The culinary history of America has erased the true contribution of African Americans to American cuisine in every phase of its development, and continues to pigeonhole African American cuisine in the category of soul food, used as a type of cultural and culinary shackle. Moreover, there are numerous African American women and men who have served in the capacity of chefs and cooks in America’s kitchens and against all odds made indelible marks on the cuisine of this country.
One such narrative surrounds the resort town of Saratoga Springs, New York, home to African American residents who were largely hotel service people in the early to mid 1800s, working in the capacity of chefs, cooks, waiters, and maids. Black musicians were employed at the hotels as well. While serenaded by Francis (Frank) Johnson’s very own music compositions at Congress Hall Hotel and United States Hotel in Saratoga Springs, you could experience wonderful dining treasures supplied by Mrs. Anne Northup. She and her husband Solomon Northup, who became a familiar name in African American history, were year round residents and both worked at the United States Hotel, which opened in 1824.
Having garnered a reputation as an outstanding cook, Anne Northup had been hired to take charge of the “culinary department” at Sherrill’s Coffee House in Sandy Hill, twenty miles away. In the latter part of March, 1841, on one of her days there, her husband Solomon was approached on the street by two slave dealers pretending to be interested in hiring him as a violinist to play for a circus. Solomon Northup, a free African, was drugged, kidnapped, and sold into slavery – a common occurrence in America. His riveting narrative, Twelve Years A Slave, published in 1853, chronicles his life and some of the lives of Africans with whom he suffered, on plantations in Louisiana. After Mr. Northup’s rescue, he returned to his family at Glen Falls, in Warren County, where his wife was in charge of the kitchen at the Carpenter’s Hotel.
For many diners–including a number of senators, governors, wealthy financiers, and presidents–Saratoga had its legendary waiters and chefs. George Crum, the African/Native American chef at Cary Moon’s lake house, was particularly celebrated for his fish dinners. His most famous creation came into being when he responded to a customer complaint that the fried potatoes served were cut too thick. Crum prepared some new ones by shaving some potatoes paper thin and dropping them in hot oil. Salting them first, he sent them out to the customer never expecting to receive approval. The customer loved them. Crum’s “Saratoga chips,” i.e., potato chips, received rave reviews and were soon on menus throughout the country. The man who invented the potato chip and launched a multi-billion dollar snack business died on July 22, 1914, and was said to have left behind a small fortune.
If you could afford to have your meals professionally prepared, New York City was the place to eat. Black caterers were numerous in New York, and their services have a long history. According to Booker T. Washington, catering in New York City began with Black women. Between 1780 and 1820 Cornelia Gomez, great-grandmother of Dr. P. W. Ray of New York, was among the most recognized of Black women caterers. She catered for the most prominent families in the city and was succeeded by “Aunt” Katie Ferguson, who stayed in business until about 1820. Washington states that catering had been almost totally in Black hands, and that Black men “[took] it up where the women left it.”
Some early to mid-nineteenth century Blacks in Brooklyn responded to their exclusion from the labor force, or their status as “outcasts and indigent sons of Africa,” by selling oysters and crabs about town on Sundays. Late nineteenth and early twentieth century Brooklyn’s small group of Black businessmen, whose businesses centered on food service included William Pope, owner of the Square Café, and John Connor, who operated the elite Royal Café, which only a few white cafés could surpass in beauty or in up-to-date service. In addition, Professor B. H. Hawkins owned the New National Hotel and Restaurant.
Cato’s Tavern (or Roadhouse), in New York City, was an early version of a sports bar. Cato’s clientele included numerous horse race fans. Situated midway along the Harlem speedway, on Post Road at what is now 59th Street and 2nd Avenue, this African American barkeeper served “unadulterated brandy,” Cuban cigars (shipped direct), and a woodcock and toast for breakfast.
Whether in the occupation of bartender, cook, caterer, or chef, Blacks in New York dominated most of these positions for generations and were uncontested in their quality of service. Nor was there dispute that the best food that could be procured in New York City was that furnished by “coloured” caterers. During the decades preceding the Civil War, Thomas Jackson, who serviced the most exclusive parties and fashionable weddings, and Henry Scott, who launched one of the most successful pickling establishments in New York, helped to prove the point. Thomas Jackson was considered the arbiter of all things gustatory in New York in his day. Scott and Company, by 1839, was open for business and warehoused a large stock of, among other items, pickles, preserves, and jellies that were in constant demand.
