Michael Twitty is an author, teacher, and culinary historian who runs the food blog Afroculinaria, where he explores the topic of culinary justice in relation to African American and Diasporic foodways. In addition to giving a lecture at the MAD Symposium about his genealogical project called the Southern Discomfort Tour, Twitty also made headlines with his open letter to Paula Deen.
If you’re getting your food news from Fox, you might never know there is indeed a rich and invaluable tradition of black culinary professionals spanning from Africa to America, and from slavery to freedom.
Despite their impact being glossed over by major media outlets, people of African descent have been played a major role in America’s history since the 17th century. Whether they were enslaved or free, black men and women cooked in private homes, for plantation communities, inns, taverns, and early restaurants, from New England to New Orleans. Contrary to popular opinion, they were not making “soul food,” even as some of them helped shape that canon. Early black chefs were trained in traditional English and classic French cuisine, and they remained open to other cultural influences with which they came into contact, including Native American, Sephardic-Jewish, German, Dutch, and Scots-Irish foodways. In turn, they reshaped the foods of their enslavers and employers by making—as the culinary historian Karen Hess once put it—their own “wok presence” known, giving the food of early America the unmistakable taste of the dishes common to the African-Atlantic rim.
“If you’re getting your food news from Fox, you might never know there is indeed a rich and invaluable tradition stemming from Africa to America, and from slavery to freedom of Black culinary professionals.”
By the turn of the 19th century, the black chef was such a symbol of culinary excellence that a number of food products were sold with the image of a stereotypical black cook or domestic to assure authenticity. From the early 1900s through Civil Rights, black chefs struggled to find their way out of these canned perceptions of servitude and innate cooking ability. They branched out into other areas, including cookbook writing, cooking programs on the radio and television, and owning high-end restaurants and cooking schools. For a short while black chefs retreated from the soul/Southern food label to prove themselves outside of yet another box—even while white Southerners increasingly claimed the moniker. Black chefs were lost again as the post-Civil Rights movement replaced non-credentialed black men and women with degreed culinary students who were primarily white. Many African Americans refused to enter the cooking trade because of family pressure, as well as the ghost of early stereotypes of black domestics doing “slave work.”
Now we are in a time when black culinarians are experiencing a renaissance based on a delicate balance between tradition, modernity, innovation, and respect for classic recipes. These chefs are sushi masters, vegans, historic reenactors, pastry geniuses, teachers, and food bloggers. There is a real call to action and sense of social and cultural duty as black chefs deal with the added burdens of systemic racism, culinary gentrification, and the pressure to make healthier food more accessible. The chefs of today want to get people back to the land, back into the history books, and forward to new gastronomic expressions of the black experience in America.
From the late 17th century to the modern day, we look at the most influential black chefs in American history, and how they shaped this nation’s foodways.
1680s-1860s: Early Black Chefs in the American South
Hercules, pictured above
Preceded by the likes of Hercules of Mount Vernon Plantation, the formidable enslaved chef of George and Martha Washington, James Hemings was brought along with his sister Sally to France with Jefferson as a teenager during his appointment as ambassador. During his time in Paris, Hemings learned French and was an apprentice to the chefs of the royal court. Although he was officially free in France, he returned to the Virginia to be with his family on the condition that by training his younger brother, he could obtain his freedom from Jefferson. The dynasty of French-trained black cooks further continued with their cousins Edith Fossett and Fanny Hern, and into the next generation with her son Peter Fossett, a caterer of renown in Cincinnati. Hemings was probably the best trained chef in America of his time, and essentially one of the first to blend the best of French technique with American ingredients and flavors.
This generation saw great black chefs that were both enslaved and free—including the head cooks of the households of George Mason, Andrew Jackson, James Madison, and other key leaders of the Revolutionary and Federal generations, as well as every patrician Southern family. On the outskirts of slavery were women like Ms. Lucy and her husband, a baker and pastry chef of renown in late 18th-century Annapolis. Like Hemings, several black chefs in New Orleans and Mobile were sent to France for a culinary education. The domestic slave trade—the largest forced migration in American history—pushed black cooks further South and West, and by extension North, as African Americans escaped to freedom after emancipation to join established black communities and chefs above the Mason-Dixon line. The relocation to the North permitted the establishment of black food-based businesses and the expansion of the early black middle-class. (Photo: Wikicommons)
1800-1900: Free Chefs of Color—The Caterers and Cookbook Authors
Catering became an important means of establishing financially viable and socially mobile black communities. The black caterers of antebellum America were so admired that they were deemed an indispensable part of social events and celebrations. In Boston, it was J.B. Smith who catered functions from Harvard Yard to banquets for 1,600 people at Faneuil Hall. In New York, it was the Downing family, father and son, who were famous for their oyster cookery brought from the Eastern Shore of Virginia. There was no city so important as Philadelphia, where James Prosser, Pierre Augustin and family, Thomas Dorsey, Robert Bogle, and Henry Minton made the city the center of the black catering and restaurant business. These chefs were a mixture of African American, Haitian, West Indian, and tri-racial populations, and brought to their trade all of the sum cultural richness of their heritage.
