Hot Peppers and Hot Sauces in the English Cookery of the 17th to 19th Centuries

Hot peppers – capsicums – were introduced to England from Spain in the sixteenth century, and were growing in England by 1548.[1] Looking at seventeenth century English books, a number of references to ‘Guinea peppers’ and cayenne pepper appear, with an early example being found in John Parkinson’s Paradisi in sole Paradisus Terrestris (1629).[2]

In his renowned book The Complete Herbal (1653), the English botanist and herbalist Nicholas Culpeper includes an entry on cayenne pepper (‘Guinea Pepper’), in which he notes its ‘fiery, sharp, biting taste’ and ‘temperature hot and dry’. Cayenne peppers, eaten raw, would ‘burn and inflame the mouth and throat so extremely that it would be hard to be endured’. Yet, despite the ‘evil qualities’ of these ‘violent plants’, when powdered, cayenne pepper ‘may serve instead of ordinary pepper to season meat or broth for sauce, for it not only gives it a good taste or relish, but tends to discuss the wind and colic in the body’. Culpeper includes instructions on how to make cayenne pepper powder for culinary use.[3]

In 1669, the Englishman John Evelyn published a book titled Acetaria: A Discourse of Sallets, which offers an extensive collection of salads and vegetable dishes. Cayenne pepper again made an appearance, with Evelyn including instructions for preparing a cayenne vinegar (‘in a separate Vinegar, gently bruise a Pod of Guinny-Pepper‘).[4]

In the 18th Century, we find cayenne pepper as an ingredient in numerous dishes. Elizabeth Raffald’s The Experienced English Housekeeper (1769), for example, contains multiple references to ‘Chyan pepper’.[5] By this time, as Stephen Schmidt writes, ‘cayenne was beloved in England’ and ‘Raffald’s reliance on cayenne in The Experienced English Housekeeper is almost compulsive’.[6] Raffald’s book was not only very popular in her native England, but was also one of ‘the most popular cookbooks in colonial and postindependence America’.[7]

By the nineteenth century, hot pepper recipes and products were very well-known. William Kitchiner’s bestselling 1822 book The Cook’s Oracle (which was also extremely popular in the United States), for example, contains entries on cayenne pepper, ‘Essence of Cayenne’, and ‘Chili Vinegar’. Kitchiner’s book contains quite an extensive discussion regarding cayenne pepper. He notes that, in the England of the period, Indian cayenne pepper and cayenne pepper from the West Indies were both sold and used. Kitchiner considered the Indian cayenne pepper to be ‘prepared in a very careless manner’ and alleged it was adulterated with food colouring or even red lead to approve its colour. The cayenne pepper imported from the West Indies, meanwhile, was made up of ‘an indiscriminate mixture of the powder of the dried pods of many species of Capsicums – especially of the Bird Pepper, which is the hottest of all’.[8] According to Kitchiner, ‘respectable oil shops in London’ sold West Indian cayenne pepper and ‘Capsicums and Chilies… may be purchased at the Herb Shops in Covent-Garden, the former for about five, the latter for two shillings per hundred’.[9] That hot peppers were being sold by the hundred is indicative of the extent of their use.

Kitchiner’s ‘Essence of Cayenne’ recipe reads as follows:

Put half an ounce of Cayenne pepper into half a pint of brandy or wine; let it steep for a fortnight, and then pour off the clear liquor. This is nearly equal to fresh Chili juice.[10]

‘This or the Chili vinegar’, writes Kitchiner, ‘is extremely convenient for the extempore seasoning and finishing of soups, sauces, &c.’

Kitchiner’s ‘chili vinegar’ is made by infusing fresh chillis – ‘cut in half, or pounded’ – in ‘a pint of the best vinegar for a fortnight’.[11] ‘This is commonly made with the foreign bird pepper’, Kitchiner notes, although he favoured milder ‘red English Chilies’. Kitchiner observes: ‘Many people cannot eat fish without the addition of an acid, and Cayenne pepper: to such palates this will be an agreeable relish’.

Other recipes employing hot peppers found in Kitchiner’s book include:

  • A ‘Piquante sauce for cold meat, fish, &c.’ made using horseradish, salt, mustard, eshallots, celery seed, and cayenne pepper, soaked in vinegar.
  • A ‘Savoury Ragout Powder’ made up of salt, mustard, allspice, black pepper, grated lemon peel, ginger, nutmeg, and cayenne pepper.
  • A curry powder made up of coriander seed, turmeric, black pepper, mustard, ginger, lesser cardamoms, cayenne pepper, and cumin seed.
  • Horseradish Vinegar: ‘Pour a quart of best vinegar on three ounces of scraped horseradish, an ounce of minced eschalot, and one drachm of Cayenne; let it stand a week, and you will have an excellent relish for cold beef, salads, &c. costing scarcely any thing. A portion of black pepper and mustard, celery or cress-seed, may be added to the above’.
  • Pickles: ‘The strongest vinegar must be used for pickling… To assist the preservation of pickles, a portion of salt is added; and for the same purpose, and to give flavour, long pepper, black pepper, allspice, ginger, cloves, mace, garlic, eschalots, mustard, horseradish, and capsicum’.
  • A tomato sauce made using twelve or more tomatoes: ‘[P]ut them in a stew-pan with a capsicum, and two or three table-spoonfuls of beef gravy; set them on a slow stove for an hour, or till properly melted; then rub them through a tamis into a clean stew-pan, with a little white pepper and salt, and let them simmer together a few minutes’.

Isabella Beeton’s bestselling Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management (1861) contains similar recipes and includes more than 200 references to cayenne pepper.[12] Beeton was arguably more a compiler of recipes than an originator, and she reproduces (without attribution) Kitchiner’s recipes for Essence of Cayenne and chili vinegar, although in the Essence of Cayenne recipe she swaps the brandy or wine for vinegar and offers ‘Cayenne Vinegar’ as an alternative name.

Also found in Beeton’s book are a recipe for ‘pickled capsicums’ and a seasoning blend called ‘Hot Spice’, which is presented as ‘a Delicious Adjunct to Chops, Steaks, Gravies, &c.’ The recipe reads as follows:

INGREDIENTS.—3 drachms each of ginger, black pepper, and cinnamon, 7 cloves, 1/2 oz. mace, 1/4 oz. of cayenne, 1 oz. grated nutmeg, 1-1/2 oz. white pepper.

Mode.—Pound the ingredients, and mix them thoroughly together, taking care that everything is well blended. Put the spice in a very dry glass bottle for use. The quantity of cayenne may be increased, should the above not be enough to suit the palate.

