In the 1800s in the Deep South, kitchens, specifically what came out of those kitchens, were a matter of pride and the result of privilege. The biscuits, deeply spiced hams and rich puddings were a celebration of hospitality and Southern cuisine.
In a groundbreaking book published in 1904, The Blue Grass Cook Book, Minnie C. Fox collected more than 300 recipes from family and friends near her homes in Kentucky and Virginia.
She illustrated it with photographs of African American cooks at work and topped it off with a glowing introduction by her famous author brother John Fox, Jr., who said that the foods were “of a flavor and fragrance to shatter the fast of a pope.”
Dr. Daryl Harris explores that legacy of “those turbaned mistresses of the Southern kitchens” on April 17 at Covington’s Carnegie Center.
The 6 p.m. lecture, open to the public for $6, is part of the Six@Six series hosted by Northern Kentucky University. It’s a chance for the rest of us to go back to college, hear from experts immersed in their subjects and explore our community.
Harris’ presentation, “Someone’s in the Kitchen with Dinah,” examines Southern cuisine and the relationships of black cooks in white kitchens, particularly in the South and with a focus on Kentucky. He starts with the book and builds from there with research that took him from Cincinnati’s Findlay Market to Maysville, Ky.
Dinah was a common name used to refer to older black women whose main responsibilities were in the kitchen, Harris says, and the song can be interpreted differently. For some it’s a workman’s song, impatiently waiting for the dinner bell. Harris suggests, with a laugh, that it could mean something other than work was going on in the kitchen.
In an office crowded with posters and feathered artifacts — the products of the NKU theater professor’s stage experiences and the results of worldwide travel — he chooses his words carefully in answers to questions. But once he starts to make a point, he speaks quickly, and his gentle Southern accent is clear.
Balance of the culture
“When I first came here part of my job was to do community-based projects and research around the Underground Railroad movement,” he explains. One year, the Kentucky Humanities Council was working on a project focusing on food, which led him to research his own questions.
He had been “wondering about the dynamics that must have existed in the South between black women and white women, who were the wives of plantation owners, who kept seeing these light-skinned blue-eyed children running around who looked vaguely familiar.” The phenomenon, the “tension that must have existed.”
According to Harris, other researchers have concluded that it was a precarious balance between the women. He says women, black and white, hold the power of the home and the power of the culture. After all, he points out, those in the Judeo-Christian tradition know that God told Adam to do one thing, Eve told him to do something else, and he did what Eve said, explaining men’s efforts to control women because they know where the power lies.
“I was raised in a family with extremely strong women, and the men who were smart enough to marry them,” he says, laughing heartily.
Harris’ parents are from the South, and he earned his B.A. and Master’s in Fine Arts from the University of Southern Mississippi and his doctorate from the University of Alabama.
In the early 200s, he asked students in a race and gender course on a campus in the South, “How many of you have black women working in your home?” The answer was a resounding two-thirds.
The next year, he posed the same question to his race and gender students at NKU. Two raised their hands.
“Once I came here I started to understand the term Deep South,” Harris says. “I think of this to be South, and it’s not. It’s not the South I know.”
The University Press of Kentucky writes of the book: “Fox gives the first known credit for Southern hospitality to African American cooks” and “offers insight into the complex bond between the well-to-do mistresses and their cooks at the turn of the century.”
Harris says many recipes were written down by white women peeking over the shoulder of their cooks or attributed to the hostess of the house. “Technically, at the time of enslavement, white women were in the same boat as blacks. Period. Because,” he emphasizes, “technically they were considered property. They had no rights, they couldn’t vote. They had no rights to their children. They could not own property. So, technically they were in the same boat.”
Of course, he adds quickly, “they were in a yacht.”
Harris’ work with the Humanities Council includes a presentation, “Hail to the Red, White and Black” on African American soldiers in the Civil War. Another is “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” which addresses the legacy of black music with a focus on Kentucky.
For the April talk, he chose the title to capitalize on the familiar song title.
“After all,” he says, “I’m in theater.” ■
Dianne Gebhardt-French writes about the newsmakers of Northern Kentucky.
Contact her at (513) 297-6209 or firstname.lastname@example.org.