Debra Freeman, a culinary historian and food writer based in Richmond, told me spoon bread always had a Virginian connection. It can be found in Mary Randolph’s 1824 cookbook The Virginia House-Wife under “Batter Bread.” (The recipe in its entirety: “Take six spoonsful of flour and three of cornmeal, with a little salt—sift them, and make a thin batter with four eggs, and a sufficient quantity of rich milk; bake it in little tin moulds in a quick oven.”) Randolph’s book is considered one of the most influential books on cookery and domestic life of the 19th century.
Here, Freeman makes a provocative argument: That many of Randolph’s recipes could have originated from an enslaved man named James Hemings. Hemings was Thomas Jefferson’s chef at Monticello. The last name may ring a bell: Hemings’s younger sister Sally, herself enslaved, was thought to have been the mother of at least six children with Jefferson.
“Many recipes and ingredients, such as okra and gumbo, which are traditionally prepared by African-Americans at the time, are listed throughout the [The Virginia House-Wife],” Freeman wrote in Southern Grit. “Several secondary sources support the assertion that Randolph used many of Hemings’ recipes, and it is not a leap in logic to connect the historical dots and arrive at that conclusion.”
Among those connections: Randolph is related by marriage to Thomas Jefferson, and much of Randolph’s kitchen labor was performed by enslaved women. The thumbprint of African American influence on Randolph’s Virginian cooking cannot be dismissed.
That said, the true provenance of the recipes in The Virginia House-Wife isn’t as relevant here as the story of James Hemings and how spoon bread may fit into the narrative.
In the book The President’s Kitchen Cabinet (2017), author Adrian Miller proposes a strong connection between French cooking and soul food. When Thomas Jefferson was appointed U.S. Minister to France, James Hemings accompanied Jefferson to Paris, and from 1784 to 1787 Hemings became trained in classic French gastronomy. When Jefferson returned stateside, Hemings brought back standards of French cooking to Monticello: macarons, boeuf à la mode (a French version of pot roast), crème brûlée, waffles. The reason why macaroni and cheese would become a staple in African American cooking can be traced to Hemings, who adopted nouilles a maccaroni—macaroni noodles—from France.
When Hemings asked Jefferson for his freedom, Jefferson agreed on the condition Hemings teach the Monticello kitchen staff how to cook.
“One can see the French influence in several soul food dishes like spoon bread,” Miller writes. “Most likely we owe such dishes to the French chefs who taught recipes and techniques to enslaved cooks.”
Tracing spoon bread’s lineage from James Hemings to Edna Lewis is not a stretch.
“To create a dish in little ramekins, remarkably similar to soufflé, the whole half-Virginia half-French food—it’s not a leap to say that sounds like Hemings,” Freeman said. “Edna Lewis calls it Orange County Spoon Bread, and Orange County is 20 miles from Charlottesville—it’s all in the same region near Monticello.”