As tobacco farming spread throughout the southern United States during the beginning of the 17th century, giant, wealthy plantations began to pop up. They maintained the standard of traditional English dining, which meant help around the kitchen was needed, specifically cooks. The first hired cooks were white indentured servants, but that didn’t last long.
Slaves taking over the kitchen
By the late 17th century, slaves were being brought over from Africa by the boatload to attend to all the needs of these plantations and their white owners. Many of these slaves were put in the kitchen. The cooks spent all their waking hours in the kitchen, baking bread before dawn, making soups from scratch for lunch, and cooking elaborate feasts for dinner.
In the event that a traveler showed up in the night, the enslaved cook also had to tend to the traveler’s stomach, no matter the hour. All guests at the plantation were the cook’s responsibility.
The true origins of Southern hospitality
Because of their position under the direct watch of their owners, cooks truly had to shine. Guests needed to be impressed by the cuisine at all times. The meals were not only cooked, but largely created by the enslaved chefs. Service at the table was also part of the job. The circumstances that white plantation owners required (everyone seated at the table to be waited on hand-and-foot) gave birth to the hospitable culture of food and dining in the South.
Many of the cooks for the more famous plantation owners, namely presidents, were formally trained in the culinary field. Jefferson’s cook even went to Paris with his owner to learn French cuisine.
We owe our culinary traditions to slaves
As time went on, plantation cooks began blending the culinary traditions of Europeans, Africans, and Native Americans to create what we now know as Southern food. The uniqueness of these dishes is owed mainly to the slaves.
We don’t usually think of slaves when we think of American culinary tradition. But we should, especially when thinking of Southern cuisine. They are intrinsically tied together. Slaves shaped American cuisine and the culture that surrounds it.