A few years after Mrs Beeton was first published, commercially produced bottled hot sauces were on sale in Britain. Clarence’s Cayenne Sauce, for example, was – according to 1869 and 1870 advertisements in London newspapers – ‘pronounced by connoisseurs the best sauce’.[13][14] Clarence’s Cayenne Sauce was promoted at the International Exhibition of 1862 as follows:

This sauce is used as a relish to roast meat, game, poultry, steaks, chops, cutlets, fish, soup, gravy, &c. Its thorough adaptation to this purpose has won for it a first class among sauces, and extensive patronage in the houses of the nobility and gentry, and in the clubs.[15]

‘The clubs’ is a reference to the private members clubs of London, where the wealthy gathered to drink and socialise.

Arthur Gay Payne’s The Housekeeper’s Guide to Preserved Meats, Fruits, Vegetables, &c. (1886) contains an entry on Clarence’s Cayenne Sauce, which states: ‘Cayenne sauce is a very hot sauce’.[16] Hot spice blends and hot sauces were evidently very popular in the period. Mary Davies’ The Menu Cookery Book (1885) includes a ‘Sauce Piquante’, as well as ‘dry’ and ‘wet’ recipes for a dish called ‘devilled bones’. The dry recipe reads as follows:

Take the leg, back, or wing bones of turkey or fowl, score them a little with a knife, butter them well, then lay made mustard thickly over, sprinkle cayenne or common pepper on, and broil. Serve very hot.[17]

This English dish – a favourite in the private members clubs of London – was made by combining ‘the bones of any remaining joint or poultry, which has still some meat on’ with butter, hot mustard, and cayenne pepper.[18] The meat was scored so the seasonings would permeate throughout, then coated with a ‘devil sauce’ and briefly cooked until hot.[19] While butter, hot mustard, and cayenne pepper were the basic ingredients of these hot sauces, there were of course variations. The members of Boodle’s Private Members’ Club (which exists to this day) in St James’s Street, London, for example, were served devilled bones coated in a mixture of butter, dry English mustard, black pepper, salt, curry powder, cayenne pepper, and Worcestershire sauce.[20]

While hot sauces and devilled bones were much loved, not everyone was a fan. Kettner’s Book of the Table (1877), for example, contains the following disparaging remarks:

It is the great fault of all devilry that it knows no bounds. A moderate devil is almost a contradiction in terms; and yet it is quite certain that if a devil is not moderate he destroys the palate, and ought to have no place in cookery, the business of which is to tickle, not to annihilate, the sense of taste.[21]

Eventually, the hot sauce and devilled bones trend died out, a fact bemoaned by the essayist EV Lucas in his 1924 book Encounters and Diversions:

Britons, who were never to be slaves, are slaves once more, principally to cynical Italian caterers. Where are certain simple delicacies of yesteryear? Where is that ancient nocturnal amenity, the devilled bone? After the theatre, how agreeable it once was, too many years ago, to seek the Blue Posts in Cork Street and be sure of devilled bones![22]

A head waiter is quoting as saying that ‘nobody asks for them now’.

However, visit any major supermarket (and plenty of smaller shops) in England today, and you can purchase a wide variety of hot sauces, including cayenne sauces, although Clarence’s Cayenne Sauce is sadly nowhere to be found. Asking for devilled bones in a pub or bar will most likely result in a look of confusion on the part of the barkeeper. Ask for hot wings, however, and there’s a fair chance you’ll be served some, particularly in the larger chains.

While English cookery is often assumed to have been historically bland and lacking in heat and seasonings, this assumption is false. For the better off, at least, spice blends and hot peppers were a part of English cuisine for a number of centuries.


The English Roots of Potlikker Greens

The dish known as ‘potlikker greens’ is often presented as a uniquely Southern phenomenon, and as a clever innovation of the slaves. To make the dish, strong leafy greens (often collard greens) are cooked slowly with meat such as bacon or a ham hock. The pot liquor left over after the greens have been eaten is then ‘sopped up’ using cornbread. The dish remains popular within both Southern cooking and African American ‘soul food’, and certainly stands out as having a particularly strong regional identity. However, when we dig deeper into the history of potlikker greens, and how it came to be a Southern staple, it is, in fact, found to have its origins in England.

Bacon and greens was long a well-established dish throughout England, enjoyed across social classes. A witness in a 1739 report on court cases in the City of London reports that a criminal ‘and several others’ were eating bacon and greens.[1] Edward Moore, in his book The World (1761), writes of ‘the wonders of Yorkshire’, noting that ‘the best people in the country… say that they never eat so heartily as of the parson’s bacon and greens’.[2] The greens grown in Yorkshire, noted Isabella Beeton (1861), included ‘the Wild Cabbage, or Colewort’ (known in the United States as ‘collard greens’).[3] In 1863, Nathaniel Hawthorne – an American touring England – published an account of his travels titled Our Old Home and English Note Books, in which he recalled a visit to ‘one of the rustic hostleries’ in Uttoxeter, Staffordshire. Hawthorne ate bacon and greens, mutton chops, and a gooseberry pudding, and considered the meal ‘good enough for a prince’.[4]

Bacon and greens was a standard meal for English farmers. The 19th century English nature writer Richard Jefferies wrote a number of accounts of rural life in his native Wiltshire, with his 1892 book The Toilers of the Field providing, as the preface to the 1898 edition notes, a valuable ‘picture of the life of all classes of the cultivators of the soil in the early [eighteen] seventies’.[5] In the book, Jefferies writes that ‘[t]he traditional bacon and greens dinner is passing away, though still the usual fare in the small farmhouses’, and defines the ‘middle-class farmer’ as ‘the man who is neither an independent gentleman, nor obliged to live on bacon and greens’. As for the farm labourers, Jefferies reports the following:

On ordinary days he dines at the fashionable hour of six or seven in the evening—that is, about that time his cottage scents the road with a powerful odour of boiled cabbage, of which he eats an immense quantity. Vegetables are his luxuries, and a large garden, therefore, is the greatest blessing he can have…

To dine in an English labourer’s cottage would be impossible. His bread is generally good, certainly; but his bacon is the cheapest he can buy at small second-class shops—oily, soft, wretched stuff; his vegetables are cooked in detestable style, and eaten saturated with the pot liquor. Pot liquor is a favourite soup. I have known cottagers actually apply at farmers’ kitchens not only for the pot liquor in which meat has been soddened, but for the water in which potatoes have been boiled—potato liquor—and sup it up with avidity. And this not in times of dearth or scarcity, but rather as a relish…

They never buy anything but bacon; never butchers’ meat. Philanthropic ladies, to my knowledge, have demonstrated over and over again even to their limited capacities that certain parts of butchers’ meat can be bought just as cheap, and will make more savoury nutritive food; and even now, with the present high price of meat, a certain proportion would be advantageous. In vain; the labourers obstinately adhere to the pig, and the pig only.

