The Origins of American Foodways: The Enslaved Communities of Poplar Forest

By Melissa D. Corbin | February 01, 2016

“Truth be told, for centuries, blacks have stirred the pots in southern kitchens, on plantations, mansions, boarding houses, hotels, and riverboats. It's remarkable so very, very few got their due. Edna Lewis got hers,” Vertamae Grosvenor memorializing Lewis on a February 2006 NPR broadcast. Lewis grew up in Freetown, Virginia, which was the first community settled by emancipated slaves, such as her grandfather. Eventually, she became the Grand Dame of Southern Cooking, winning numerous awards and writing of living by the season, the importance of community, and other sustainable principles of her ancestors.

poplar forest front porch
The view of Poplar Forest a visitor might have riding up the driveway. Image courtesy of Poplar Forest.

Lewis wasn’t alone. As the largest state of enslavers from 1619-1865, Virginians share the foodways of their ancestors with much of the United States according to culinary historian, Michael Twitty. He explains, “There are so many things from today’s food scene that make me laugh. Whole animal cooking? Are you kidding me? There’s not a single thing that they (modern chefs) have claimed as a trend that the South hasn’t been doing for generations.” Twitty’s new book “The Cooking Gene” releasing later this year, explores “how we got here by way of our ancestors’ plates.” 

Twitty joined a team of archaeologists and historians for a weekend’s exploration of the enslaved communities at President Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest in Bedford, Virginia last spring. He demonstrated early African-American cooking techniques and flavor profiles over a live, fireside feast of foods such as fried rabbit with persimmons, pattypan squash, new potatoes and hominy. “I wanted to show the basic diet that they would have procured for their own agency,” Twitty says. “It was an eye opener for us,” says Poplar Forest Director of Programming, Wayne Gannaway. “We are putting a lot of effort into telling the whole story of Poplar Forest,” Gannaway continues. 

One person often spoken of during Poplar Forest’s story is Hannah.

hannah's letter
Jefferson's slave roll
Photo 1: “Archaeologists discovered pieces of a writing slate at a slave quarter, suggesting that at least one resident was literate. A single surviving letter written in 1818 from Hannah to Jefferson describes the state of the house and sends wishes for his health,” says Dr. Barbara Heath of the University of Tennessee (Image courtesy of the Massachusetts Historical Society)
Photo 2: This Slave Role was found in one of Jefferson’s gardens. Note Hannah’s lineage. (Image courtesy of the Massachusetts Historical Society.)

Born around 1770 at Monticello to Jefferson’s slave, Cate, Hannah would eventually become house mistress at Poplar Forest. She readied the house when Jefferson would come home and would have greeted visitors. Hannah could also read and write, which allowed her to review the kitchen receipts (another name for recipes during Jefferson’s era). While the French cuisine of Monticello was more refined, Hannah cooked from her heart for our nation’s second president all of his retired years. “I have an excellent house there, am comfortably fixed and attended, have a few good neighbors, and pass my time there in tranquility and retirement much adapted to my age and indolence,” Jefferson wrote of Poplar Forest. While it is unknown who was responsible for purchasing goods from abroad to satisfy Jefferson’s affinity for “la vie francaise”, many items such as mustard, vinegars and wine were also bought in nearby Richmond and/or Lynchburg. 

His French travels served for great architectural inspiration of this presidential retreat at Poplar Forest. So when he asked for a modern kitchen in 1814, one can only imagine what Hannah must have thought. There was the traditional cooking hearth fireplace with its crane and a domed bake oven. To the right of the fireplace is where the copper set kettle served for a ready source of hot water. Hannah could look out the window, while she cooked over the stew pot range complete with three “burners” making Poplar Forest one of the few American homes with such a modern, European-style, built-in stove. 

Jefferson’s modern kitchen
Jefferson’s modern kitchen. Here you can see the copper set kettle with its three burners that Hannah cooked on daily. (Photo by Melissa D. Corbin)

“Jefferson was known for maximizing time,” Poplar Forest’s lead guide, Mary Kesler says. So, Hannah and the rest of his slaves had numerous responsibilities such as spinning, farming, husbandry, milling and blacksmithing. “They were like cogs in a wheel,” Kesler explains. While Jefferson made numerous contributions to modern society and was a consistent opponent of slavery, he was indeed a slave owner. Gannaway adds, “It really doesn’t do any good to try to brow beat the notion of slavery, but we do want visitors to connect with the people we are talking about. We want them to make a connection between them as people.” “These people were mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters,” Kesler adds. How they lived and HAD to live is all part of Poplar Forest’s living history.

