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Rhody Radio episode transcription has been been made possible by the American Rescue Plan: Humanities Grants for Libraries, which is an initiative of the American Library Association (ALA) made possible with funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH) through the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021.


Opening the Oyster: Black Rhode Island Foodways

Lauren Walker: [00:00:00] You're listening to Rhody Radio, Rhode Island Library Radio Online.


Lauren Walker: In 2011, Robb Dimmick, co-founder of the awarding non-profit, Stages of Freedom, curated the groundbreaking exhibit, Creative Survival: African American Foodways in Rhode Island, 1690 to the Present. Held at the Culinary Arts Museum, the exhibit, the first of its kind, garnered national attention and achieved the Museum's largest attendance and longest run. Here, Dimmick shares his talk, Opening the Oyster: Black Rhode Island Foodways.

Robb Dimmick: Black food provides a marvelous recipe to examine the consequences of the humanities and humanity. Race, culture, religion, politics, biography, social history, anthropology, self-determination, and the arts commingle on a plate piled high with history and identity. Black cooking is Black life. It is struggle, survival, celebration, and pride in a spoonful. Eating well was and still can be a challenge for Black people. Finances, social restrictions, laws, and inferior food made it necessary to make a way out of no way. William J. Brown, a free man of color in Providence wrote in his 1883 memoir, "Master eat the meat. The slave pick the bone."

While slaves survived on cast-off carcasses and crumbs, their owners dined high on the [00:02:00] Hog and entrusted slaves to provision themselves. It is curious that those who enslaved allowed those they enslaved to feed them. Death by digestive tract is quick and hard to detect. That this rarely if ever happened is a testament to the integrity and forbearance of Black people. Black food is uniquely American. It is memory, and memoir, and persistence in a mixing bowl. The role food played in the slaves' life began with his or her purchase through Rhode Island's curious currency of rum and food.

A 1795 Bristol slave traders letter reports, "Bought nine prime slaves, one woman, and eight men. Paid for them with tobacco, rum, hats, bread, mackerel." Once enslaved, Africans could be sold multiple times from one owner to another using the same bartering device and equating the value of human life with foodstuffs. A Rhode Island Bill of Sale further illuminates this disturbing practice. Newport, 12th, November 1726, "Then received a Thomas Arnold 21 barrels of cider and £37, 4 shillings in part of pay for 2 negros." Are we surprised that the 1750 Rhode Island statute forbade the sale of liquor, even cider to slaves?

The complexity of food and Africans in America go beyond the necessity to eat as they adapt to a new diet, navigate disease, and eventually cook for, serve, and feed whites. A whole series of cultural and societal collisions, extraordinary tensions of animosity and trust, danger and compassion, invention, [00:04:00] and failure occur forming a powerful symbiosis of racial discord and cooperation rarely discussed or acknowledged in scholarship. One of the curious outcomes of American slavery was a culinary mastery.

In Rhode Island, this reached a level of extraordinary artistry. Newport with its slave-driven wealth, international prestige, and passion for haute couture, cultivating slaves who could pamper its citizens and uphold its pedigree. Slaves were taught how to execute exquisite silver, furniture, and cuisine for their masters and important guests. Given the skills these talented children of Africa excelled at their own inventions and creations, they produced the country's first known signed piece of art by a person of African descent. A gravestone carved by Pompe Stevens, 1768, and the first musical composition penned by Newport Gardener age 18 in about the same year.

Newport slave, Caesar Lyndon, emulated the aristocratic heirs of his master, Governor Josiah Lyndon. Caesar, working as his purchasing agent and secretary, and other Rhode Island slaves often had the opportunity to earn their own capital during free time, usually weekends. Many use these funds to purchase their freedom. With money made on the side, Lyndon bought elegant clothes and elaborate belt buckles. In his 1766 diary entry, he recounts picnicking at nearby Portsmouth Rhode Island, and includes a list of fellow enslaved guests and a sumptuous menu.

The beautifully scripted entry points up the literacy, refinery, pocketbook, [00:06:00] and status many Rhode Island slaves achieved unknown elsewhere in the colonies. A Newport scholar has said, "You can't compare Newport to the Antebellum South. These were not beasts of the field." Rhode Island colonial kitchens were instituted by the skill of the housemistress working with the slaves' aptitude and in 18th century Newport a culinary genius began to unfold in the hands of slaves that would owe the nation. Prince Updike, a slave of Aaron Lopez was a master chocolate grinder, rendering high-quality cocoa into chocolate for the European trade.