Exactly what this ‘detestable style’ of cooking cabbage might have been is suggested in other writings of the period. In 1863, Dr Edward Smith conducted a detailed survey of labourers’ diets, and found that ‘where fat was available, cabbage was usually cooked in it’.[6] Another 19th century observer noted that ‘bacon fat… served to relish farm labourers’ “potatoes and cabbages, which was all they got for dinner”’.[7] Indeed, Jefferies writes that the farm labourer ‘believes in the fats expressed from meats, and prefers lard or dripping’. As for the farm labourer’s children, Jefferies notes that while they might get a little cheese or bacon, they subsisted mainly on ‘a good deal of strong cabbage, soddened with pot-liquor’.

Such food had a long history in England. In the 17th century:

The poor ate rye or barley bread, those better off manchets of white wheat flour. Bacon, souse, brawn, powdered (salted) beef or mutton, and barrelled (pickled) herrings, or other fish, were the mainstay of the table in winter. Brewis was eaten largely [‘bread soaked in pot-liquor’]…. Common people ate with wooden or latteen spoons from wooden trenchers.[8]

In 1795, the Revd. David Davies published The Case of Labourers in Husbandry. In his book, Davies included a study of ‘The parish of Barkham, in the county of Berks, Easter 1787’, and reports the ‘weekly expenses of a family, consisting of a man and his wife, and five children, the eldest eight years of age, the youngest an infant’. In 18th century Berkshire, writes Davies, a farm labourer would feed his family with a pound of bacon, ‘boiled at two or three times [a week] with greens: the pot-liquor, with bread and potatoes, makes a mess for the children’.[9]

This English diet was brought to the United States during the colonial period [10] and persists to this day, particularly in the Southern states, where a ‘mess’ of collard greens cooked with bacon or other pork products is a much-loved dish, the pot liquor (‘pot likker’) being ‘sopped up’ with cornbread. The ‘sop’, of course, dates back to medieval England [11] and was defined in the 1761 Royal English Dictionary as ‘bread steeped in liquor or dripping’.[12]

Gloria Lund Main writes that in colonial Maryland:

Marylanders ate an American diet cooked in old English style… White and black, servant and master – all liked their meat and vegetables cooked together in the large pot over the fire, and the corn bread baked on the hearth.[13]

‘G.W.W.’, a Kentucky gentleman, writes in 1859:

In very early Kentucky times, the universal dinner, winter and spring at every farm house in the state, was a piece of middling bacon, boiled with cabbage, turnips, greens, collards, or sprouts, cabbage sprouts, according to the season. The pot, if the family was a large one, contained about ten gallons, and was nearly filled with clean pure water, the middlings and the greens were put in at the proper time, to give them a sufficient cooking.[14]

The Virginia writer George William Bagby notes in his The Old Virginia Gentleman: And Other Sketches (1877) that ‘the cabbage’ is ‘sacred to the Virginia dinner-table’ and that bacon and greens were cooked together. Bagby identifies the greens in question as ‘the ugly pot-herb of the sea-cliffs of England’.[15] As such, he is clearly referring to ‘collards’, the coleworts first brought to Virginia by English colonists. In her famous book Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management (1861), the English cookery writer Isabella Beeton writes the following:

On the cliffs of Dover, and in many places on the coasts of Dorsetshire, Cornwall, and Yorkshire, there grows a wild plant, with variously-indented, much-waved, and loose spreading leaves, of a sea-green colour, and large yellow flowers. In spring, the leaves of this plant are collected by the inhabitants, who, after boiling them in two waters, to remove the saltness, use them as a vegetable along with their meat. This is the Brassica oleracea of science, the Wild Cabbage, or Colewort, from which have originated all the varieties of Cabbage, Cauliflower, Greens, and Brocoli.[16]

Returning to the South, we find that ‘bacon and greens’ was seen as a hearty meal prepared by good wives. A character in the nineteenth century Virginia writer Beverley Tucker’s novel George Balcombe (1836) states that ‘highly educated wives’ are generally ‘left to men of cultivated but effeminate minds’, while ‘those whose names live in the mouths of men, prefer the plain housewifely girl, who reads her Bible, works her sampler, darns her stockings, and boils her bacon and greens together’.[17]

This was a universal meal, consumed in the South by master and slave alike. Daniel Hundley’s Social Relations In Our Southern States (1860) reports that ‘the usual fare of the slaves is bacon and greens’.[18] Slave narratives, likewise, state that children on the plantations were fed with pot liquor:

These children were fed cornbread and milk for breakfast and supper, and “pot licker” with cornbread for dinner.[19]


Dey wuz six uv us chillun an dey would feed us in a big wooden tray.
Dey’d po’ hot pot liquor in de tray an crumble braid in hit.[20]

Yet, while it was the case that bacon and greens was a meal eaten by the slaves, an article in an 1860 issue of The Southern Cultivator magazine states that ‘people of all classes, sexes, ages, and conditions’ in the South consumed large quantities of fat bacon and pork, and ate ‘boiled bacon and collards at dinner’.[21]

The Southern states were largely agrarian, and had been from the colonial period, when Englishmen – ranging from the planter gentry to small farmers and indentured servants – first settled Virginia and established it as a British colony. These Englishmen brought their culture, traditions, and foodways with them, so it is entirely unsurprising to find that the common English dish of bacon and greens gained a foothold in the South, or that English rural labourers’ practice of eating pot liquor and bread, and seasoning strong leafy greens with bacon fat, should have entered the slave diet (especially given the fact that, early on, English indentured servants worked in the fields alongside slaves).[22]

Fried Chicken Recipes, 1736-1922

As noted in a previous post of mine on the English origins of Southern fried chicken, there is a widespread notion on the Internet (and, indeed, in books as well) that Southern fried chicken is the result of the combining of ‘Scottish frying techniques and West African seasoning techniques’. However, when English and American cookery books from the colonial period onwards are examined, it becomes clear that fried chicken was an English dish (one of a great many fried dishes to be found in English cookery of the time) that gained popularity first in the British colony of Virginia, and then spread out across the southern states. The English influence can even been felt in the gravies recommended for serving with fried chicken. As seen below, the Southern Housewife books all feature a cream and parsley gravy to be served with the chicken (which later became simply a cream gravy in southern cooking). Anyone familiar with English cookery will immediately recognise this as parsley sauce, which is still commonly served today with fish or gammon (see a nineteenth century English recipe here, and a modern one here).

The supposed existence of a Scottish tradition of fried chicken – which seems to be based on confusion over the Scottish dish ‘Friar’s Chicken’ – is routinely cited without evidence, and I have yet to find a single period cookery book identifying fried chicken as a Scottish dish. The second half of the popular myth of the origins of Southern fried chicken claims that slave cooks employed ‘African seasonings’ in the fried chicken they sent to their masters’ tables. Yet, when fried chicken recipes spanning three centuries are examined, the chicken is found time and again to be seasoned simply with salt and pepper, and no supposed ‘West African seasoning techniques’ can be found.

