The Bookworm: Cooking up some significant Thanksgiving history

Terri Schlichenmeyer

“Bound to the Fire: How Virginia’s Enslaved Cooks Helped Invent American Cuisine”

By Kelley Fanto Deetz

c. 2017, University of Kentucky Press

$29.95, higher in Canada; 177 pages

You’ve been cooking up a storm for days. Soon, the whole family will be sitting at your table, which will be loaded down with everybody’s favorites. The turkey will be golden. The bread, warm and soft. Pies line your kitchen counter because you’ve cooked for days. At least, as you’ll see in “Bound to the Fire” by Kelley Fanto Deetz, you didn’t cook ‘round the clock, too.

Most of us, says Deetz, are used to seeing Black faces on boxes of our breakfast foods. We might not notice them much anymore but those trademarked figures hide an often-misunderstood truth.

"Bound By Fire" by Kelley Fanto Deetz.

The “black community” in Virginia, says Deetz, “is almost as old as the colony itself.” In 1619, some 20 “negroes” lived in Jamestown; by 1625, there were 23 “Africans” in all of Virginia. Once slavery took firm hold in the state, there were tens of thousands of enslaved people but Deetz focuses on cooks, beginning with plantation homes.

As slavery expanded, kitchens began to be set apart from the main house, probably because white plantation owners didn’t want slaves under their roofs. For enslaved cooks and their families, that was both good and bad: more privacy was gained by living in the building where the kitchen was, and accommodations were usually larger than in the slave cabins – but that proximity meant that cooks were constantly on-call.

It took “a network of enslaved folks” to put food on the table, not only in growing the food, but in what may have been a house-staff of dozens. Cooks cooked, but they were also bakers, butchers, brewers, distillers, and sometimes, laundresses. A cook was likely taught to read and do “basic math,” and she (sometimes, he) taught kitchen chores to new slaves. Despite a constant likelihood of abuse and brutality, cooks often had surprising power over their mistresses and may’ve even negotiated their own circumstances.

And if things went really bad, there was always the danger-filled chance for a cook to tamper with the food …

There are, as author Kelley Fanto Deetz indicates in her introduction, several myths and misunderstandings related to enslaved cooks. There were, until now, many unknowns. “Bound to the Fire” sets things straight, but cooking isn’t the only focus here.

What would “Southern hospitality” be without the influence of enslaved cooks? Not much, as Deetz indicates – and Southern architecture would be the lesser, too. Using documents and research, Deetz explains how this is so, which leads to a fascinating look at day-to-day work of Virginia cooks, the power they wielded, and how they influenced what you’ll eat this holiday season. You’ll come to eagerly anticipate those tales, and they serve to underscore Deetz’s final point: Americans must look beyond stereotypes and be mindful of those who literally nourished a nation.

Be aware that this is not a cookbook. Instead, this is a book of history and a chance to set it straight. Yes, there are old-timey half-recipes in here but really, “Bound to the Fire” is meant for opening eyes, rather than mouths.

“Rettie and the Ragamuffin Parade”

By Trinka Hakes Noble, illustrated by David C. Gardner

c. 2017, Sleeping Bear Press

$17.95, $22.95 Canada; 32 pages

The big, booming drums are your favorites. Oh, but you also like flag-wavers and the majorette with her whirling batons. And you can’t forget the gigantic balloons or, of course, the floats with people waving hello. A lot of things go into making a great parade, but as you’ll see in the new book “Rettie and the Ragamuffin Parade” by Trinka Hakes Noble, illustrated by David C. Gardner, all it used to take were a few pennies.

Everyone in Rettie Stanowski’s neighborhood was excited for the Ragamuffin parade. It would happen Thanksgiving morning, and it was so much fun: all the kids in the Lower East Side tenements dressed up in old raggedy clothes and they’d walk down Broadway with their hands open. “Fancy uptown people” then gave them pennies, and on the street corners, pennies were tossed in the air.

"Rettie and the Ragamuffin Parade" by Trinka Hakes Noble.

It was 1918 and a penny stretched a very long way – just not far enough. Because mama was sick with consumption and papa was away at war, nine-year-old Rettie had taken odd jobs and was earning as much as possible to feed her sisters and brother. She simply had to do more if they were to have a good Thanksgiving.

Times were “rough,” though, and things were hard. Everyone was sick, or so it seemed. Lots of children had become orphans and were living on the streets, quarantine signs were everywhere, and schools had closed early. Food was sometimes hard to find, and it was expensive. What if they cancelled the Ragamuffin Parade, too?

When a nurse showed up to check on Mama, Rettie fretted more: if mama didn’t get better, Rettie and her siblings would be sent to an orphanage, which couldn’t happen. She just wouldn’t allow it, so while Mama rested, Rettie got up early each morning to clean their building and mop the stoop, saving her pay for her family’s Thanksgiving meal. Thoughts of the Ragamuffin Parade were never far away, though. Would there be enough money to make it a happy celebration?

Based loosely on several real events, “Rettie and the Ragamuffin Parade” may come as a nice surprise to both you and your child: who knew that Thanksgiving and Halloween once went hand-in-hand?

It’s true, and at the end of her story, author Trinka Hakes Noble explains how it all came about. Noble puts a human face on tragedy and poverty, and it’s one that kids will relate to, since the young heroine here is at about the age of the target audience.

While kids will love the tale and you can explain the history behind it, the illustrations by David Gardner will keep them coming back to this book. Gardner ’s artwork subtly shows the right amount of bleakness inside this story, quietly growing warm toward the (happy) ending. 

Kids ages 6-to-9 will love this unique story but beware that, for them, this is absolutely a read-aloud. Despite some big words and big concepts here, “Rettie and the Ragamuffin Parade” is a book to march out and get.

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The Bookworm is Terri Schlichenmeyer. She has been reading since she was 3 years old and never goes anywhere without a book. Terri lives on a hill in Wisconsin with two dogs and 11,000 books.