About Those Pots

I have been in Sorrow's kitchen and licked out all the pots. Then I have stood on the peaky mountain wrapped in rainbows, with a harp and a sword in my hands.
--Zora Neale Hurston

Last week on Hot Water Cornbread, the weekly radio show I co-host with chefs Ouita and Chris Michel, Ouita described the lives of Hercules, enslaved chef for George Washington, and James Hemings, enslaved chef for Thomas Jefferson. Listen here. One starting point for our show was NPR's superb story, "Hercules and Hemings: Presidents' Slave Chefs."

Since first learning about the harrowing, dramatic, significant lives of these two gifted African-Americans and their important contributions to American cooking and cuisine, I've been reading more of the work of Dr. Jessica B. Harris. Dr. Harris has written 12 cookbooks and books about African and African-American food. One is Iron Pots & Wooden Spoons: Africa's Gifts to New World Cooking. Dr. Harris says, "Heavy black cast-iron posts, caldrons, and skillets are a leitmotiv of Black cooking."

So envision those pots in Sorrow's kitchen as black cast iron. We trust Zora Neale Hurston saw them that way, too.

James Hemings, who was 19 years old when Thomas Jefferson took him to France in 1784, had already learned a great deal about cooking on hearths at Monticello. In France, he learned to cook on early versions of cookstoves called potagers, which allowed cooking at waist level, on contained fire, by placing cookpots into holes over the fire.

Wood cookstove from stoves.lifcow.com

Wood cookstove from stoves.lifcow.com

Aspects of this system of cooking still persisted into my early life. My mother cooked on a wood cookstove when I was very young; my first experiments with baking took place in the temperamental oven of that cookstove. As with the stove in the photo on the right, the smooth surface included round fitted plates that could be lifted out for direct access to the fire below, or for lowering a fitted pot down into the hole, typically so a stew, soup, or braise could cook slowly over time near a substantial banked fire.

Hosting a radio show can be educational to the hosts, I'm discovering. Before Hot Water Cornbread, I had literally never wondered what path cooking methods must have taken from hearth cooking to stovetop cooking. Nor had I ever wondered about the provenance of the essential cast iron cookware and wooden spoons in my kitchen. Thank goodness others are less oblivious. Jim Nance, Kentucky's celebrated cast iron historian and restorer, does his part, as we noted here in 2010. In the photo below, Jim teaches all about cast iron to a packed room full of interested people at the 2015 Kentucky Proud Incredible Food Show.

And so Hot Water Cornbread, Jim Nance, Ouita and Chris, Dr. Jessica B. Harris, Hercules and Hemings and my mother's apple pancakes (and most of the rest of her excellent cooking) weave together this week. Inspired by the swirl of cross-world currents, and particularly by north American cuisine's ongoing debts to Africa and African Americans, I developed a recipe for Sorghum Berebere Ice Cream and tried it out on the Cornbread Supper crowd. Sorghum originated in Africa. (We did, too.)

Berbere*, an Ethiopian mixture of many spices and aromatics, braced the sweet sorghum-flavored ice cream base with a bit of acid and peppery heat, while adding intriguing flavors. Chef Marcus Samuelsson, who was born in Ethiopia, calls berbere "the most essential spice blend used in Ethiopian cooking."

Adults and older youngsters at Cornbread Supper went back for seconds. Our youngest taster said, "No. I didn't like it." Most likely, it lacks the sweetness that ice cream usually offers. If you try the recipe, let me know your views, and how you modify it—because I know you, and you will!

*Note: While it's possible to make one's own berbere spice, as some cooks in Ethiopia still do, it's quite a process. In addition, apparently the particular ingredients and their relative amounts in berbere vary widely based on personal and family taste. Some families use ingredients that grow wild in Ethiopia and have yet to travel around the world.



Rona RobertsComment