All this is illustrative not only of the fact that all too many who write popular articles and books on culinary history barely bother to look at historic source texts, if indeed they do at all, but is also part of a wider trend of minimising or ignoring the powerful and central role played by English culture and English cookery in the development of the culture and cuisine of the South. The South and its culinary traditions simply cannot be understood without a proper knowledge of English cookery, particularly the cookery found in the kitchens of the gentry of England.

The following collection of recipes trace the evolution of Southern fried chicken, beginning with recipe books written for the cooks of the big houses of England, and moving on through multiple Southern sources. A later English example is also included.


Nathan Bailey (1736) Dictionarium Domesticum: Being a New and Compleat Household Dictionary, For the Use Both of City and Country

A Marinade of Chickens

Cut the chickens into quarters, and marinade them in the juice of lemons and verjuice, or with vinegar, salt, clove, pepper, chibols: or a bay leaf or two: Let them lie in this marinade for the space of three hours, then having made a sort of clear paste or batter with flour, white wine and the yolks of three eggs, drop the chickens into it, then fry them in lard, and serve them up in the form of a pyramid, with fry’d parsley and slices of lemon.


Hannah Glasse (1747) The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy

To Marinate Chickens (p.58)

Cut two chickens into quarters, lay them in vinegar for three or four hours, with pepper, salt, a bay-leaf, and a few cloves, make a very thick batter, first with half a pint of wine and flour, then the yolks of two eggs, a little melted butter; some grated nutmeg and chopped parsley; beat all very well together, dip your fowls in the batter, and fry them in a good deal of hog’s lard, which must first boil before you put your chickens in. Let them be of a fine brown, and lay them in your dish like a pyramid, with fried parsley all round them. Garnish with lemon, and have some good gravy in boats or basons.


Mary Randolph (1836) [1824] The Virginia Housewife

Fried Chickens (p.75)

Cut them up as for the fricassee, dredge them well with flour, sprinkle them with salt, put them into a good quantity of boiling lard, and fry them a light brown; fry small pieces of mush and a quantity of parsley nicely picked, to be served in the dish with the chickens; take half a pint of rich milk, add to it a small bit of butter, with pepper, salt, and chopped parsley; stew it a little, and pour it over the chickens, and then garnish with the fried parsley.


Lettice Bryan (1839) The Kentucky Housewife

Fried Chickens (p.119)

Chickens are nicest for frying when they are about half grown. Cut off the wings and legs, separate the back from the breast, cut it across, and split each piece, divide the breast, clean the giblets, and rinse them all in cold water; season them with salt and pepper, dip them in batter, and fry them a yellowish brown in lard, which should be boiling when the chicken is put in. Thicken the gravy with brown flour, chopped parsley, pepper and cream; serve up the chicken, and pour the gravy round.


Sarah Rutledge (1847) The Carolina Housewife

Fried Chicken (p.72)

Having cut up a pair of young chickens, lay them in a pan of cold water to extract the blood; wipe them dry, season them with pepper and salt, dredge them with flour, and fry them in lard: both sides should be of a rich brown. Take them out of the pan, and keep them near the fire. Skim carefully the gravy in which the chickens have been fried, mix it with half a pint of cream, season with a little mace, pepper and salt, adding some parsley.


Isabella Beeton (1861) Mrs Beeton’s Book of Household Management

Fried Fowls (Recipe no. 947)

Cut the fowl into nice joints; steep them for an hour in a little vinegar, with salt, cayenne, and minced shalots. Make the batter by mixing the flour and water smoothly together; melt in it the butter, and add the whites of egg beaten to a froth; take out the pieces of fowl, dip them in the batter, and fry, in boiling lard, a nice brown. Pile them high in the dish, and garnish with fried parsley or rolled bacon. When approved, a sauce or gravy may be served with them.


Maria Barringer (1867) Dixie Cookery 

To Fry Chickens (p.23)

Cut up the chickens, and let them lie in salt and water twenty minutes; drain them, and season with salt and pepper. Dip each piece separately in flour, and drop into a frying-pan of hot lard. When well browned, turn the other side to fry. Take up the chicken, and pour into the pan a little warm water, and a thickening of milk and flour, some salt, and a little butter. Let it boil a few minutes, and pour over the chickens.


Marion Cabell Tyree (1878) Housekeeping in Old Virginia 

Fried Chicken (p.186)

This dish is best when the chicken is killed the same day it is fried. Cut off the wings and legs, cut the breast in two, and also the back. Wash well and throw in weak salt and water, to extract the blood. Let it remain for half an hour or more. Take from the water, drain and dry with a clean towel, half an hour before dinner. Lay on a dish, sprinkle a little salt over it, and sift flour thickly first on one side and then on the other, letting it remain long enough for the flour to stick well. Have ready on the frying-pan some hot lard, in which lay each piece carefully, not forgetting the liver and gizzard. Cover closely and fry till a fine amber color. Then turn over each piece and cover well again, taking care to have the chicken well done, yet not scorched. Take the chicken up and lay in a hot dish near the fire. Pour into the gravy a teacup of milk, a teaspoonful of butter, a saltspoon of salt, and one of pepper. Let it boil up and pour into the dish, but not over the chicken. Put curled parsley round the edge of the dish and serve.

Fried Chicken (p.186)

Kill the chicken the night before, if you can, and lay on ice, or else kill early in the morning. When ready, wipe dry, flour it, add pepper and salt, and fry in a little lard. When nearly done, pour off the lard, add one-half teacup water, large spoonful butter, and some chopped parsley. Brown nicely and serve. Meal mush fried is nice with the chicken.


Gulf City Cook Book (1878)

To Fry Chicken (p.53)

Beat two eggs, to which add a little milk; pepper and salt your chicken, dip it in the eggs and milk; then roll in powdered crackers, and fry in lard or butter until brown.


Abby Fisher (1881) What Mrs. Fisher Knows About Old Southern Cooking

Note: Abby Fisher was a former slave.

Fried Chicken (p.19-20)

Cut the chicken up, separating every joint, and wash clean. Salt and pepper it, and roll into flour well. Have your fat very hot, and drop the pieces into it, and let them cook brown. The chicken is done when the fork passes easily into it. After the chicken is all cooked, leave a little of the hot fat in the skillet; then take a tablespoonful of dry flour and brown it in the fat, stirring it around, then pour water in and stir till the gravy is as thin as soup.


ML Tyson (1886) The Queen of the Kitchen

Fried Chicken (p.162)

Joint the chickens, and lay them in salt and water for ½ an hour; drain them, and wipe them perfectly dry with a coarse towel; sprinkle them with pepper and salt, and a little flour; put them in boiling lard, until they are of a light brown, being careful to turn them. Take them out, and put upon a dish; cover it and set near the fire; pour into the skillet a little water, and a cup of cream, stirring it briskly; garnish the chickens with parsley, and pour upon the gravy. Mush cut into thin slices and fried is an improvement, if added to the dish when served.