Meanwhile, black people took their first efforts at owning and building restaurants and catering dynasties, while others wrote the first cookbooks. Malinda Russell, Abby Fisher, Rufus Estes, Tunis Campbell, and others demonstrated the first culinary and hospitality literature written by African Americans. One book, a guide to servants written by Robert Roberts, was so invaluable it was in the collection of Andrew Jackson—a slaveholder in a state where a Black man who could read was anathema. As the Civil War came to a close, Charleston South Carolina’s greatest chef, Nat Fuller, born into slavery but later emancipated, held a reunification and reconciliation dinner that brought together white and black Charlestonians for a rare integrated meal. (Photo: American Food Roots)
1900-1990—Up from Servitude on to TV
Despite Jim Crow and the overall disenfranchisement of African Americans, food continued to be a means of financial empowerment and social advancement. The Great Migration led to the creation of black restaurants catering to Southern migrants from the Northeast to the Midwest and West Coast. Most black food businesses in the South were limited to black communities, but in New Orleans, the confluence of great cooks and great black-owned eating establishments led to a formidable collection of culinary brilliance. Most notable are Lena Richard, a black chef who was the first black radio and TV food personality. Austin Leslie’s Chez Helene near the French Quarter gave American TV its first black restaurant sitcom, Frank’s Place, partly based on his life and experiences. Leah Chase and her husband founded Dooky Chase’s in the 1940s, and it became both a nexus of the Civil Rights movement—like many black restaurants of the era—and a place where presidents go for mandatory culinary tourism.
The Civil Rights movement and cultural revolution that followed brought many opportunities for the expression of black culture, but it led to a huge class shift in how African Americans viewed cooking. Soul food was seen as both a symbol of black culture and a detriment to the black condition. This ambivalence and the need for black chefs to prove themselves anew in an age of international curiosity, power lunches, and minimalist cuisine pushed the black chef further out beyond expected boundaries. To be clear, black chefs were certainly in some of the best gourmet restaurants, but they increasingly lost ground to new cooks with degrees and prestigious internships. Black celebrities got in on the cookbook writing genre and into lines of food products, while a new face of hospitality and culinary excellence would emerge in the form of B. Smith, who defined grace and style for a new upwardly mobile and urban black middle- and upper-class.
1990-2015: Post-Modern to Obama Era
Multiculturalism, Afrocentricism, and the gains of the Civil Rights movement led to a new generation of black chefs better equipped to contest the gentrification of America’s food scene. Black chefs started to merge and meld familiar flavors with a diversity of techniques and aesthetic approaches. Patrick Clark of Tavern on the Green represented a new generation of African-American chefs. A guest star on Julia Child, he valued his classic French training and haute cuisine while never turning his back on his African-American roots. His son Preston is a chef at Lure in New York today. Chef Joe Randall established a culinary school in Savannah where he still disseminates the traditional African-American food knowledge.
African and Caribbean chefs like Pierre Thiam and Marcus Samuelsson have embraced African Americans while seeking to educate a wider audience about the foodways of Africa and her Diaspora. Bryant Terry has made Afrocentric Veganism not a trend but a culture anchored in ancient tradition. Chef Roble, G. Garvin, and Sunny Anderson have kept the black culinary presence on TV. Todd Richard, Duane S. Nutter, and mixologist Tiffanie Barrie are feeding Atlanta’s newfound cosmopolitan glory. This is not a boy’s club though—Carla Hall reigns on The Chew; Mashama Bailey has excelled at her Savannah restaurant The Grey; and Nina Compton, Tanya Holland, Jennifer Booker, sushi master Marissa Bragert, and other black women chefs are transforming how the entire American food scene perceives both the African American and female chef.