While Jefferson allotted rations of items such as pork, salted fish, wheat and corn to his slaves, the enslaved residents of Poplar Forest tended to their own personal gardens. Though, if his gardens weren’t doing well, the enslaved community would sell their bounty back to Jefferson. Otherwise, a trusted slave would take them into market at Lynchburg to sell what they couldn’t use. Undoubtedly, Jefferson’s slaves were a part of the community’s economic force. They would use their money to purchase things for their family. Buttons, Sunday clothes and whiskey were noted on purchase ledgers across the region.  

Gannaway notes that the slave gardens would have contained produce such as:
Irish potatoes
Pattypan Squash
Winter squash
Shell Beans 
Hominy Beans

He says that the following plants could have been raised in slave gardens or procured from elsewhere on the plantation such as the orchards, forests, and forest margins:

They also would have collected the following nuts from nearby forests, using them for food, and in some cases could have used them for dying cloth:
Black Walnut

Herbs and weeds could have been cultivated in gardens or collected in the wild. Most of the following would have been used for flavoring or medicinal purposes:
Jimsonweed – used as a bronchodilator to treat asthma, but also a powerful hallucinogenic that can cause death.
Pennsylvania Smartweed 

In addition, Twitty’s research uncovers the enslaved communities’ need for companion planting due to the lack of water, space and the way they used biodynamic techniques to control pests and weeds. They would have also used livestock. Since Bedford was tobacco country, the slaves were often in contention with the horn worm. They would fatten the poultry by letting them into the fields to feast upon the worms. Later, the hogs would forage the forest over winter, and be fenced in during the end of that frigid season. This area would offer fertile ground come spring, in time for cultivation. After hog killing, the bladders were even used as balloons for entertainment. 

“Ever heard of ‘playing the bones?’ This originates from slaves using actual cow bones as instruments,” suggests Twitty. 

“Slaves could have invented Starbucks,” laughs Twitty. He says that during the Civil War, they would grow extra okra to make “coffee.” The coffee rations would be lifted from dead soldiers and ground with the dried okra seeds, molasses and corn. This putrid substitute would then be sold back to soldiers along the way. 

“The root, the flower, the seed…they were all separate parts in terms of food and medicine. Nothing went to waste,” explains Twitty.

Hannah's Kitchen Mise En Place
A full view of Jefferson’s modern kitchen demonstrates how Hannah might have kept mine en place. (Image courtesy of Poplar Forest)

Consequent to Jefferson’s death, July 4, 1826, Poplar Forest was home to more than 90 slaves. The last documented reference of Hannah is in a 1821 provision list. While it is unclear if she was still living at the time of her master’s passing, Hannah would never experience the freedoms we take for granted today. 

During the “Second Middle Passage,” as some people refer to the largest, forced migration in American history, our ancestors took their foodways out into the heart of America. Whether you’re making a pan of cornbread or even a batch of beer, it all began with folks like Hannah.  

Because the water was often unsafe to drink, the enslaved would ferment beverages such as persimmon beer. The first brewing would be very strong and then the last beer would be referred to as a “small” beer for children. Culinary historian, Michael Twitty explains, “ They call it beer, but it’s closer to a liquor. It has the bubbly ferment, but it tastes more like a wine or sherry.” While persimmons are a fall fruit, you could easily use other foraged fruits as the seasons allow. He shares his paternal grandmother’s formula for persimmon beer here

Okra Cornbread
I’ve made this recipe for years. It started out a way to introduce my husband to the okra that I grew up devouring. An okra that discredited its “slimy” reputation. This recipe’s foundation has become the perfect vehicle for vegetables. Southern cookbook author, chef and television personality, Virginia Willis’ version adds several pepper varieties to the ingredient list. Her explanation of why we should eat whole grain cornmeal is on point. Country music star and Food Network personality, Trisha Yearwood adds broccoli, Vidalia onions and pepper Jack cheese for an extra kick. Regardless of recipe preference, there’s no denying this American staple’s roots. Get the okra cornbread recipe here.

Go to corbininthedell.com for more recipes.

Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest is open daily from March 16 through December 30  from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. with the last tour leaving at 4:05 p.m. Visit their Winter Reflections At Home with Mr. Jefferson page for details on winter weekend hours. Tour tickets may be purchased online at  poplarforest.org or onsite at the museum gift shop.

Save the Date! The Poplar Forest Annual Craft Brewed Festival is happening April 16 which highlights beers across the state of Virginia. 

To learn more about Michael Twitty’s work, please visit afroculinaria.com.

Learn more about Poplar Forest on the NPR podcast Journey’s of Discovery With Tom Wilmer “Poplar Forest -Thomas Jefferson’s Hideaway” episode.