Bessie E. Gunter (1889) Housekeeper’s Companion

To Fry Chicken (p.50)

This dish is best when the chicken is killed the same day it is to be cooked. Cut off the wings and legs, cut the breast in two and also the back. Wash well and throw in weak salt and water to extract the blood. Let it remain for half an hour or more. Take from the water, drain it and lay on a dish; sprinkle a little salt over it and sift flour thickly first on one side and then on the other, letting it remain long enough for the flour to stick well. Have ready in the frying-pan some hot lard, in which lay each piece carefully, not forgetting the liver and gizzard. Cover closely and fry till a fine amber color. Then turn over each piece and cover well again, taking care to have the chicken well done yet not scorched. Take the chicken up and lay in a warm dish near the fire.


Mary Jane Goodson Carlisle and Matilda Gresham (1893) Kentucky Cook Book

To Fry Chickens (p.59)

Chickens should be killed, dressed and laid in cold water; when thoroughly cold cut up and dry well with a cloth; salt and pepper them, roll in flour and drop in a kettle of boiling lard; put in a small sauce-pan, add flour to thicken and a pint of milk or cream; pour this gravy over the nicely browned chicken and garnish with celery.


Minnie C. Fox (1911) [1904] The Blue Grass Cook Book

This book is based on the recipes of black cooks.

Fried Chicken (p.88)

Prepare young chicken and sprinkle with salt and lay on ice 12 hours before cooking. Cut the chicken in pieces and dredge with flour and drop in hot boiling lard and butter – equal parts – salt and pepper, and cover tightly and cook rather slowly – if it cooks too quickly it will burn. Cook both sides to a rich brown. Remove chicken and make a gravy by adding milk, flour, butter, salt, and pepper. Cook till thick, and serve in separate bowl.


Mary Harris Fraser (1903) Kentucky Receipt Book

To Fry Chicken (p.84)

Cut up the chicken and put in cold water with a little salt; let it stay 1 hour, then wash off in clear water. Dip pieces of chicken in sifted flour with plenty of black pepper. Have hot lard in a skillet; fry a light brown. Make a biscuit dough and cut in long straight pieces and cook.

To Make the Gravy – When the chicken is done take out and put in the skillet 1 tablespoon of flour; when it is well mixed add 1 cup of sweet milk, salt and pepper, stirring all the while. This is to be served with the chicken.


Laura Thornton Knowles (1913) Southern Recipes Tested By Myself

Fried Chicken (p.18-19)

Cut chicken up, sift a little flour over it, salt and pepper. Have lard boiling in frying pan, drop chicken into this, fry until well browned and cooked through, from fifteen to twenty minutes, according to size of the chicken. Pour off the top of the lard after all the chicken is fried leaving in the pan any gravy of the chicken that might remain. Put in cup of cream or milk with butter and flour enough to thicken a little. Season with salt and pepper. Serve with chicken.


Martha McCulloch Williams (1913) Dishes & Beverages of the Old South

Fried Chicken (p.169-170)

Cut into joints two tender young chickens, wipe the pieces dry, season with salt and pepper, red and black, then set on ice. Fry a pound of streaky bacon in a deep skillet, take out when crisp, roll chicken in flour, dip in beaten egg, then roll again, and lay in the fat, which must be bubbling hot, but not scorching. Cook, turning often, to a rich brown, take out, then pile in a pan, set the pan over another with boiling water in the bottom, and put all in a very hot oven for fifteen minutes. This cooks the chicken through and through without making it hard. The pieces must not touch in frying so there will be two skilletfuls. When all the chicken is fried, and in the oven, dredge in more flour, stir it well through the fat, then add a cup of cream, stirring hard all the time, and letting it barely simmer—boiling curdles it. Or if you want a full-cream gravy, pour off the fat, stir the cream in double quantity in the skillet to take up the flavors, then pour it in a double boiler, add pepper, salt, minced celery, a little onion juice, and one at a time, lumps of butter, rolled well in flour. Cook until thick and rich, and serve in a gravy boat.


The Delta Cook Book (1917)

Fried Chicken With Puffs (p.49)

Select a fat, half-grown chicken, and disjoint neatly, cutting into 9 or 10 pieces. Season each piece with salt and pepper, roll in flour and drop into enough boiling lard to cover it. Cover skillet closely and set back where chicken will cook slowly. Turn the pieces occasionally and when they are a rich golden brown in color, take them out and keep in a warm place until ready to serve.

For the puffs, make a rich biscuit dough, roll thin and cut in diamond shape pieces. Fry quickly in the lards and use as a garnish for the chicken.

To make the gravy, pour off all the lard, strain it and put away for future use. Put a tablespoonful of butter in the skillet with a tablespoon of flour, stir until smooth and of a light brown color, add a cupful of boiling water and let boil up once.


Emma McKinney and William McKinney (1922) Aunt Caroline’s Dixieland Recipes 

This book is based on the recipes of black cooks.

Fried Chicken Virginia Style (p.63)

Cut a young tender dressed fowl into small pieces. Salt well and let stand several hours. Then wash and drain, dip each piece of chicken in flour, to which has been added salt and black pepper, and fry a golden brown in deep hot fat. Let chicken fry slowly.


The much-celebrated book The Taste of Country Cooking, written by the esteemed African American cook Edna Lewis – the granddaughter of freed slaves in Freetown, Virginia – and published in 1976, contains a recipe for fried chicken that, again, is seasoned simply with salt and pepper and fried in hog’s lard. As late as 1976, then, the supposed use of ‘West African seasoning techniques’ in Southern fried chicken was unknown to a cook with slave ancestry. While a white entrepreneur –  Harland Sanders – had incorporated a ‘secret blend of 11 herbs and spices’ into his ‘Kentucky fried chicken’, such a complex blend was notably absent in the cookery of the Old South, where salt and pepper were the standard seasonings.

Did Macaroni and Cheese Come to America from England?

‘Mac ‘n’ cheese’ is a very popular side dish in the United States (just as ‘macaroni cheese’ is a popular main dish in Britain), particularly in Southern and ‘soul food’ cooking, but how macaroni and cheese entered into American cuisine is somewhat obscure.

Thomas Jefferson is often cited as the source for the American love of macaroni and cheese, as he enjoyed the dish in Italy and even had a pasta machine imported from Europe. The Thomas Jefferson Encyclopedia doubts this, however: ‘Jefferson was most likely not the first to introduce macaroni (with or without cheese) to America, nor did he invent the recipe. He did, however, probably help to popularize it by serving it to dinner guests during his presidency’.[1]

If not Jefferson himself, then perhaps Mary Randolph – raised by Thomas Jefferson’s parents and author of the seminal book of Southern cookery, The Virginia Housewife (1824) – might be responsible for the dish’s entry into the canon of American cookery? This is unlikely. While Randolph’s inclusion of a simple macaroni and cheese recipe in her book [2] may well have inspired many Southern cooks to make the dish, it is likely that its presence there is the result not of any innovation on Randolph’s part but, rather, because it was already a known dish in wealthier Southern circles (Randolph’s book is less a collection of original recipes than a compilation of the kind of dishes a Virginia cook might be expected to be able to prepare).

