Over the next several weeks Buncombe County Special Collections will share five different posts by former Special Collections (NC Room) Librarian Zoe Rhine. Since “retiring” in January 2020, Zoe has continued to follow her research interests; investigating the lives of African Americans in the late 19th century.
Do you have research or stories about Asheville and Buncombe County you’d like to share with the community? In the near future, we’ll be making calls for community members to submit posts to HeardTell, so keep an eye on the blog and our other social media over the coming weeks for more information.
In the introduction to this series on occupations of Black women in 1890, it’s noted that the Asheville City Directory and Business Reflex,1890 listed 468 Black women as having employment. Of these, 178 were identified as “cook,” making this type of work one of the leading occupations for Black women at this time. While a few white women and men were also listed as cooks, it was a position held mostly by Black women.
Where did Asheville’s African American Cooks work?
Surprisingly, the Asheville City Directory, 1890 lists very few eating establishments. Only two restaurants were found in the “Business” section: Murrough’s Restaurant and Short Order House, located in the basement level of 7 Patton Avenue and specializing in fresh seafood, and the Strauss European Hotel, one of the earliest Jewish-owned businesses on South Main Street. One Black-owned restaurant, listed only under the owner’s name, was “Thomas Williams’ Lunch House.” Williams advertised for his restaurant in an 1898 Labor Day parade by riding along on a horse-drawn flatbed, cooking food over a real fire!
A few women worked in hotels such as Emmie Greenlee as assistant cook at the Starne’s Hotel on South Main, where she also lived; Rose Gaither at the new Glen Rock Hotel located directly across from the train depot; and Maggie Carter who worked and lived at the Western Hotel on Pack Square (currently the Adler Building, located next to Posana Restaurant). A new social club on South Main, the Cosmopolitan Club, where Julia C. Sloan worked as cook, had the “bottom floor fitted up as servant’s and storage rooms, for coal, wood, etc.,” according to a newspaper advertisement.
Others listed as cooks worked in institutional settings such as Emma Lee at the Ravenscroft School and Lizzie Avery at Mission Hospital, then at 17 Charlotte Street.
A boarding house at 35 Woodfin Street, owned by Mr. A. J. Farral, a tobacconist, employed Laura Smith as cook, along with a nurse, Julia Smith and laundress, Cora Edwards. Bailey Street (which became Asheland Ave. in 1916, making it a business boulevard and most recently, the site of the South Slope Brewing District) provided employment for cooks in its many boarding houses.
In an interview, Johnny Baxter spoke of his grandmother, Eliza Fields Henry, who was enslaved by the Davidsons in Chunn’s Cove until she bought her freedom during the Civil War. He recalled her being “an expert cook…She worked in these homes for wealthy white people…and took care of it all…preparing all the meals, did all the buying of groceries…” Eliza Henry also worked at the Webb Boarding House on 25 North French Broad Avenue.
Many women were not only cooks, but were expected to perform other domestic duties. A woman whose sole job was to cook probably worked for wealthier families in larger homes, such as Fernihurst, which employed an extensive staff. Lou Weeden and Maggie Carter worked at Fernihurst, which employed many Black staff members including Eliza Cunningham, servant; Susan Mills, waitress; Noah Gaither, horseshoer; and Jno. Walker, waiter, all residents at Fernihurst.
Several cooks worked in upper-class homes. Ann McKesson was a cook at 95 Charlotte Street, the home of Thomas Walton Patton. Some cooks worked in the newly established Montford neighborhood on Academy and Mulberry Avenues (later to become Montford and Cumberland Avenues) and Cherry Street. Houses in well-to-do neighborhoods were likely preferred places to work, in terms of conditions and perhaps salary. It is noteworthy that 75% of the women working as cooks also resided in their place of employment.
Author Rebecca Sharpless states that “To many white southerners, ‘cook’ meant African American, and in fact, African Americans represented an ever-growing percentage of domestic workers in the post-Civil War South…”
Sharpless adds: “White women might be willing to clean their houses or care for their own children, but they eagerly sought workers to take on the tasks of food preparation…”
And for obvious reasons. No matter how fine the home, cooking was a grueling job in 1890. Stoves required constant fueling even in the summer, creating stifling heat. A few homes would have ice boxes but food preservation (and food safety) would be challenging. With only a small sink and little more than a knife and low table available as tools, food preparation and dishwashing would test physical endurance. Even the middle-class housewife would desire at least some help in the kitchen—and Black women with few options, accepting low wages and a place to live in exchange, would fill this role.
