More and more my work as an historian has pushed me deeper into thoughts about the importance of food production, gardens, farming, issues of food justice, cooking, and rural life skills. But as with all such interests the roots are deep and sometimes seemingly contradictory. I always tell my kids I’ve lived my life backwards; working at several careers before eventually going to school.
I was a young folksinger in the late 1950′s. In the early 1960′s I joined the only all-female folk group in the country. A stint in the West Coast company of the musical HAIR rounded out the 60s for me. In an abrupt shift of life trajectory I began teaching cookery and eventually to farming in South Dakota. I’m the sort of person who has often needed to make pretty dramatic life changes and our move to Virginia was no different; within six months I began to work in the world of the historic house museum bringing my skills as a farmer to the interpretation of African American life in slavery. Deciding to go to college was a next logical step.
The Mary Baldwin College Adult Degree Program offered me the opportunity to earn a BA in History in 1992 and once that academic train left the station there was no getting off till I had earned my MA in 1997 and defended my doctoral dissertation in American Studies in 2005. Whew!
There is hardly a place in America where research on slavery can be more exciting than at Monticello. The Jefferson Library, my incredible colleagues, the many visiting scholars, all created an opportunity for me to develop. I began to narrow my research to focus on the Jefferson kitchen and all the cooks whose lives were devoted to creating what has become the reputation of Jefferson as a man of fine dining. I don’t phrase it this way to disparage Jefferson’s high regard for French cuisine and his devotion to growing a wonderful garden, but to emphasize that for me it was always about the people who did the actual work, who must have known almost as much about those topics as Jefferson, and who lived their lives enslaved.
The spring of 2012 seemed a logical time for me to retire from daily work in the history museum world. As an independent scholar I am continuing to consult and give lectures on public history in museum settings as well as in university classrooms, food events and festivals!
My husband and I have been tilling the same garden plot for close to thirty years; the soil has gone from the usual Albemarle County red brick clay to a friable deep dark brown loam. With the help of our grown children we’ve added a hoop house as we continue growing as much of our own food as possible on our small homestead.
We keep a flock of laying hens and every late winter send off an order for chicks to raise for meat. In the spring of 2012 we added a bit of our former farm life with two pigs to feed all summer. They supplied a freezer’s worth of meat in late fall. In August of this strange summer we just had to buy two incredibly cute 2 week old calves! They are what is called here locally, Jersteins! Their mothers were Jerseys and their fathers Holsteins. And the story continues . . . . . . . . . . .
If I have a philosophy it is this: to pass on the stuff I know guided by the dictum “Each one teach one.”