Perhaps the answer to how macaroni and cheese first entered American cuisine may be found in an English cookery book. In the colonial era, American cooks relied heavily on cookery books from England and, along with Hannah Glasse’s The Art of Cookery Made Plain and Easy (1747), Elizabeth Raffald’s The Experienced English Housekeeper (1769) was one of ‘the most popular cookbooks in colonial and postindependence America’.[3] Raffald’s influential book includes a recipe titled ‘To Dress Maccaroni [sic] with Parmesan Cheese’.[4] At least as early as 1769, then, an ‘experienced English housekeeper’ was aware of a macaroni and cheese dish, as would be her many American readers. While we may never know how macaroni and cheese entered Southern cuisine and, by extension therefore, African American soul food cooking and the wider American culinary tradition, there’s a good chance that, as with other iconic dishes such as fried chicken,[5] England may ultimately be the source.

Reports on Witchcraft in 19th and early 20th Century English Newspapers

Throughout the nineteenth century (and into the early twentieth century), the worldview and belief system adhered to by a large proportion of the English population – particularly those dwelling in the countryside – was not grounded in Christianity and the teachings of the church, but, rather, in a longstanding belief in witchcraft.[1] Should any misfortune befall an individual or his property, the default belief was that they had been ‘overlooked’ and ‘ill-wished’ by a malevolent person in their community. In this understanding of the world, accidents and illness are neither the result of chance or disease, nor are they judgements sent by God, but they are, rather, the result of human actions intended to cause harm. In fact, in this worldview, God and Christianity played a very marginal role, as did priests and church ritual. When people found themselves suffering in any way, it was the fault of the ‘black witch’, and the only way to undo this evil was to turn to the ‘white witch’, ‘wise’ men and women who – for a fee – would counteract the power of the black witch through spells, rituals, powders, and potions. These ‘white witches’ were numerous throughout the country, and, while their rituals sometimes invoked the Trinity or made use of Biblical passages as spells, they were not operating as a supplement to the help offered by priests, but, rather, in place of them. The people evidently feared witches more than they feared God, and had more faith in spells than they did in prayer.

The people of the West Country, living in a particularly rural part of England, held onto this belief system longer than in some areas.[2] Even as trains hurried across the country, newspapers were widely read, cities were constantly expanding, and the Industrial Revolution was in full sway, witchcraft beliefs still had a strong hold over much of the population. While the more educated and literate were often surprised and appalled to find that such beliefs persisted in an enlightened age, numerous newspaper reports on the phenomenon appeared throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth century, illustrating the fact that witchcraft was far from the marginal or ‘extraordinary’ practice it was often presented as. The following excerpts from 19th and early 20th century newspaper reports were found via the British Newspaper Archive (for which a subscription is required).[3]

Bristol Mercury – Saturday 08 April 1843

Features an article titled ‘Witchcraft, Conjuration, Sorcery, and Enchantment’.

Frederick Peter Statton, 23, was charged at the Cornwall Assizes with:

having unlawfully pretended to conjuration, witchcraft, and sorcery; and also with having pretended, from his skill in witchcraft, sorcery, enchantment, conjuration, and knowledge in occult or crafty science, to discover to one William Henry Nottle that he was bewitched, and under the influence and power of enchantment by which, he, Nottle, was then bound. The reading of this indictment caused great laughter.

Mr. W.H. Nottle was then examined–He said, I am a farmer, and live at Stokeclimsland, in this county; the prisoner lives in St. Dominick, on the common; I went to his house on the 17th of January, 1842, and saw him; I asked him if he could inform me how I had lost some cattle that had died; he told me that I was ill-wished (laughter), and he would put the thing all to rights, and I would lose no more cattle. A calf or yearling was ill, I expected it would die, and he said it would not die before I reached home.

The witness then read the following morceaux which he had duly registered in his memorandum book, and most probably acted upon: “Take the calf and kill it. Take the heart out and prick it full of pins. On Thursday morning next, at the first hour the sun rises, put the heart into the fire and roast or burn it to ashes. The person’s name you suspect of ill-wishing you, must be written on a piece of paper and put in the heart, with the pins run through the name. During the time the heart is roasting, the 35th Psalm must be read three times.” (The reading of this curious document convulsed the court with laughter, in which the prisoner heartily joined.)

The prisoner was acquitted on technical grounds, but the judge ‘told him he had no doubt he was a great rogue and must change his course of life if he wished to escape punishment’.

South London Chronicle – Saturday 25 July 1868

Contains a report titled ‘Superstition in Cornwall’:

A fisherman of Mevagissey lately became impressed with the idea that he was “ill-wished” by a poor widow, whose son had been dismissed from a mackerel seine. To avert the evil consequences which he apprehended might ensue, he procured a large bone, and after filling the hollow with pins, proceeded to place it in the chimney. During this interesting ceremony he read portions of the Bible, especially the 109th Psalm. This incantation was intended to cast a spell on the “witch,” but hitherto it has failed in effecting the proposed result. As might have been expected, a full measure of ridicule has been showered upon the luckless victim of the machinations of the “witch.” But the hard-working, quiet woman, who possesses an untarnished character, has been subjected to great annoyance. It is an acknowledged fact that many in Cornwall superstitiously attach importance to such senseless allegations of witchcraft.

Western Times – Friday 12 June 1874

Contains a report simply titled ‘Witchcraft’:

Lucretia Jane Fatchell, locally known as “the white Witch of Somerton,” has been committed to goal [sic] for six weeks, with hard labour, by the magistrates sitting at Shepton Mallet, for having obtained various sums of money by unlawful means, Several witnesses, who gave their evidence most reluctantly, were called to prove that prisoner had pretended to cure them of disease, to rid them of persons who were supposed to be overlooking them, and to prevent their enemies from destroying cattle supposed to have been bewitched.

Western Times – Thursday 12 October 1876

A visitor to ‘an aged couple living not far from Exeter’ was told about the death of some pigs, due to them being ‘overlooked’ by the ‘evil eye’ of a local woman.

John’s belief that he had been “overlooked” by a witch was too firmly planted to be shaken by the visitor, who could only walk away wondering at such proof of the survival of superstition in a district, so near a Cathedral City. In fact the superstition not only survives, but is profitable to some classes, for the “White Witches” of Exeter, we are told, have no reason to complain of dull times.