Lopez was part of the Jewish aristocracy of chocolate merchants in colonial America. His memorandum books housed at the Newport Historical Society record Updike's output. June 1765, 100 pounds. May 1766 to December 1767 2528.5 pounds. February to October 1768, 5000 pounds. Typically the cacao seed had to be roasted, and ground by hand into chocolate. This tedious drudgery makes Updike's accomplishments all the more impressive.

Cuffy Cockroach, a cruel name unbefitting this talented man was unrivaled in preparing sumptuous dinners and savory turtle soups. A slave of Governor Jahleel Brenton, Cuffy was so popular. His master lent him out for turtle feasts and rented him to taverns. There were no entertainments more popular than turtle feasts. Every sea captain sailing to the West Indies was expected to bring home a turtle. In no seaport town did the turtle frolic reach a higher state of perfection [00:08:00] than Newport. Cuffy would organize these picnics at Hog, Goat, or one of the other islands in the harbor.

In 1752, George Bresett, a Newport gentleman, sailing in the West Indies, did the neighborly thing by sending to his friend Samuel Freebody, a gallant turtle and a generous keg of limes. Lime juice was the fashionable and favorite savoring of the day, combined with arrack and Barbados rum it made a glorious souring punch. The prize turtle arrived in prime condition, and Freebody handed it over to Cuffy to work his magic. Held at Fort George and Goat Island on December 23rd, 50 ladies and gentlemen sailed over in the sloop and were welcomed with a hoisted flag and the solute of cannon fire.

Dinner was served at two on Liverpool ware, blue and brown with cream-colored edges. The covers of the vegetable dishes were molded into the forms of pies, tarts, and other devices, and the tureens were made to resemble roasted turkeys. The ladies sat at one side of the table and the men at the other. At five o'clock, tea was served and after that, they usually dance till 10:00 with Cuffy sawing away on his fiddle. After gaining his freedom, Cuffy became Newport's first caterer and although he's had many noteworthy successors, he was the founder of the craft in Newport.

In mid-18th century, Newport Charity “Duchess” Quamino, a descendant of African royalty, was purchased by William Channing, and soon cultivated enviable kitchen skills that later would earn her the sobriquet, “the pastry queen of Rhode Island." Her gravestone reads, "Distinguished [00:10:00] excellence, intelligent, industrious, affectionate, honest, and of exemplary piety." Among her master's guests were George Washington, for whom she baked a birthday cake and served at least twice. Using her skills as a fine caterer and confectioner during her off hours, she eventually bought her way out of slavery.

In freedom, she continued to use the stoves at Channing's estate on 24th School Street, becoming famous for her enormous loaves of frosted plum cake. If Newport became famous for its turtle soup, refined chocolate, and delectable pastry, South County was famous for its Johnny Cake, Amber waves of grain, and cheese. Known as the deep south of the north and called by one historian “a bit of Virginia set down in New England,” South County was abundant with fertile sweeping pastures and irrigating waterways. Here a third of its population was held in bondage. South Kingstown was the most prolific slave-holding town in New England.

On a multitude of farms that gave Rhode Island its providence plantations appalachian Africans served planters lavish meals, and slavishly produced excellent foodstuff, such as the world-renowned Rhode Island cheese that graced local tables and were exported to Newport, the colonies, the West Indies, and England to great acclaim, adding further to the state's wealth and prominence, and creating a symbiosis required to keep the slave engine running. The bounty South County slaves harvested fruit, grain, dairy, and livestock separated them from their southern brethren who produced [00:12:00] crude crops of tobacco, rice, and cotton.

Edgar Bacon wrote of these rural estates, what halls and parlors these were that could hold such merrymakers. What dining rooms that might have served as the mess halls of regiments and the kitchens huge enough to supply the needs of such chambers, a cheery sideboard, a blazing cordwood fire, a table loaded with all the meats, cider, tea, coffee, et cetera, served by maids with dark faces and African born curls taught in the school of South County etiquette, neatness, and grace. Music added to its charms to the courtly dinner in the strains of the fiddle, the bass, viola, the guitar, and the voices of the songsters of the Gold Coast.

