Enslaved peoples' impact on iconic Southern food deserves recognition beyond single month

Mackensy Lunsford
Southern Kitchen

History is kind to Thomas Jefferson. As if authoring the Declaration of Independence wasn't enough, he also gets the credit for macaroni and cheese.

But it was Jefferson's enslaved and classically French-trained cook James Hemings who deserves the credit for the first macaroni recipe recorded in the U.S. Hemings also had a hand in bringing the recipes for creme brulee, ice cream and other staples of the American table to domestic soil.

"James Hemings is the first American to study all of these French techniques and bring them back to the states and actually teach other cooks in the kitchen how to make these things," said Kysha Harris, food editor for The Spruce Eats. "And that's how it permeated through white society."

Historic Black cooks, some enslaved by U.S. presidents, helped shape what we eat today, particularly in the South. I discussed this with Harris near the end of Black History Month, which takes place over the shortest month of the year.

The inventor and legume that 'saved American agriculture'

Surely a man like the Missouri-born George Washington Carver deserves more than a few short winter weeks. Carver is perhaps most associated with peanut butter, but that now-ubiquitous pantry staple is a byproduct of his genius.

"He single-handedly gave us peanut butter," Harris told me. "But it was rooted in his biggest invention, which was crop rotation."

This 1906 portrait provided by The Library of Congress shows George Washington Carver at Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute in Tuskegee, Alabama.

Carver was still a young boy when slavery was abolished, yet he remained on the plantation where he was born into slavery until beginning his formal education. With a goal to make life easier for newly freed Black sharecroppers, Carter became the first African American to graduate from Iowa Agricultural College and Model Farm. 

Much more than peanuts:George Washington Carver The Great American Agriculturalist

Carver learned that single-crop farming stripped the soil of vital nutrients, so he borrowed a page from Indigenous farming traditions and reintroduced the idea of rotating crops with nitrogen-fixing legumes — peanuts — after each harvest.

Those fields full of peanuts inspired Carver to develop a new revenue stream, which he detailed in his book, "How to Grow the Peanut and 105 Ways of Preparing it for Human Consumption."

"He had all of these ways to make this legume that really saved American agriculture," said Harris. "It's such an important story." 

So is the route that ingredients such as field peas, okra and rice took to become iconic Southern staples. 

"These are all ingredients that were brought over by enslaved Africans," Harris said. "They carried the seeds in their pockets and, once they got their little plot of land, they put them down into the ground. Even when slaves tried to run away, they would take some of the seeds out of the ground to travel with them."

Enslaved workers for presidents developed some iconic Southern dishes

At Andrew Jackson's Hermitage estate in Nashville, a large staff of enslaved people helped manage the affairs of the seventh U.S. president. 

New take on Southern staples:Trinidad native Sedesh Boodram's spiced-up Southern style shines in this chile-spiked sauce

Jackson's kitchen, finished in 1837, was a hive of activity as staff churned butter, roasted meat and tended gardens and animals. Jackson also had a taste for French food, and his cellars were stocked with fine wines including Bordeaux from Château Margaux, according to Erin Adams, director of education for the Andrew Jackson Foundation.

Meanwhile, she said, Jackson was only obligated to provide each of his enslaved workers one quart of grain and five ounces of protein per day. Jackson also allowed his enslaved staff to keep guns to hunt, putting aside his concerns about uprisings. 

"But we have to think how much work that is on top of a 15-hour workday," Adams said. "The plantation had its own rhythms, so we don't know when the enslaved had permission to take time off. Certainly, if they tended animals, that's seven days a week, and then all of the work of the home lives of enslaved workers gets accomplished on top of the workday, so you do have a scenario of never-ending labor."

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Never-ending labor seemed to be part of life for Hemings. Though he remained enslaved for most of his life, he also studied with Parisian restaurateur Monsieur Combeaux, and apprenticed with pastry chefs and the chef of the Prince de Condé. He then became the head chef at the Hotel de Langeac, Jefferson's residence and de facto American embassy. 

Jefferson freed Hemings in 1796, though he would return to Monticello as the paid head chef in the summer of 1801. During his time there, Hemings further honed his recipe for macaroni and cheese “pie,” inspired by his and Jefferson's travels in Paris.

The dish was popular enough that it appeared at an 1802 White House dinner, prepared by Hemings’ brother. “The Virginia Housewife” cookbook author Mary Randolf, whose brother was Jefferson’s son-in-law, created a recipe for a dish inspired by (or perhaps stolen from) Hemings.

Hemings also deserves to be recognized, even after cold, gray February fades away.

"We are all Americans, and food is the great equalizer," Harris said. "There are certain things in our country that need to be upheld and appreciated, and we need to know who the pioneers of these things were."

This old-school macaroni casserole recipe, adapted from an at least 130-year-old recipe submitted to Southern Kitchen by a reader, is a likely ancestor of Hemings' original recipe. 

Macaroni And Cheese Casserole

Macaroni and Cheese Casserole

Serves: 6 to 8

Hands-on time: 20 minutes

Total time: 1 hour and 20 minutes

Ingredients

1 pound wide egg noodles

1 1/2 pounds sharp cheddar cheese

4 cups whole milk

4 large eggs

Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

8 tablespoons unsalted butter, cubed, plus more as desired

Instructions

Heat the oven to 350 degrees.

Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil over high heat. Add the noodles and boil until just al dente, 5 to 6 minutes. Drain and rinse with cold water. Drain well.

Meanwhile, grate one pound of the cheese on the large holes of a box grater. Thinly slice the remaining cheese. 

In a large bowl, whisk together the milk and the eggs. Season generously with salt and pepper.

Spread half of the cooked noodles evenly across the bottom of a 9- by 13-inch baking dish. Top with half of the grated cheese and half of the butter, distributing both evenly across the noodles. Repeat with the remaining noodles, grated cheese and butter. Pour the milk mixture over the noodles; it should come close to the top of the noodles. Lay the sliced cheese evenly across the top of the noodles. 

Place the baking dish on a rimmed baking sheet and bake until the filling is bubbling and the top layer of cheese is just starting to brown, about 45 minutes. Let rest for at least 15 minutes before serving.

Mackensy Lunsford is the food and culture storyteller for USA TODAY Network's South region and the editor of Southern Kitchen.

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Reach me: mlunsford@southernkitchen.com