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Bound to the FireBound to the Fire

How Virginia's Enslaved Cooks Helped Invent American Cuisine

Kelley Fanto Deetz

Narrated by Nancy Bober

Available from Audible

Book published by University Press of Kentucky

In grocery store aisles and kitchens across the country, smiling images of “Aunt Jemima” and other historical and fictional black cooks can be found on various food products and in advertising. Although these images are sanitized and romanticized in American popular culture, they represent the untold stories of enslaved men and women who had a significant impact on the nation’s culinary and hospitality traditions even as they were forced to prepare food for their oppressors.

Kelley Fanto Deetz draws upon archaeological evidence, cookbooks, plantation records, and folklore to present a nuanced study of the lives of enslaved plantation cooks from colonial times through emancipation and beyond. She reveals how these men and women were literally “bound to the fire” as they lived and worked in the sweltering and often fetid conditions of plantation house kitchens. These highly skilled cooks drew upon skills and ingredients brought with them from their African homelands to create complex, labor-intensive dishes such as oyster stew, gumbo, and fried fish. However, their white owners overwhelmingly received the credit for their creations.

Focusing on enslaved cooks at Virginia plantations including Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello and George Washington’s Mount Vernon, Deetz restores these forgotten figures to their rightful place in American and Southern history. Bound to the Fire not only uncovers their rich and complex stories and illuminates their role in plantation culture, but it celebrates their living legacy with the recipes that they created and passed down to future generations.

Kelley Fanto Deetz is a research associate at the James River Institute for Archaeology, and a Visiting Assistant Professor at Randolph College, in Lynchburg, Virginia. Deetz, who was a professional chef for several years, is a contributor to The Routledge History of Food and Birth of a Nation: Nat Turner and the Making of a Movement. Her work has appeared in National Geographic History.


“Deetz recasts the image of the plantation cook as a figure of power, dignity, and, frequently, resistance. This is a lively and insightful account of a still-largely-unfamiliar aspect of the history of American slavery.”

Publishers Weekly

“Deetz ensures her readers understand the significant intellect, physical strength, endurance, and capabilities required for enslaved cooks to produce four meals per day from scratch in hot, open-hearth kitchens while under the constant threat of psychological abuse and violence. Scholarly yet readable, Deetz’s book honors these American ancestors by reclaiming their rightful places and stories.”


“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. ”


“Deetz takes on the challenging task of examining the history of enslaved cooks through an archaeology of kitchens and outbuildings and by tracing outlines of individual lives from scant historical records. The result is a fascinating account, illustrative of the invisibility of individuals whose work was central to the public performance of plantation culture. ”


“Deetz does us a great service of expanding the literature connecting African and African American foodways with those with which we are familiar.”

H-Net Reviews

Bound to the Fire is a stew of many parts: biography, autobiography, recipes, cultural history, architectural-plan analysis, a review of archeological evidence, fragments of the imagined inner life of a cook, and more, all suspended in the salty broth of Deetz’s outrage over culinary erasure, epicurean appropriation, and kitchen deceptions. With this dish, Deetz renders visible the lives of a specific group of domestic servants: black cooks enslaved on Virginia plantations tasked solely with preparing meals for the planter’s table.”

Public Books

Bound to the Fire is the from-the-ground-up study we’ve been looking for. Deetz investigates the material culture of the enslaved through the lens of the cooks who forged in flame classic Southern foodways, and she has given us a powerful analysis of the lives of those ancestors whose hands stirred the pots in sorrow’s kitchen.”

—Michael W. Twitty, author of The Cooking Gene: A Journey through African American Culinary History in the Old South

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University Press Audiobooks