graduate Fellow in the Southern Studies department of the University of Mississippi. Learn more about his Nat Fuller reconciliation dinner here, and follow him on Twitter.

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