The Culinary History You Missed In ’12 Years A Slave’
Just as Solomon Northup’s story has moved audiences who’ve seen the Oscar-nominated film “12 Years a Slave,” the narrative of his wife Anne offers a rare window into a meaningful period of culinary history.
Food historians and chefs celebrated this significant period during a recent lecture, tour and dinner at the Morris-Jumel Mansion, the New York City estate where Anne worked for Eliza Jumel during her husband’s bondage.
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In “12 Years a Slave,” we learned that Anne Northup was headed to a cooking job for a few weeks when her husband was kidnapped in 1841. Not until about a month after Solomon went missing did Anne find out her husband was kidnapped. The couple’s local white Northup family first informed her of the abduction.
So, we can only imagine how distraught Anne and the children felt when they decided to move in with Madame Eliza Jumel, the flamboyant second wife of Vice President Aaron Burr. They apparently lived and worked at the Morris-Jumel Mansion in Harlem Heights off and on for three years.
Free black woman’s role in food history
Before moving to New York City, the two women met at the United States Hotel in Saratoga Springs, New York, a playground for the rich and famous. Anne lived and worked at the historic hotel and, according to several sources, was a “highly regarded chef and kitchen manager,” said Jane Lancaster, Brown University visiting history professor and event lecturer.
“Madame Jumel’s rags-to-riches story — having been born in a mixed-race brothel and raised in a work house — might explain the two women’s relationship,” Lancaster said. “It probably was more of an employee-employer bond than friendship. We are not sure if Madame paid Anne well or if it was barter. Nonetheless, Madame Jumel informally “adopted” Anne’s children as companions for her own, as referenced in madame’s scandalous divorce papers.
“Free blacks were not always paid on the same scale as whites and that might explain why Anne took on so many cooking jobs through her 50-year career. The stereotyped black female cook and washerwoman did exist in the north among jobs for free blacks. But Anne was strictly a cook of some status. Good cooks were seriously valued in those days,” Lancaster said.
A nearly lost food history
During the 1820s, printed menus were rare and few restaurants existed. The hospitality industry was in its infancy. Hotels, inns, lodges and private homes offered simple to elaborate meals.
“Anne Northup was an ambassador of sorts of a very unique America menu, a northern Creole cookery style,” said event curator Tonya Hopkins of The Food Griot.
“Anne was a master chef in the purest form. She was knowledgeable about farming, butchering, harvesting, chemistry, timing, temperatures. You really had to be physically strong, smart and authoritative and have your senses about you to manage a colonial kitchen — a hearth, a cooktop and a staff. Everything was made from scratch — stock, brine, pickles, sauces, corn meal, dried herbs, salad dressing and more.
“She apprenticed from a young age at the Eagle Tavern and worked strictly as a cook and kitchen manager at Eagles Tavern, Cheryl’s Coffee House, United States Hotel and for the rich and not so famous,” Hopkins said as she led a tour of the mansion’s kitchen where Anne cooked.
We rarely discuss northern Creolization of American cuisine, but Anne’s story created an opportunity to consider this history. It served as a reminder that American cuisine was always fusion cooking.
“Northern American food is really the result of a double Creolization. The first Creolization, or mixture, happened in the Caribbean by the fusion of Africans, Asian, European, Spanish and indigenous foodways. The second phase happened in the Northern states with free blacks (infused with Caribbean ancestry), First Nation people, English, Dutch, German, French and others,” said Hopkins, a food historian.
The predecessor of soul food
Anne was a free African-American of mixed heritage, but surprisingly not literate. There were no photos of her. Research revealed her signature was an X mark. Her recipes, sadly, were not recorded. These recipes would predate the oldest known African-American cookbook by Abby Fisher of 1881.
“Anne cooked in 1825. What makes her story interesting is how we think of the African American influence on American cuisine. She predates what we call soul food, which is Southern, rooted in slavery. Anne is Northern, free and cooked with ingredients that predate soul food by decades,” Hopkins said.
The program’s menu was an imagined Anne Northup colonial high-end dinner.
The meal featured Indian meal cake, a corn bread and molasses-style cake; pepperpot soup, a Caribbean soup made with oxtail stock, baby turnip greens, allspice, taro and Scotch bonnet pepper; dandelion salad with balsamic and bacon dressing; Madeira homemade ham, which is brined-marinated in Madeira, sugar, salt, cloves, cinnamon, lemon, orange zest and juice; roast chicken with heirloom applesauce gravy; mashed potatoes; and glazed baby turnips. Dessert was jumble, a spice and rose-water cookie. Red and white wines and coffee were also served.
“It was a very humbling and rewarding experience to re-create a meal based on one that would have been prepared by Anne Northrup,” Chef Heather Watkins Jones said.
“Converting the historic recipes to our more modern cooking techniques had its challenging moments,” she added, “but the experience I feel can only make me a better cook and culinary professional.”
Jones said students from the Culinary Institute of America and the Institute of Culinary Education who helped prepare the meal were eager to learn about the period dishes. “Getting the next generation of culinary professionals involved in projects such as this one will ensure that legacies like that of Anne Northup’s will continued to be studied and passed on,” Jones said. Participants said they enjoyed experiencing the history as revealed through the meal.
“The evening combined two of my favorite things: history and eating,” said Elizabeth Mahon of Harlem. “I felt connected to the past, not just learning about Ann but also eating food she might have prepared for the families and establishments that she worked for.”
Top photo: The dining room is set for an Anne Northup-inspired meal at the Morris-Jumel Mansion in New York City. Credit: Courtesy of the Morris-Jumel Mansion