By 1730, the southern part of Rhode Island was one-third black, nearly all of it enslaved. Amid the rolling hills and verdant fields, hundreds of Africans worked for a group of wealthy farmers in South Kingstown, North Kingstown, Narragansett, Westerly, Wickford, Exeter, and Charlestown collectively called the Narragansett Planter Society, growing and harvesting crops largely for the sea trade. Slaves cut wheat, picked peas, milked cows, hushed corn, cleaned homes, and built waist-high walls that bisected the fields and hemmed them in. Reverend James MacSparran owned field hands and domestic servants and 100 acres known as the Glebe in Wickford.

MacSparran wrote in 1743 in his diary, "Negroes gathered beans this morning, Harry threshed beans and stepped any corn. The Negroes put the wheat straw in the barn. [00:14:00] They slaughtered cattle, butchered and salted meat, raked hay, stacked rye, pulled beans, dug potatoes, harvested corn, and gathered apples." MacSparran's diaries kept faithfully for many years are regarded as the best record of slave life and labor on a colonial New England plantation.

Out of the South County culinary slave tradition, was a remarkable cook named Phyllis, owned by Thomas Hazzard of Narragansett. Phyllis, they say, cooked for Marie Antoinette baked Johnnycake that made one's mouth water to look at, and this woman known as grandfather's old kitchen cook from Senegambia Guinea was an artist capable of inspiring others while she tended the pot. An 1882 book by Hazard's grandson, Shepherd Tom entitled The Johnnycake Papers dedicated to Phyllis, my grandfather's colored cook, touts her supremacy at the stove and is a remarkable window into Black foodways.

It is devoted almost entirely to the culinary mastery of this African woman recounting her goddess-like skills at preparing woodcock, horse mackerel, coffee, apple dumplings, rice pudding, muffins, roasted duck, Rhode Island turkey, milk porridge, and much, much more. It contains not only her recipe for Johnnycake but a thorough description of her use of a red oak board and flat iron to make it. While not pinned by Phyllis herself, The Johnnycake Papers may as well be considered the second Black cookbook postdating what Mrs. Fisher knows about southern cooking by one year. Urban life reveals very different ways in which food played out in Black self-determination.

In Providence, the culinary scene was not nearly [00:16:00] as glamorous as Newport's or south counties. White households without rainwater cisterns tasked their slave boys to fetch fresh water with two pails and a hoop from the town pump or Mill River. Governor Stephen Hopkins’ slave cook Fibble forces us to look at the small 1708 kitchen, its utensils, and the cramped little sleeping room just off it to conjecture who she was and to what she aspired. Providence's culinary expertise is well represented by Emmanuel Manna Bernoon, who opened Rhode Island's first restaurant and perhaps the nation's first oyster and alehouse in 1736.

Anthony Kinnicutt, whose 1750 store was one of the first to operate on the waterfront supplying goods and refreshments to sailors. In 19th century Providence, free Blacks found opportunities in food carts, including Arthur Jumbo Jefferson. Jefferson began vending on the Brown University Chapel Steps in 1884. Vendors, Tom J, Peter Waters, Thomas Smoke, and Mary Caesar were financially confounded by laws requiring licenses few could afford. By mid-19th century, Rhode Island African Americans began opening catering establishments which flourished in the state and showed an entrepreneurial spirit.

Newport followed the earlier example of Cuffy Cockroach, those of Isaac Rice, Steven Payne, DB Allen, and Jacob Dorsey indulged a burgeoning vacationing class of New York science and swells who would eventually line Bellevue Avenue with their gilded summer cottages. JT Allen operated JT Allen and Company with his brother HL Allen at 29 Touro Street. In Providence, Albo Lyons, a Newport Transplant [00:18:00] ran Lyon's ice cream depot at 16B Street on the west side. He offered dozens of iced delicacies including plum pudding glace, Punch à la Romaine, and Nestle Road, a luxurious iced chestnut pudding to wedding parties, restaurants, steamships, and hotels.

Joining these ranks and soon surpassing his competition was one George T. Downing. In 1845 encouraged by his father Thomas, New York City's king of oysters under the sign George T Downing, confectioner, and caterer, he leased space at 1690 Broadway, where many Gotham Elite assembled. In 1846 at age 27, Beckon by New York's famous 400 Astors, Kings, Kennedys, and Wetmore's among them during their watering season in Newport, he opened what some referred to as a branch of his father's oyster house. George Downing wrote of his father's plump prized oysters.

