A Mind to Stay Here

Edna Lewis had unsung culinary sisters. Flora Mae Hunter was one.

by Rosalind Bentley

My grandfather’s Impala was dark green, wide as a battleship, and smelled like rotten bananas.

He retired in the 1970s and spent a lot of time driving to visit old friends near his childhood home at the northern edge of Leon County, Florida. The bananas were road snacks. If he picked up the car keys, he picked up a banana. Nothing makes a car smell like garbage faster than a spent banana peel baked in the Florida heat. It’s a big reason why, as a kid, I avoided riding with him on those afternoon visits. Plus, he was just going to see old people.

Mrs. Flora Mae Hunter was one of those old people. Everybody we knew raved about her cooking. She and her husband, Peter Hunter, knew my paternal grandparents from the plantations where they grew up and worked much of their lives, just north of Tallahassee along the Florida-Georgia border.

I was confused by that when I was growing up. The math didn’t add up. Mrs. Hunter and my grandfather were born five years apart on adjacent plantations. She in 1911. He in 1906. There was no way the Hunters or my grandparents could have been enslaved. My grandparents didn’t talk about sharecropping. So why in the world had they all grown up on plantations? Why were they born on plantations? Why did their churches still stand on the fringes of plantations? Why did those plantations still exist? Those questions crossed my mind from time to time, back then, but my curiosity was fleeting.

Now, on the cusp of being an “old” myself, the importance of their lives resonates, particularly Mrs. Hunter’s. Posthumously, she helped me find answers to my queries, through a 159-page cookbook she wrote in the 1970s: Born in the Kitchen: Plain and Fancy Plantation Fixin’s. For nearly forty years, she cooked at one of the biggest plantations in north Florida.

Mrs. Flora Mae Hunter’s cooking on a Florida estate delighted captains of industry and even British royalty. Photo courtesy of the State Archives of Florida/Belland.

Told through a series of menus and the recipes that Mrs. Hunter served during her career, Born in the Kitchen is a document of Southern food and foodways. It is also a palimpsest, a story of access, gatekeepers, and paternalism that can accompany staggering wealth. She tells the story of Northern scions who bought hundreds of thousands of acres of game-rich land during and after Reconstruction. Land where Mrs. Hunter’s ancestors (and mine) had been enslaved. Whitneys, Hannas, Vanderbilts, and Bakers, these industrialists and financiers built Gilded-Age winter retreats, in the style of European manor homes. They roamed their estates on horseback and custom wagons in grand hunts. Those “captains of industry” also recreated a version of the Old South, where black people like the Hunters and my paternal grandparents played roles from which they were only one or two generations removed. In so many ways, their twentieth-century freedom was ostensible.

Yet I don’t want to rob Mrs. Hunter. For her book is also a witness for black female cooks who didn’t board the Great Migration train north, as Miss Edna Lewis did. It’s the story of those who stayed behind and were never “discovered” or anointed by the so-called “right” people (white people) who might have brought them national recognition or fortune. Black women like Mrs. Hunter helped pour the foundation of American cooking. They grew crops and foraged gems from the woods and fields. They knew how to dress game and scale fish, because they or their husbands or brothers hunted or fished. They canned because it was essential. Mrs. Hunter’s book also demonstrates how she tried to adapt over time (with varying degrees of success) to the increasing availability of convenience foods, even as she held onto the old ways. As I turn the pages, I realize she made her kitchen a place of power.

I wish I’d endured the sickly-sweet smell of my grandfather’s Impala and spent some time watching her work.

Mrs. Hunter made her kitchen a place of power.

Before I talk about Mrs. Hunter’s suggested method for preparing pan quail in the field or her roasted doves, I have to tell you about the place where she cooked those meals, because Southern African American history always begins with the land.

The Red Hills is a rich ribbon of rust-colored earth bleeding down from the southwest Georgia border where it eventually pools into the hills of Tallahassee. When most people think of Florida’s cash crop, they think citrus, which has been a leader since the 1870s. But oranges and grapefruit don’t grow well in the red clay of the Florida-Georgia borderlands. Cotton does. Leon County, where Mrs. Hunter worked, was a regional cotton powerhouse in the mid-1800s. Antebellum fortunes were made on that land and on the backs of enslaved workers like Mrs. Hunter’s great-grandmother.

