Cooking in Other Women’s Kitchens

Cooking in Other Women’s Kitchens: Domestic Workers in the South,1865-1960

Rebecca Sharpless
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  • Book Info
    Cooking in Other Women’s Kitchens
    Book Description:

    As African American women left slavery and the plantation economy behind, many entered domestic service in southern cities and towns. Cooking was one of the primary jobs they performed in white employers' homes, feeding generations of white families and, in the process, profoundly shaping southern foodways and culture.Rebecca Sharpless argues that, in the face of discrimination, long workdays, and low wages, African American cooks worked to assert measures of control over their own lives and to maintain spaces for their own families despite the demands of employers and the restrictions of segregation. Sharpless also shows how these women's employment served as a bridge from old labor arrangements to new ones. As opportunities expanded in the twentieth century, most African American women chose to leave cooking for more lucrative and less oppressive manufacturing, clerical, or professional positions.Through letters, autobiography, and oral history, this book evokes African American women's voices from slavery to the open economy, examining their lives at work and at home. Sharpless looks beyond stereotypes to introduce the real women who left their own houses and families each morning to cook in other women's kitchens.

    eISBN: 978-1-4696-0632-3
    Subjects: Sociology, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
  3. Preface
    (pp. xi-xxx)
    (pp. 1-10)

    For more than three hundred years, from the first importation of slaves into Jamestown until the 1960s, African American women served as cooks for privileged white families in the American South.¹ Through their labor and their talents, they fed fifteen generations of white southerners. After emancipation, the work of these women also fed their own families, in the form of wages and food left over from their employers’ tables. How did African American women become the iconic—and actual—cooks of the South?

    Cooking is one of the most basic human activities: the transformation of raw ingredients into something else,...

  5. 1 I Done Decided I’d Get Me a Cook Job BECOMING A COOK
    (pp. 11-32)

    Cooks were made, not born, contrary to white southern stereotype, and they arrived in their profession through a variety of means. A woman or a girl sometimes decided for herself to cook rather than do field work or other types of domestic labor; at other times, her family made the choice for her, or circumstances dictated her entry into the kitchen. The types of training that women had varied widely. Some learned at their mothers’ knees, others were thrown before the stove with absolutely no prior knowledge, and a few received formal training from home economists. Regardless of how they...

  6. 2 From Collards to Puff Pastry THE FOOD
    (pp. 33-64)

    In 1868, white businessman Sylvanus Lines wrote to his wife, Jennie Akehurst Lines, about the abundance of food at his Macon, Georgia, boardinghouse:

    Now I suppose you would like to know what I have to eat—well for breakfast we have very good coffee, hot rolls,warm biscuitof course, beef steak, cold ham, hash, batter cakes, &cs at noon, not less than three kinds of meat & fowl, Irish & sweet potatoes, rice and hominy, light bread & biscuit, turnips & greens, and nearly every day dessert of pudding or pie with a glass of sweet milk or butter...

    (pp. 65-88)

    In 1938, Roxanna Hupes of Galveston, Texas, wrote to “President Rosevelt,” feeling as many of her peers did that the president was likely to read her entreaties and make needed changes in American society. Detailing her workday, which began at 6:30 in the morning with a mile’s walk to her place of employment, Hupes efficiently summarized the situation for most domestic workers in the American South: “The wages that we get, so small and the hours is so long.”¹ In an oral history interview, Alice Adams praised her longtime employers in Atlanta in almost all ways: “They was lovely people...

  8. 4 Creating a Homeplace SHELTER, FOOD, CLOTHING, AND A LITTLE FUN
    (pp. 89-108)

    With their paltry earnings, cooks provided for their families as best they could. All those hours in front of stoves bought food, clothing, shelter, and sometimes a little recreation for cooks and their loved ones. The small houses of segregated African American neighborhoods sheltered a population working diligently to make their ways in southern society. In meeting the essential needs of the next generation, African American women opposed the dominant culture that slighted the requirements of black children. In the Jim Crow South, survival was tantamount to resistance. Poor pay made providing the basics of food, clothing, and shelter a...

  9. 5 Mama Leaps off the Pancake Box COOKS AND THEIR FAMILIES
    (pp. 109-128)

    In her 1993 poem “The Black Back-ups,” Kate Rushin depicts a child’s fantasy: that in response to its request, its mother will leave her work in the white people’s space, come home, and take care of its needs instead of her employer’s. In reality, for more than a century, mothers obligated to work for wages as cooks found themselves with limited choices in balancing work and family. Among American women in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, African Americans were by far the most likely to work after marriage and childbearing. Irish women, who formed the largest group of...

    (pp. 129-172)

    Under any circumstances, relationships between domestic workers and their employers are extremely complex, including in the mix “power, dependence, deference, care, gift-giving, erotic involvement, love and hate.”¹ Around the world, across time, conflict has been integral to the domestic employeremployee connection. The relationship, “inherently asymmetrical,” can never be made equal.² Power and domination, conflict and struggle all occur in people’s lives. In an association such as that between a housewife and a domestic worker, everyday actions both control and oppose.³

    A historic structure of subjugation and prejudice made an already complicated situation even more difficult in the postemancipation American South....

  11. 7 If I Ever Catch You in a White Woman’s Kitchen, I’ll Kill You EXPANDING OPPORTUNITIES AND THE DECLINE OF DOMESTIC WORK
    (pp. 173-182)

    In Langston Hughes’s 1949 poem “Graduation,” his prediction for postwar America, he contrasts the old and new types of employment for African American women. Mrs. Jackson—“Mama”—has toted home chicken and has put her daughter Mary Lulu through secretarial school with her wages as a cook. Being a typist may not be the best job in the world, but for the Jackson family, it is a big step out of the kitchen, and that hope is enough to spread stardust over the two women. Mama looks forward to the day when “the colored race shall rise,” but, tired from...

  12. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 183-184)
  13. Appendix: COOKS’ WAGES, 1901–1960
    (pp. 185-188)
  14. Notes
    (pp. 189-236)
  15. Bibliography
    (pp. 237-262)
  16. Index
    (pp. 263-273)