Anne Northup: Slavery and the Birth of American Cuisine

Two of my favorite things are history and food, when I can combine them both, I’m in heaven. I dream of doing an American version of the BBC TV-show Supersizers Go. Imagine getting to time-travel through almost four hundred years of American cuisine. I enjoy reading about restaurants such as Delmonico’s and the lobster palaces like Rector’s that used to litter Times Square around the turn of the century. When I travel, I actively search out places, where it’s a café, a pub, or a restaurant that has a sense of history. In New Orleans, I once ate at Antoine’s (which is pretty much a tourist trap now) just because my boyfriend wanted to sit in the same room where they filmed a scene from JFK. So when I learned that the Morris-Jumel mansion had planned an event involving Solomon Northup’s wife, Anne, I quickly signed up.

With “12 Years A Slave” nominated for the Academy Award for Best Picture, it seemed appropriate to have an event that celebrated the woman that he unwillingly left behind, when he was kidnapped into slavery. Anne Northup was born in 1808 in a town called Sandy Hill in upstate New York. Like Solomon, she was born free. She was of mixed race, African, Caucasian and Native American. From a young age, she apprenticed in the kitchens of the taverns in the nearby towns. She worked at the Eagle Tavern & Sherrill’s Coffee House, eventually becoming not just a skilled cook but also a kitchen manager. She was an ambitious, independent free African-American woman in 19th century New York. In 1828, she married Solomon with whom she had 3 children, Margaret, Elizabeth and Alonzo. The couple owned a farm in Hebron in Washington County, but they also worked at various jobs to provide a better life for their children. After they moved to Saratoga Springs, Anne worked from time to time at the United States Hotel and other public houses, gaining a reputation for her culinary skills. At the time that Anne and Solomon lived in Saratoga, there were about 65 free black families that lived in the area, providing a growing labor force.

While living in Saratoga, Anne Northup made the acquaintance of Eliza Jumel, who spent her summers in the resort town. After Solomon’s disappearance, Eliza invited Anne and her children to come live and work in her mansion in New York City where they lived for several months. Alonzo worked as an apprentice to Madame Jumel’s coachman. No doubt Elizabeth and Margaret helped Anne out in the kitchen. After a few months, Anne moved back upstate, where she worked for several families and establishments in the area. Anne eventually worked on and off for Madame Jumel for three years. No doubt she felt that if Solomon could manage to smuggle a letter out, which he did at least three times, he would contact her there. Historians know that Anne worked for Madame Jumel for a few months, because she later testified during the struggle over Madame Jumel’s will, which was a regular Bleak House affair.

The day started off at 3 pm with a talk by Professor Jane Lancaster from Brown University, who is writing a biography of Eliza Jumel. She discussed the relationship between Anne and Eliza Jumel. According to Professor Lancaster, because Eliza had grown up in a multiracial brothel run by madam of color, she had a more tolerant attitude towards race relations than was common at the time. Eliza inviting the family to come to New York wasn’t charity by any means. Anne, no doubt, worked hard for Madame Jumel. However, I wouldn’t be surprised if Eliza used what influence she might have had to try and help Anne find Solomon.

After Jane Lancaster’s talk, local historian Greg Washington took us on a brief tour of the mansion and the local neighborhood as Anne would have experienced them in the 1840's. Unfortunately it was cold as hell outside, so most of us just stood around shivering while he talked. He talked briefly on the differences between slavery in the North and the South. While both Solomon and Anne were born free, Solomon’s father was not, although his father was freed in his master’s will. Slavery had only been abolished in New York in 1827. The South’s economy was mainly agriculturally based, with slaves providing the labor force, whereas in the North, manufacturing and industry began to become major players. Most families in the North, if they had slaves, probably only had two or three.