Exeter and Plymouth Gazette – Friday 17 August 1877

Includes a report on the ‘Prosecution of a North Devon “White Witch”’. John Harper, an elderly man who seemed to employ divining rods and astrology to ‘heal’ people, found himself in court:

The defendant in this case was not a spiritualist, but he was something more akin to the old Devonshire witch or wizard, a race which, at this time, ought to be extinct. But he was afraid that there were a good many ignorant and superstitious people who believed in the power of such people, and the result was that persons who descended to the practice found it an opportunity of making money, and both directly and indirectly worked a great deal of harm to the community.

Harper’s ‘sentence was that he be sent to prison for one month, but not to hard labour, because he was an old man’.

Exeter and Plymouth Gazette Daily Telegrams – Tuesday 13 August 1878

A columnist writes:

When I was penning the remarks I made last week with reference to witchcraft, I did not know that we had had a fresh importation into this neighbourhood of a “white-witch.” The Rev. J.H. Buxton, the new Vicar of St.Giles-in-the-wood, near Great Torrington, writes to say that he wishes to warn people against a man, who, accompanied by a woman, is going about with a knife-grinding machine. He pretends to cure people who have been “overlooked” by a witch and he has actually obtained money from several simpletons for his services.

The Cornishman – Thursday 13 March 1890

Contains an article titled ‘Extraordinary Belief in Witchcraft and Ill-Wishing’. The article reports on a court case in Penzance, involving William Charles and Jeremiah Jeibart of Lower Boskenning, who had been harassing and threatening a seventy-one-year-old woman named Mrs Clarke, a tenant of the neighbouring farm:

There had been a feud of several months’ standing between these neighbours and it comprised several challenges to fight when the male members met in the roads because the Jeibarts are quite convinced that Mrs Clarke knows something of witchcraft and fortune-telling, and had ill-wished their horses.

One night, William Jeibart had banged on the front door of the Clarkes’ house, and when Mrs Clarke opened the door, Jeibart, ‘in loud and angry voice, and calling Mrs Clarke a devil, asked her to come out of the house for he would murder her that night. She asked why she was to be murdered and he said because she had ill-wished his horses’.

Mr George L. Bodilly, Mrs Clarke’s lawyer, cross-examined William Jeibart:

Bodilly: What was your grievance?

Jeibart: About the ill-wishing.

Bodilly: Have you ever been at school?

Jeibart: Yes, sir; I have been.

Bodilly: How old are you?

Jeibart: 25.

Bodilly: And, being an educated Englishman of 25, in the year 1890, pledge your oath that you believe in ill-wishing?

Jeibart: Yes, sir; I do.

Bodilly: In what way is it done?

Jeibart: I don’t know in what way it is done, but it is done.


Bodilly: On this day your mare kicked?

Jeibart: Yes.

Bodilly: And with that quickness of perception for which you are remarkable you said ‘Oh! Mrs Clarke has ill-wished it’?

Jeibart: Yes.

Bodilly: How do you connect the kicking of your mare with Mrs Clarke?

Jeibart: She is always peeping at the horse and watching it.

Bodilly: Then you are a believer in the evil eye?

Jeibart: Yes, sir.

The report concludes:

Major Ross said the bench would mark its sense of the extraordinary delusion under which the young men laboured… It was remarkable at the end of the nineteenth century to find two respectable-looking, fairly educated, and no doubt, as fairly educated religiously, young men believing such utter rubbish.

Torquay Times, and South Devon Advertiser – Friday 10 November 1899

A columnist writes:

In the present day, especially in the “West Countree,” [sic] there exist English rustics who firmly believe in the power of “ill-wishing,” and secretly, if not openly, account for many calamities by imagining themselves to have been “overlooked.”

Birmingham Daily Gazette – Wednesday 20 July 1927

Contains a report titled ‘Man Who Was “Ill-Wished”’:

An extraordinary story of rustic credulity was told to the Truro magistrates yesterday, when Mary Hearn, a gispy [sic], was charged with demanding £171 with menaces from Richard Harris Paddy, aged 75, a gardener, of St. Mawes.

It was stated that Paddy had been told he had been “illwished” and believing the gipsy woman could remove the “ill-wish,” he gave her, over a period of years, about £500.

Western Daily Press – Monday 18 November 1935

Contains an article on the suicide of Emma Bennett of Taunton, titled ‘Woman Thought Family Had Been “Ill-Wished”’. An excerpt:

At the inquest at Taunton on Saturday on Mrs Emma Bennett (49), of Portman Street, Taunton, whose body was recovered from the canal at Cheddon Fitzpaine, the dead woman’s daughter, Miss Dolly Bennett, said her mother appeared depressed on the morning of the day on which she disappeared from home.

In reply to questions from the coroner, Mr Geoffrey P. Clarke, the daughter said, “She thought there had been an ill-wish on the family, because she had been ill and there had been such a lot of trouble lately.”

It is hard to say when such beliefs finally died out, but, as late as 1965, Ernest Walter Martin wrote in his The Shearers and the Shorn: A Study of Life in a Devon Community:

Even today, in every village around Okehampton, I have found superstition still to be a proof of the evils of ignorance. Interviews with cottagers and elderly farmers brought me into touch with people who spoke with feeling about the efficacy of ‘charming’ and the power of witchcraft. These beliefs and customs have been retained by people who remain bound up with a mode of living resistant to rational ideas.[4]

Love Powders in American Folk Magic

‘Love powders’ – the use of which is purported to assist with attracting and maintaining the affections of a person of romantic interest – have a long history in the folk magical traditions of the West, particularly in Britain. In seventeenth century England they were sold by ‘quack astrologers’, in the eighteenth century they were found on the shelves of apothecary shops, and by the nineteenth century, mass-produced versions were advertised in the back pages of newspapers.[1] Such powders were originally made using traditional recipes that called for the use of various plants and animal parts, but in the age of commercial folk magic, where patent ‘medicines’ were peddled by quack ‘doctors’ via catalogues and advertisments, they were more commonly concocted using substances such as talcum powder. Of course, because ‘love powders’ do not in fact have any scientific or medical basis at all, the ingredients are ultimately irrelevant as it is the belief in their efficacy that matters.

Unsurprisingly, many of the beliefs, practices, and items found in the folk magic of the United States are derived from British and European folk magic traditions. Just as the settlers brought their language, culture, foods, and so on to the New World, so also came a variety of magical practices and items, some of which lingered on in mass-produced form well into the twentieth century.