The Civil War (it always comes back to that) ruined those Southern planters. Many sold their land. Where they all went, I don’t know, but in came the wealthiest of Northerners, looking for places to escape their numbing, brittle winters. They found it in the Red Hills, reached by a Southern spur of the Atlantic Coast Line Railroad. The region was a blanket of ponds, pine, live oak, and wire grass, which meant plenty of mullet, bream, deer, quail, duck, and doves to fish and hunt.

Those newcomers also encountered thousands of black people who had never left the only homes they knew. Some had bought their own small farms by then or worked as tenant farmers on white-owned farms. Plenty of others needed steady work. They knew the fields, woods, and ponds, and how to catch and cook the yield.

“We focus on the people leaving and we say they were so smart to leave, but I’d argue those who were smart enough to stay knew they could eke a life out of their surroundings,” University of Arkansas history professor Cherisse Jones-Branch told me not long ago. I wanted to know why people stayed. Women like Mrs. Hunter’s grandmother, born to enslaved parents during the Civil War, had choices to make. “They did a serious cost-benefit analysis,” Professor Jones-Branch said, “and made decisions based on that.”

During slavery, people built communities. Those deep bonds didn’t dissolve with emancipation. Her community embraced Mrs. Hunter from birth and held her close as she grew into womanhood.

“Those who were smart enough to stay knew they could eke a life out of their surroundings.”

Flora Mae Ross was born on the Springhill Plantation just across the Georgia line in Thomas County. Her father, Eddie Ross, worked as a handyman there, and her mother, Lessie Ross, cooked. When Flora Mae was a toddler, the family moved a few miles south across the border to Leon County, Florida. They worked at Sunny Hill Plantation in the same roles. Sunny Hill belonged to Lewis Thompson. His father had been the treasurer and secretary of Standard Oil, at the time the mightiest corporation in America. Mrs. Hunter’s mother became Sunny Hill’s head cook.

“‘I quit school when I was fifteen years old, to help my mother in the kitchen or to do whatever else there was to be done,’” Mrs. Hunter wrote in the preface to Born in the Kitchen. “I worked with her for four years, learning many of her original cooking secrets and those that she passed on to me from my grandmother.’”

At eighteen years old, she got the first of several jobs at three adjacent plantations including Foshalee, where my grandfather worked as a driver. Those early kitchen jobs allowed her to travel outside the South at least twice with her employers for a few months at a time. She wrote of trips to Cleveland, Ohio, and Morrisburg, Ontario. Did the new surroundings open her eyes to what lay beyond the Red Hills? Did she sense possibility?

One of her employers wanted her to stay on as her traveling chef, but “‘I didn’t like traveling,’” Mrs. Hunter wrote.

Her repertoire spanned everything from modest rice cakes (pictured, in a demonstration) to pigtail pilau, turtle soup, pan-broiled venison, and carrot soup. Photo courtesy of the State Archives of Florida/Dyen.

Travel inspired her contemporary, Miss Edna Lewis, born about four and a half years after Mrs. Hunter. Miss Lewis came from a similarly tight-knit community in Virginia, but the origin and name said much about its aspirations: Freetown. The lessons and kitchen skills Miss Lewis learned there were the building blocks of her storied life in New York City. She could take in the magic of Fifth Avenue from her perch as a window dresser at Bonwit Teller. Her simple, elegant cooking earned her a partnership in Café Nicholson with her friend, Johnny Nicholson. That tiny Manhattan spot exposed her to some of the twentieth century’s seminal writers, actors, and thinkers: Truman Capote, Paul Robeson, Gore Vidal, among them.

Sometimes I wonder, was Mrs. Hunter intimidated? She was so young, so far away from home in such white cities. Did she get to leave the kitchen often enough to explore new places and meet new people? Did she experience the beauty of Montreal during her time in Ontario? How would she have gotten around and how much was she paid? I may forever seek those answers.

As an anthropologist at the University of Maryland (Baltimore County), Ashanté Reese engages similar questions. She reminded me of something that’s painful to acknowledge: “It’s hard for people to imagine the fullness of what their lives can be when you have been living under constraint.”

So, Mrs. Hunter went back to Foshalee and married Peter Hunter, and they moved to Horseshoe Plantation. She was just twenty-one years old. George F. Baker, Jr., the owner of what would become Citibank, owned the 12,000-plus acre plantation. There, she would cement her reputation among British royalty, and other wealthy visitors, as perhaps the best cook in the region.