Ladies, and gentlemen, with towels in hand, and an English oyster knife made for the purpose would open their own oysters, drop into the burning hot conclave shell, a lump of sweet butter and other seasoning and partake of a treat. Oysters in African-Americans had an early and compatible relationship in the food service industry with prosperous houses in both Providence and Newport. Bernoon’s Oyster House on Town Street near the site of the old customs house in Providence catered to colonels, captains, and esquires.

An emancipated slave Bernoon satisfied the cravings of a thirsty generation and sought the heart of the softening town by way of a gratified and contented stomach. His inventory included 23 drinking glasses, [00:20:00] 4 jugs, pewter plates, spoons, and cooking utensils. His jolly smile beamed as he served descendants of the state's founding father Roger Williams. The knowledge he acquired in bondage assured his prosperity, and when he died in 1769, he did so with an estate valued at £539. Downing, like his father, built a steady trade on raw, pickled, fried, and stewed oysters, oyster pie, fish with oyster sauce, and poached turkey stuffed with oysters.

Martin R. Delany, the Black intellectual, said of Downing's Newport enterprise, "This fashionable establishment is spoken of as among the best-conducted places in the country. The proprietor among the most gentlemanly." Successful at his first location at the corner of Catherine and Fir in Newport, Downing soon upsized by purchasing the old Atlantic House in 1849 and diversified his catering by opening in Providence at 27 Mathewson in 1850. Four years later, flush with cash and his father's banking, the restaurateur par excellence build a five-story resort, Sea Girt House on Newport's South Touro Street, restricted exclusively to a white clientele.

It accommodated gentleman borders and housed a restaurant, confectionary, catering service, and his residence. An ad in Boyd's 1856, '57 Newport directory stated, "Dinners and game suppers, confectionary together with French and other made dishes sent to families, picnics, and sailing parties served in neatly furnished private parlors and sent to order, music, et cetera, supplied to cottages." John Goins, a Black waiter and contemporary of Downing, [00:22:00] in his handbook, The American Colored Waiter, detailed the serving of oysters in a way that would have occurred in Downing's hotel.

"Caviar is served before the oysters as it is in the nature of an appetizer. The service plate should be on the table when the oysters are served and celery and olives should accompany them. The waiter should then pass the relishes horseradish, catsup, vinegar, et cetera, service being from the left." Downing continued to run his Newport enterprise until 1879 when debt began to consume him. The demise of his empire was due in part to his pursuit of racial equality. "I would have been a millionaire today if I had bent to prejudice." In his last public words, he said, "I was a fighter, as well as an urger. Principle is eternal."

Another factor in the closure of his business was the dawning of the Gilded Age, which serviced almost entirely by Irish immigrants. Essentially put Newport's Black food service industry out of business. On July 23rd, 1903, the Boston Globe reported, "Probably the foremost colored man in this country, expired in the person of George T. Downing of Newport." Today, Downing remains a galvanizing and enduring symbol of Black entrepreneurism and culinary excellence and a beacon of hope for young African-American aspirants to the gastronomy field.

Downing and other practitioners of culinary innovation and achievement dispel the notion that African-Americans' culinary know-how is monolithic or has only been practiced in limited circles. [00:24:00] The gastronomic overachievers in Rhode Island broke mold, set standards, and blazed trails that are only now just being understood and appreciated. Those operating in today's realm of hot cuisine, fusion cooking, and organics are the beneficiaries of this excellence which pushed the boundaries of race, class, and the world of possibilities.

Lauren Walker: Thank you for listening. We hope you enjoyed Opening the Oyster: Black Rhode Island Foodways. For more information about Stages of Freedom, visit Rhody Radio is proud to be a resident partner of the Rhode Island Center for the Book and brought to you by library staff and community members all around the Ocean State. This episode was made possible in part by a grant from the Rhode Island Council for the Humanities, an independent affiliate of the National Endowment for the Humanities.

The Rhode Island Council for the Humanities seeds, supports, and strengthens public history, cultural heritage, civic education, and community engagement by and for all Rhode Islanders. You can find more from Rhody Radio on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. If you enjoyed today's episode, subscribe to Rhody Radio and rate or review us on Apple Podcast or Spotify to help us reach more Rhode Islanders.

[00:25:28] [END OF AUDIO]

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