Consider this: in 1804 an African slave sold in America for $300, but a slave who could cook might cost up to $360.
"A trained blacksmith would cost even more on average, but an extraordinary cook might prompt a bidding war at a slave auction," says Libby O'Connell, chief historian for the History Channel. "This was the case in 1849 in Virginia, where a Mrs. Noland wrote her sister that 'a great many wealthy gentlemen ... said they wouldn't stop at any price' to buy a slave woman known as a 'fine cook'.'"
That haunting fact is just one of the details O'Connell may share Thursday evening when she presents "From the Charleston Table to the American Plate: Looking at Foodways, South and North" as part of Drayton Hall's Distinguished Lecture series. O'Connell, the author of The American Plate: A Culinary History in 100 Bites, will discuss the foods and traditions of the Lowcountry with a special emphasis on the life and times of John Drayton, founder of Drayton Hall. And you better believe Drayton was concerned with who cooked his dinner. At his peak, Drayton was one of the wealthiest planters in the country, owning 100 different plantations (roughly 76,000 acres) across South Carolina and Georgia. His estate on the Ashley River — and its 45 resident slaves — was his empire showplace.
"We do know things like John Drayton brought chefs over from Europe and there were a number of highly skilled slave workers," says O'Connell. "We have China from his dinnerware collection found by archeologists and handed down for generations. Drayton set a very fine table."
In the 1740s, when Drayton constructed his eponymous hall, the landed gentry valued extravagant eating displays. "People did serving ware in a way that we probably don't do today," says O'Connell. "For instance, George Washington wrote to Europe and asked one of his contractors to find jelly glasses." According to one of Washington's invoices, in May of 1759, the future president requested that Robert Cary & Company send items to create a formal table, including "1 Fashionable Sett of Dessert Glasses, and Stands for Sweet Meats Jellys &ca." Drayton's table would have been just as posh as his presidential contemporary. Like Washington, Drayton handled all the table decor purchases. At the time the patriarchs of a family did the dinnerware shopping, while the lady of the house was in charge of managing the menu. Emphasis on the word manage.
"We know this because of receipt books left behind," says O'Connell. "One by Harriott Pinckney Horry is a family cookbook written in 1770. Charlestonian Sarah Rutledge wrote one in 1847. These give a really good idea of what people were eating and how they prepared their foods." And those details, O'Connell adds, will be the basis for her talk.
Guests of the lecture can expect to hear about how in the late 1700s and early 1800s, wealthy white people typically dined on two big meals a day. "When you had a house party or a whole bunch of people staying, you'd do a big dinner," she says, but a typical meal would be more a la carte. "They might be serving rice and a salad, fruit and hot bread — that would be your dinner. You'd help yourself to what you'd like. You wouldn't be handed a plate filled with food. But if there's a party, there were lots of different foods on the table. Food became a luxury in those eras."
And the more extravagant the spread, the better. "Things were being brought in from other cities," says O'Connell. "There was a lot of imported foods used for trimmings — spices obviously. You might get fresh fruit from up north due to quality." Apples and pears were regular imports into Charleston, and O'Connell says people were even eating bananas and pineapples. The latter should come as no surprise if you've spent time strolling South of Broad. By the early 1800s the pineapple had become a Holy City symbol of hospitality and status that eventually made its way from the table into the city's art and architecture. An example can be seen on the gate outside of the Simmons-Edwards House at 14 Legare St.
The British influence on families such as the Draytons also can't be forgotten. Early South Carolinians desperately wanted to emulate their English cousins, but while all things Brit-related were en vogue, they weren't always attainable.
"You did have recipes from England, but a lot of that was using food sources from what was available in Charleston," adds O'Connell. Here is where we start to see more seafood, shrimp particularly, and rice emerge into the Lowcountry cuisine. And it's all thanks to the African influence of slave chefs. Their role in shaping Lowcountry cuisine is indisputable and O'Connell credits their "status." "They had flexibility to do their cooking," she explains. "They were respected."
Of course, that respect only went so far as it benefitted the ruling class. While Drayton's guests were dining on the finest imports and freshest fish from Charleston's harbor, his slaves were likely cleaning and eating chitterlings — the fried lower intestines of the pig.
"Affluent people," O'Connell writes in The American Plate, "lived 'high on the hog' and ate the choicest cuts of pork (hence the origin of that saying). But the poorest folk, which in Antebellum America always included the enslaved ... had to make due with what they could get." The irony is those African recipes arguably had a greater impact on today's Lowcountry food traditions than any of the British receipts the Drayton's may have been trying to recreate. Case in point: Sarah Rutledge's recipe for lamb's head soup isn't on any local menus, but you can bet you can still find chittlins around town. Martha Lou's serves them everyday. So while O'Connell's talk is about dining at Drayton Hall, it's a tale of two dinners — in the big house and beyond.