Soul Food History
The Cast Iron Skillet
History tells us enslaved cooks and cast iron skillets are at the heart of what has transformed today to be known as southern comfort or soul food. It was southern slaves who made the South, known for its culinary fare and hospitable nature.
It is not easy uncovering the histories of enslaved cooks, because few left records of their stories. In large part their story has been written by archaeological evidence and material culture—the rooms where they once lived, the heavy cast iron pots they lugged around, the gardens they planted—and documents such as slaveholders’ letters, cookbooks, and plantation records to learn about their experiences. These remnants of history make it clear enslaved cooks were central players in the birth of our nation’s culinary heritage and normalized the mixture of European, African, and Native American cuisines that became the staples of Southern food.
The First Celebrity Chef
Two of the earliest documented enslaved cooks was Hercules and James Hemings, who cooked for George Washington at Thomas Jefferson’s home known as Monticello. They were both formally trained, albeit in different styles. Hercules was taught by the well-known New York tavern keeper and culinary giant Samuel Frances, who mentored him in Philadelphia; Hemings traveled with Jefferson to Paris, where he learned French-style cooking. Hercules and Hemings were the nation’s first celebrity chefs, famous for their talents and skills.
A Melting Pot of Culture
Enslaved cooks brought European cuisine its unique flavors, adding ingredients such as hot peppers, peanuts, okra, and greens. Slave cooks created favorites like gumbo, an adaptation of a traditional West African stew; and jambalaya, a cousin of Jolof rice, a spicy, heavily seasoned rice dish with vegetables and meat. These dishes traveled with captured West Africans on slave ships, and into the kitchens of Virginia’s elite.
Photo By Alex Bush 1934
Cast iron pots were not only used for cooking, but during the 1900's they were incorporated into the fabric of everyday life on plantations. Huge cast iron pots were used to boil laundry. Once boiled the laundry was beaten to remove some of the soap, and then boiled again before being hung out to dry. Pictured here are young children from the Thornhill Plantation in in Greene County, Alabama, standing near cast iron laundry pots.