Review: Bound to the Fire
Author: Kelley Fanto Deetz
Publisher: University Press of Kentucky
Reviewed by: Ralph Peluso, Literary Editor
Zebra Rating – 4.5 Stripes
Kelley Fanto Deetz grew up in a large family. Like many large families, the kitchen was the center of most activity. The author will tell you her family loved to eat and cook. This served as the foundation for her interest in cooking, toiling as a professional cook for a decade. Her infatuation with the historic relevance and impact of slavery on American food culture began when she first stepped foot on a Virginia plantation. “I peered through the windows and wondered who cooked in the space,” Deetz has said. And, so began her journey to seek out the stories.
Deetz holds a post graduate degree in African Studies which has evolved her career into that of a historical archaeologist. She investigates archaeological sites, data, visual and material culture to understand the history of people and communities. One main focus is in the area where communities did not self-document. As a renowned African scholar, she relies on multiple sources to provide general interpretations of what took place and the motivations there.
Bound to the Fire is an enlightening look into the life of the plantation cooks and kitchen staff. Deetz puts the reader into the kitchens and dissuades the myths that this group of slaves were treated better than the field hands. Notwithstanding the Gone with the Wind affect, this was not the case. Brutality was not limited to the fields. Although the quarters were “better”, the responsibilities brought long hard hours, physical tolerances beyond normal human level. Even those who gained celebrity status in the households of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson could not escape the horrors of slavery, or a brutal death at the end of a rope. Her telling of their stories will touch an emotional chord in the reader. The iconic smiling faces of Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben is a long distance from reality.
Surprising to this reader was the level of African cooking techniques that are in standard American food recipes like jambalaya, gumbo and okra stew. The spicy component in most southern cooking is directly descended from these cooks.
Deetz’s work connects the reader to the stories and augments and refocuses historical perspective. Where readers may struggle is the constant interpreted motive about everything the plantation owners did. Bound to the Fire provides a terrific education and linkage to the past. In the near future I will certainly try to make the Brunswick Stew! Zebra Rating 4.5 stripes.