A Culinary Read of Toni Morrison Part 3
This series is part of a larger book project on food in African American literature in which books like Beloved are used as historical sources to talk about food traditions, the food industry, and food as identity and power within various contexts and regional differences over time. We look at food in historical context and unpack multiple meanings to individuals, ethnic groups, communities, and businesses, and how those meanings change. Here is the second part in the series.
Morrison’s novel provides a piece of the puzzle that is the history of the Underground Railroad. Stamps is the character in the novel who secretly worked as an agent on the Underground Railroad. He transports runaways like Sethe on his boat across the Ohio River between the slave state of Kentucky to the free state of Ohio. What we know comes from stories from autobiographies, runaway accounts, and newspapers. The food that runaways ate depended on the resources of agents like Stamps who made his living as a boatman on the Ohio River. Stamps smuggled runways in his boat across the Ohio River from Kentucky to Ohio underneath vegetables and pigs. During Sethe’s journey to freedom, agents offered her fried eel, water, and baked sweet potatoes. Cornbread and apples had been other foods runways survived on.
A young female agent on the Underground Railroad named Ella saw a secret signal indicating someone had recently arrived—Sethe, the central Character in the novel. Sethe served as a cook in Sawyer’s Restaurant in Cincinnati and needed help. She knelt and emptied a sack before Sethe which contained a wool blanket, cotton cloth, two baked sweet potatoes, and a pair of men’s shoes. Most runaways would not have made it to freedom without the support of courageous agents like Stamps and Ella. Access to transportation, lodging, and food proved critical to one’s safe passage to freedom.
Candied Sweet Potatoes Recipe
Boiled sweet potatoes
Cut boiled sweet potatoes into long slices. Place in an earthen dish; put one-quarter teaspoon butter on each slice; sprinkle well with sugar. Pour in sufficient water to cover the bottom of the dish. Dust lightly with cinnamon. Bake until the sugar and butter have candied and the potatoes are brown.