Chitlins vs ‘High off the Hog‘
African Americans traditionally (including during slavery) had corn but not wheat. They did not have leavening agents so many forms of unleavened corn pone were a mainstay.
Everyday fare for Black families would center on whatever they grew in their gardens. Vegetables and fruits that could be stored or dried such as sweet potatoes, apples, red and black-eyed peas, beans (“leather britches”) and nuts would be a priority. Hoe cakes, turnip greens, beans, and frittered vegetables would have been the most common foods on a Black family’s table.
While many whites perhaps ate “high off the hog” (an American expression linking status to eating only the upper portions of meat), many Black people, unable to afford choice cuts, wasted no part of an animal, gleaning nutrients from pig’s feet, ears, and stomach as well as intestines, known as chitlins or chitterlings.
In an essay, Anne Yentsch writes that Black people saw the difference between what they ate and what whites ate as “plain food” versus “fancy food.” Yentsch also suggests that both white and Black cultures may have influenced each other through the introduction of new foods. But Black women cooking for their own families would have been limited by the cost of many of the ingredients they used routinely when cooking for employers.
How Did the Black and White Food Cultures Influence Each Other in Asheville?
Yentsch states that, “African descendants, their foods and their cooking techniques made such an indelible impression on white southern families, generation after generation, that whites pulled cooks and cooking techniques from the Black world both before and after Emancipation.”
Born out of necessity and West African traditions, the dishes created by early Black cooks formed the basis of Southern cuisine today. Fried chicken, sweet potato puddings, greens with pot liquor are only a few of the foods originating from traditional Black cooking.
What were the favorite foods that Asheville housewives wanted their cooks to prepare? Were Northerners, new to Asheville and Southern cooking, drawn to the foods that the cooks served? And how might newcomers have influenced the cooking style of Asheville cooks?
More stories are needed—from both the white and Black communities—about this era. Diaries, family recipes, and oral histories are invaluable. Did your grandmother talk about her work and employers? Did your grandparents leave stories about the people they hired? Were there certain dishes that cooks prepared that became a family favorite? Were these recipes handed down?
If you have any information that might shed light on this research, please visit the Buncombe County Special Collections, Pack Memorial Library. If you’re unable to visit, please call (828) 250.4740 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
The next post in this series will look at the role of Black launderesses in 1890 Asheville.
Notes and Sources
Asheville Citizen-Times February 5, 1889
Baxter, Johnny interviewed by Louis D. Silveri, August 5, 1975 Southern Highlands Research Center, The University of North Carolina at Asheville.
Fulenweider, Harry W. Asheville City Directory and Business Reflex, 1890. Charleston, S.C.
Sharpless, Rebecca, Cooking in Other Women’s Kitchen: Domestic Workers in the South, 1865-1960, 2010, University of North Carolina Press.
Yentsch, Anne (2008) “Excavating the South’s African American Food History,” African Diaspora Archaeology Newsletter: Vol. 11 : Iss. 2,
About the Author
Zoe Rhine worked in the North Carolina Room for over 27 years, retiring in January 2020. Since then she has continued her research on the early Black teachers in Asheville. While beginning to research the teachers in 1890, she said, “I wondered what other occupations were open to Black people in Asheville in 1890.” At first thinking it would make an interesting blog post, the work turned into these five posts and will be followed with her research on Black male occupations in 1890. The research was done by focusing closely on typical research tools, such as the Asheville City Directory and the Federal Census records, to produce new information about the Black community in Asheville in 1890.
About the Author
Louise Maret has worked as a researcher in primatology, botany, and public health. As a writer, she has been involved in several training and educational projects, most recently as co-author of a college-level humanities webtext,The Search For Meaning and Value. After living in New York, Ohio, Vermont, and Georgia, she moved to Asheville in 1988 and settled in Lakeview Park where she raised two children and a variety of plants and animals. While at Pack Library one day, she found the North Carolina Room–“where I became immediately entranced.”