While Cato established himself as the famous purveyor of cocktails and woodcock for breakfast, and the sale of oysters and crabs became the livelihood of Brooklyn’s “outcasts and indigent sons of Africa,” over six million dollars worth of oysters were sold in New York each year by 1850. The 1866 Guide to New York City reports, “The consumption of oysters in New York is immense; it having been computed that the daily consumption is valued at $15,000, and that some 1,500 boats are constantly engaged to obtain the supply for this city alone.”
A settlement of free Black folks living in the area of Staten Island known as Sandy Ground, also referred to as “Little Africa,” and called this country’s oldest existing community of free blacks in the nineteenth century, was a supplier of oysters for New Yorkers. Most of the residents of Sandy Ground were in the oyster business and first occupied the area in the 1830s and 1840s and were known for their high quality of oysters.
Oystering as a trade was all but finished in Sandy Ground by 1916 due to industrial pollution from New Jersey, the town’s inability to compete with corporate-run agriculture and aquaculture, and ultimately, competition with whites. Black residents sought other occupations, such as wrought iron mastery, midwifery, well-digging, and some grew crops for self-consumption and sale, such as strawberries, sweet potatoes, melons, and tomatoes.
The nineteenth century demand for oysters had been a tremendous one and made a fortune for some in the business. In the early 1800s Boston Crummell, father of future African American intellectual leader, Alexander Crummell, was one of many who met the demand, as he was a New York caterer and oysterman who harvested and sold the bivalves.
In the 1830s and 1840s, for the tradesmen and businessmen of the district, oyster cellars provided breakfast, lunch, and dinner. A “Canal Street Plan” was offered, which was an all-you-can-eat for six cents setup. It was said that if the establishment thought that you were getting too much for the money, a bad oyster would turn up to curb a glutton’s appetite. For the proprietor, the bigger the oyster the more servings it would provide. Some oysters could be cut into three or four pieces, depending on size. A plain array of condiments accompanied raw oysters: lemon juice, vinegar, oil, salt, pepper, and mustard. Another fifteen cents added to your bill would purchase a bowl of stew, normally served for dinner, containing at least three dozen oysters, together with a generous slab of bread and butter, salad, and a relish or two.
Now, the menus at most cellars were limited to raw, fried, or stewed oysters. Well, there were cellars, and then there were cellars. Thomas Downing’s oyster cellar on Broad Street was said to be the very model of comfort and prosperity with its mirrored arcades, damask curtains, fine carpet, and chandelier. Oysters were considered an epicurean delight and Downing made them his specialty. His menu established and sealed his reputation by offering unusually elaborate dishes, such as scalloped oysters, oyster pie, fish with oyster sauce, and an especially delectable poached turkey stuffed with oysters. His award winning pickled oysters, together with his boned and jellied turkeys, were particularly popular during the holidays.
Thomas Downing’s restaurant, which occupied the basements of two small buildings, was in the financial and shipping section of the city. There were also three other Black owned eating houses in this same district: Henry Johnson’s, Lawrence Chloe’s, and Stephen Simmons’s. But it was Thomas Downing, George T. Downing’s father, who became and remained the most famous African American caterer and restaurateur in New York between 1830 and 1860.
Thomas Downing’s Oyster Bar, located at 3, 5, and 7 Broad Street at the corner of Wall Street, became famous as one of the best eating establishments in New York. Not only was Downing’s the only house to attract the aristocracy as well as ladies in the company of their husbands or chaperones, it was also the favorite haunt of a regular crowd of distinguished businessmen from the Merchants’ Exchange, nearby banks and custom houses, as well as leading politicians of the day and others who believed in the marked superiority of “colored” cooks.
Downing shipped raw, fried, and pickled oysters to the West Indies and to Europe. In 1847 Downing prepared and shipped a barrel of very lovely pickled oysters to Queen Victoria. The Queen responded to his gift by asking Joseph Comstock to deliver to Mr. Downing a letter accompanied by a gold chronometer watch engraved with her initials.
The American culinary narrative continues to assert that this country’s cooking and cuisine were founded by Americans of European ancestry and are rooted in so-called Western civilization. In doing so it fails to acknowledge the African American contribution, and thereby adheres to the theory of white supremacy. The roles of Downing, Crum, and many other “sons and daughters of Africa” are mere microcosms of the Black cook’s rightful place in the nation’s history.
Diane M. Spivey, author of The Peppers, Cracklings, and Knots of Wool Cookbook: The Global Migration of African Cuisine, has also written articles for the Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History and Scribner’s Encyclopedia of World Food and Culture, among others. Born and reared in Chicago, she resides with her family in Palmetto Bay, Florida.