At the end of Greg’s tour, we gathered in the kitchen where food historian Tonya Hopkins shared with us a little bit of what Anne’s life would have been like working in the kitchen. The kitchen at the Jumel mansion currently looks more colonial than Victorian. Anne, however, would have had access to the latest invention, the stove by the time she came to work for Madame Jumel. The kitchen is quite small although larger than most New York apartments. I tried hard to imagine what it would have been like for Anne in the kitchen, roasting a chicken in the hearth, baking bread in the oven. It must have been incredibly strenuous. Her only help probably would have been her daughters.

Finally at around 6 pm, came the highlight of the evening, dinner. Curated by food historian Tonya Hopkins, the dinner recreate some recipes that would have been familiar to Anne, for a three-course formal dinner, while leading a conversation about Anne’s life and career. The meal was prepared by Chef Heather Jones and a staff pulled from ICE (Institute of Culinary Education) and the CIA (Culinary Institute of America). Tonya explained to us that menus, as such, didn’t exist back in the early 19th century. Guests would have found out what was for dinner until they sat down at the table. While talking about the influences on Anne’s cooking, Tonya mentioned that most of the black population in the North would have come from the West Indies. This lead to what could be called a “creolelization” of food. Tonya pointed out that soul food is actually American food, all American food essentially is fusion food, a mélange of tastes and recipes from all the immigrants to this country.

Indian Meal Bread
Our first course was Indian meal bread and pepper pot soup (which was George Washington’s favorite). The bread, which tasted a lot like corn bread, was made with white corn meal and lots of molasses, baked in a skillet. It was delicious and reminded of the corn muffins we made in social studies class in 3rd grade when we were studying The Iroquois. The pepper pot soup, which is West Indian in origin, was made with collard greens, allspice, oxtail, and habanero or scotch bonnet peppers. I only had a taste, since I don’t eat red meat, but it was quite peppery. We were also given the choice of hock (white wine like a Riesling) or claret (Bordeaux). I chose the hock since the tannins in red wine give me a headache.

Pepper Pot Soup

There was a bit of discussion of whether or not Anne would have been able to support her 3 children as a cook in the 19th century. Apparently a critic of the film suggested that it wouldn’t have been possible. Tonya told us that she believed that since Anne had a reputation as a chief, and was in high demand, that it would have been possible but that Anne might have been paid in room and board, and her children probably went to work at an early age to help make ends meet.

Our second course was a dandelion salad with lardons and a hit of balsamic. I had never had dandelion greens before, as far as I was concerned they were weeds, but they were quite tasty if a bit bitter. Tonya informed us that Anne’s recipes were not written down because she was illiterate. All of her knowledge would have been in her head. Our dinner was based on dishes that she might have cooked at the establishments where she worked. Her only known recipe is for something called cracker toast. You take crackers, spread them with butter and then soaked in milk, then toasted in the oven until the milk is gone. To create the menu for the dinner, Tonya examined all the menus and recipes from the places that Anne had worked, the Eagle Tavern, the United States Hotel, also regional cooking in the area in upstate New York where Anne lived.

The main course was ham in a Madeira sauce and roast chicken with apple sauce, glazed turnips, and mashed potatoes. I normally don’t eat meat, but I was starving, so I hate the chicken which was delicious, as were the turnips, a root vegetable that I don’t normally eat. And finally for dessert, we had something called a jumble (another word for cookie) that was sort of like a spice cookie. It was flavored with cinnamon, nutmeg and rosewater.

It was such a fabulous evening, and the people at my table were wonderful, that I didn’t want to leave. I hope that the Morris-Jumel mansion does more events like this. I would also love to do my “Noted and Notorious New York Women,” lecture for them as well.  For another account of the evening, here is a link to an article written by my tablemate Sylvia Wong Lewis.


Sue Bursztynski said…
What a fascinating post! Lucky you for being able to attend this event.
Unknown said…
I enjoyed your account of that lovely and memorable food recreation of what Anne Northup would have cooked. What a feast for food and history lovers!
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ladyestelle said…
Thank you so much for sharing this post with use. My, so must history and enjoyment. I truly wish I had attended this event.
Lady Estelle
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