When Her Thousand Chimneys Smoked

Kelley Deetz uncovers legacy of enslaved cooks for her new book.

Kelley Deetz's first jobs were in restaurant kitchens, followed by stints digging for slavery artifacts on Virginia plantations. The combination of those two interests led her to her most recent research: unearthing the stories and legacies of enslaved African American cooks.

Deetz, Randolph College's Ainsworth Visiting Professor, wrote a doctoral dissertation at the University of California at Berkeley focusing on the history and legacy of Virginia's enslaved plantation cooks.

Deetz said that two well-known traits of Southern U.S. culture- cooking and hospitality-owe a debt to enslaved cooks. Their recipes from Western Africa shaped the culinary traditions that still prevail in the South. Also, their work made possible the lavish balls, weddings, and large dinner parties hosted by plantation owners.

"The nuts and bolts of that lifestyle were supported by the culinary skills of the enslaved cooks," said Deetz, who is expanding her dissertation into a book titled, When Her Thousand Chimneys Smoked: Enslaved Cooks, Racialized Labor and Legacy.

Last summer, Nashiva McDavid '12 and Wyatt Phipps '13 helped Deetz continue research for her book. They spent seven weeks perusing archives in Virginia and Barbados, a Caribbean island that has strong historical ties to Virginia's plantations.

McDavid said she enjoyed working with primary sources rather than relying on other people's interpretations.

"It taught me another way to do research, so that it is sounder," McDavid said. "I can say I looked at it myself and determined my own conclusions."

Phipps said their study of plantation recipes showed how foods cooked by slaves have changed. "Geography and slavery changed the way a dish is cooked," she said. "Now, they're losing some of the more traditional dishes because of industrialization."

Deetz hopes her book, under consideration by the University of Florida Press, can preserve the stories she and her students found during their research in Virginia and abroad.