Though the busiest time at Horseshoe was late fall to late winter, maintaining the grounds and cleaning the main house was year-round work. The busy season meant Mrs. Hunter rarely left the kitchen. For decades, the cooks at the Horseshoe Plantation manse tended two wood-burning stoves. Mrs. Hunter or an assistant would heat them up early each day. A photo from the late 1950s shows them clad in matching gingham dresses and head scarves.

If you were a guest at Horseshoe, you had your choice of at least thirteen different breakfast menus to suit your dietary whims.

Horseshoe Elegance

Fresh Strawberries
Fried Sausage Patties
Fried Green Apple Rings
3-minute Soft Boiled Eggs
Pancakes
Coffee/Tea

The Mackerel Down East

½ Grapefruit or Small Glass of Apple Juice
Steamed Mackerel (see recipe)
Buck Wheat Cakes with Maple Syrup
Coffee/Tea

“The Duke and Duchess” was a favorite of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, AKA, the abdicator, King Edward VIII and his American wife, Wallis Simpson. They were occasional guests at Horseshoe. Their namesake breakfast was spartan: applesauce, cereal, dry toast, and coffee.

Mrs. Hunter wrote that early in her tenure, Baker summoned her to the formal dining room of the mansion to say that her food was the best he’d eaten since coming south from New York. Her pride in the compliment glows from the page.

Hunting season ran from December through March. A January 1955 article in Sports Illustrated described an excursion in lavish detail, from the demeanor of the dogs to the design of the wagon ferrying parties on the lookout for quail coveys. In a photo, six well-heeled guests sit under an ancient live oak, bundled for the cool afternoon. Among them are then Air Force Secretary Harold E. Talbott and his wife, Margaret, and Robert R. Young, the former head of the Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad and New York Central Railroad. A long table, draped in checkered cloth, is decked with china place settings. One guest is opening a bottle of wine. They are about to eat a meal likely prepared by Mrs. Hunter in the hours before dawn.

The wiregrass meadows were also important workplaces for her and her husband, Peter, during a hunt. He was the plantation’s butler. He also accompanied hunting parties. In a clearing in the brush, he would cook game, dressed by his wife from a previous day’s hunt. Using just butter, salt, and pepper, he cooked in a cast iron pan over an open flame.

“The things they couldn’t cook in the field, Miss Flora would cook in advance,” said family friend Viceola Sykes. Mrs. Sykes’ mother trained under Mrs. Hunter and later took over at Horseshoe after Mrs. Hunter retired.

The first course was usually a soup—maybe carrot, followed by a simple salad such as lettuce wedges, drizzled with a dressing of peanut oil, red vinegar, sugar, salt, and cayenne pepper. Spinach or rutabaga greens might cradle the quail.

The Sports Illustrated article never mentions Mrs. Hunter.

You take the scraps, they strengthen you, and you endure.

But Mrs. Sykes saw how hard she worked. Mrs. Hunter had to please the tastes of her employer and his guests, but also the thirty-member household staff which her husband supervised. The task required what I might call culinary code switching, which shows up throughout Born in the Kitchen: pigtail pilau with a side of fried okra and peach cobbler for the workers; turtle soup, pan-broiled venison, and tapioca pudding for the Bakers.

Mrs. Sykes was born on Foshalee Plantation. She went on to get her master’s degree and taught accounting at colleges from San Diego to Tallahassee. She’s in her late seventies now. We spoke on the phone for nearly an hour recently, as she told me stories of life at Horseshoe.

“One of the things they would cook for those Northerners was wild duck,” Mrs. Sykes told me. “And the way Mrs. Hunter cooked them, they were rare, and they’d just eat the breast.”

It nearly broke me when Mrs. Sykes described what Mrs. Hunter did with the leftovers. She took the rare portions of the duck that weren’t eaten and gave them to staffers. They took the remnants home and cooked them until “fully done.” In that way, an old plantation practice from slavery remained unbroken: You take the scraps, they strengthen you, and you endure.

Florida Folk Heritage Award recipients sitting in the audience at the award ceremony in Tallahassee, Florida, on May 4, 1988. Left to right: unidentified, Stetson Kennedy, Tom Gaskins, unidentified, Flora Mae Hunter. Also note standing in the second row (behind Kennedy) is former Secretary of State George Firestone who received a Florida Artists Hall of Fame award during the ceremony.

When Mrs. Hunter retired around 1970 to the red-brick house she and her husband had built near Horseshoe, she decided to write a cookbook. Her culinary stature had spread beyond the plantation through word of mouth and a few articles in my hometown newspaper, the Tallahassee Democrat. But for nearly a decade she struggled to gain interest among publishers. In a 1978 article in the Democrat she told the newspaper’s food editor that she didn’t have enough money to pay to print the book herself.

It’s not lost on me that during this same period, Miss Lewis met Knopf editor Judith Jones. In a 2015 New York Times article, Francis Lam describes how Evangeline Peterson, a socialite and patron, introduced Miss Lewis to Jones at the recommendation of a Random House executive. Jones was entranced by Miss Lewis’ stories of Freetown, farming, and family. Those meetings with influential white women in New York City birthed The Taste of Country Cooking. Miss Lewis’ legend was cemented.

I say that with respect. Miss Lewis’ roast chicken recipe is the only one I use. Those women didn’t make her. She made herself. That said, without them, it’s likely she would have been less well known and celebrated. I can’t help but juxtapose her trajectory with Mrs. Hunter’s.

After the 1978 newspaper article, Thelma Thurston Gorham, a journalism professor at Florida A&M University, a historically black university about fifteen miles from Horseshoe (and my alma mater), took on Mrs. Hunter’s project. Gorham enlisted the help of one of the school’s librarians to copyedit, and a graphic artist in the media center to pen the illustrations. The Bakers’ daughter, Florence B. Martineau, identified some of her favorite dishes to include in the book and Charlotte Rosenberg, owner of a small local printing company, published it in 1979.

The book is a labor of love. Which makes me feel especially guilty when I flip through its pages and wonder how it might have been done differently. Mrs. Hunter might have told more stories about her youth, her parents, and grandparents and how they nourished themselves. But those recollections are not present. Reading her recipe for squirrel, I wondered where she learned her butchery skills. Many of the recipes seem reflective of her later years in the kitchen. But I wanted to hear about the ways her mother and grandmother taught her to cook by sight, taste, and feel. The incursion of convenience ingredients into Mrs. Hunter’s recipes, such as steak sauces, frozen vegetables, and margarine, isn’t explained. She had reasons. Maybe they saved her time, but I wanted to hear her say why.

Toni Tipton-Martin included Born in the Kitchen in her book, The Jemima Code. She told me I should stop my longing, which bordered on judging.

“This is how we’ve been ensnared as a people: not respecting the foodcraft,” she said to me. “These are African American recipes.”

In making them, Mrs. Hunter adapted and persevered. By recording them, she “changed the record of what it meant to be a black cook in the face of the Aunt Jemima stereotype,” Tipton-Martin said.

In our rush to uplift a few, we miss others—and there were so many.

The book got a good review in the Democrat. In 1988, the state of Florida honored her with a Folk Heritage Award for “over seventy years of knowledge of traditional Southern foodways” and “life-long devotion to the folk arts.” She sat in the front row at the awards ceremony, her hair just so, her bearing one of quiet dignity.

“It’s quite an honor,” she told the Democrat. “I’ve never been so surprised in all my life.”

My copy of her book was signed in 1991. It was in its fifth printing by then. It stands on a shelf in the pantry next to works by women I consider her culinary sisters: Lewis, Vertamae Smart-Grosvenor, Norma Jean and Carole Darden among them. The inscription simply reads, “Flora Mae Hunter. Happy Cooking.” She died in 2003, at ninety-two years old.

I don’t want to fetishize Mrs. Hunter. In our rush to uplift a few, we miss others—and there were so many. It can be easy to forget that until the late 1960s, one of the main forms of employment open to black women was domestic work, like cooking. Those women were part of a centuries-long tradition. They had stories to tell and recipes they could have shared with the world. I can only imagine what the American culinary canon would look like now had their accounts been recorded, their work taken seriously.

So, here is Mrs. Flora Mae Ross Hunter, from the Red Hills of the Georgia-Florida border. Her book is a witness of what it meant to be an African American cook as her corner of the Deep South changed, and in critical, telling ways, remained the same.

On page forty-six of her book, she included a recipe for “Fried Bananas Served with Steaks.” The thought of it makes me smell that Impala again. But what I wouldn’t give now for a chance to ride in it once again, back to an afternoon full of summer visits. No, I really don’t like bananas, but for Mrs. Hunter’s sake, maybe I’ll make that recipe someday.

Rosalind Bentley is a senior writer at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. She is a Pulitzer Prize finalist and received her MFA from the University of Georgia.

Cover photo courtesy of Library of Congress

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