Daniel Drake (1785-1852), founder of Cincinnati’s first medical college, was aware of the sale of love powders. Otto Juettner writes:

Drake narrates with much glee the success which two phrenologists had who opened a shop on Lower Market, and for some time did a land-office business. One of their specialities was the sale of ‘love powder’ which the young folks bought from them by the pound to adjust affairs of the heart.[2]

Seven years after Drake’s death, a book published in New York, titled Humbug: A Look at Some Popular Impositions, includes the following:

[T]he ‘love-power men’ do quite an extensive business, – advertising their stuff by means of cheap, trashy books, that are sold by catch-penny advertisements.[3]

This is reminiscent of an account found in The British Essayists (1803) by the Scottish writer Alexander Chalmers, who reported:

Some few years ago there was publicly advertised, among the other extraordinary medicines whose wonderful qualities are daily related in the last pages of our newspapers, a most efficacious love-powder; by which a despairing lover might create affection in the bosom of the most cruel mistress.[4]

In 1873, Gustav Lening wrote in his book The Dark Side of New York and its Criminal Classes:

Love powder and the power of magic are offered by very many swindlers especially in New Jersey, Massachusetts, and Michigan, as well as in New York, to abstract money from the superstitious.[5]

An 1886 edition of The Western Druggist, a Chicago-based trade publication, answers a letter from J.H. Ferris of Carthage, South Dakota, who ‘inquires if there is such a thing as “love powder,” and how it is to be used’, as follows:

Yes, love powder is a standard article, and is said to be a powerful remedy in the hands of designing maids. Its composition is of little consequence, except that it be red – a deep bright red… The powder is made of chalk colored red with carmine.[6]

In another trade publication, Meyer Brothers Druggist, Volume 13 (1892), published in St Louis, Missouri, a reader named R.E. Bertholf of Cherokee, Kansas, asks, ‘What are the so-called love powders?’ The journal’s editors respond:

Love powder is a relic of witchcraft and superstition of the dark ages. The negroes and many white people believe that physicians and pharmacists are acquainted with medicines that have the power of exciting the emotion of love in the heart of the person to whom they are administered…[7]

This reference to ‘the negroes’ having faith in the power of love powders diverges from all the previous accounts, which make no comment regarding the race of the purchasers of love powders, strongly implying that the majority of those who purchased them were white. The reference to the dark ages shows that, even here, the assumption is that love powders are of European origin. Indeed, the Practical Druggist and Pharmaceutical Review of Reviews, Volumes 17-20 (January 1905 – December 1906) similarly links love powders to the European past: ‘Love powder is a relic of the Dark Ages, when it was believed the representatives of the heathen deities could put some miraculous powers into inert powder’.[8] In the nineteenth century, then, love powder was a known product in New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, South Dakota, Kansas, and Missouri, and was not widely associated with the black population by white writers.

The 1896 edition of the journal of the International Folk-lore Association, titled Papers Read at Memphis, Atlanta and Chicago, however, notes the following:

One of the most popular kunger bags in the South is filled with love powder. It is generally made by a white man, a druggist, who is supposed to have a charm about him that he can place into the love powder and that will enable a negro youth to to win the heart of the most desperate coquette among the negro girls. The youth goes to the druggist and calls for love powder. The druggist takes a small quantity of carmine and mixes it with powdered sugar, the result being a powder of a delicate pink, more attractive to the negro eye than red lemonade when the circus is in town.[9]

Even here, we see the strong association between whites and love powders. In Newbell Niles Puckett’s 1926 study, Folk Beliefs of the Southern Negro, we find information regarding the use of love powder in the South amongst the African American population, and again, whites are found to be strongly connected the product. Puckett argues: ‘Love powders were mentioned in the old English chap-books, indicating a European origin’. [10]

Puckett notes a number of examples of the use of ‘love powder’ from Louisiana, and particularly New Orleans. Given the strong French connection in New Orleans, it is unsurprising to find that love powders were here particularly associated with France. Puckett cites an example of a black suitor paying five dollars for a ‘French love powder’ that was supposedly ‘smuggled over from France’.[11] In another case reported by Puckett, ‘A New Orleans “hoodoo-man” sold a suitor some “French Love Powder” (sugar of milk in this case) for $5’.[12]

Puckett also reports the following:

On the counter of one drug store, operated by white people, but located in the heart of the Negro district of New Orleans, I saw a big can labeled LOVE POWDERS. The owner was suspicious and could not be prevailed upon to tell me what It contained, but from the talk of the Negroes in the locality, I gathered that courtship, after all, was not purely a matter of pretty words and flowers. In fact, very often the unwilling object of the heart’s desire may be won over by these ‘good love powders’ obtained from the drug store or provided by the hoodoo-doctor.[13]

Love powders in the United States arguably find their origins in the folk magic of Europe. The particularly long history of the use of such powders in Britain may well explain how they came to the New World. While various cultures have traditional powders, oils, amulets and so on that are supposed to assist with attracting a mate, up until the twentieth century the primary sources for American folk magic were the traditions of Europe (and to a much lesser extent, those of Native Americans). We see in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that an association between African Americans and love powders began to be noted, although such an association is absent in earlier sources that refer to love powders. Even here, the person who concocts and sells the love powder is often white (although black ‘hoodoo doctors’ also offered similar items for sale) and love powders marketed to African Americans were seen to be especially powerful when they were associated with whites and with European culture.

The European Roots of African American Crossroads Magic

In his book Folk Beliefs of the Southern Negro (1926), the folklorist Newbell Niles Puckett wrote of the ‘Black Cat Bone’,[1] noting that in African American folk magic (‘hoodoo’) of the time ‘a very common belief is that wonders in conjuration may be worked by the use of a so-called “black cat bone”‘. Puckett continued:

In New Orleans this bone is obtained by boiling a black “boar” (tom) cat until the meat has completely left the bones. When this has been done, take the bones together with a small mirror and go to some cross-roads in the woods where no one will see you. Stand directly between the forks with your back to the straight road holding the mirror up before you so that the road behind is reflected. Then hold your mouth open and pass the bones, one by one, through it, looking into the mirror all the time. When you get to the right bone the mirror will become dark — you cannot see a thing in it. Don’t be afraid; hang on to that bone — it is the “black cat bone” and by putting it into your mouth you can make yourself invisible at will. But the trouble is that a man who does this automatically “signs up wid de debbil. He kin hoodoo an’ do ennything he wants in disyere world, but he sho’ done tuk his part outer de Kingdom.”

Puckett argued:

Here we have a good example of the fact that the very widespread [African American] beliefs are almost all of European origin. The black cat is, of course, a European fetish animal, though his antiquity apparently dates back to Egyptian civilization, mummified cats being found in many of the tombs. The superstition about the bone also is found among the Germans of Canada where contact with the Negroes has not taken place, thus pointing plainly to an European source.

Puckett was correct in his assertions regarding the importance of black cats in European folk beliefs. Indeed, in Britain, there is a very long tradition of superstitions surrounding black cats. Black cats are lucky in England (unless they cross your path, strangely enough), and they appear on greetings cards and as charms,[2] In his Notes on the Folk-lore of the Northern Counties of England and the Borders (1866), William Henderson reports that ‘at Scarborough, a few years back, sailors’ wives liked to keep black cats in their homes, to ensure the safety of their husbands at sea’ and cites the following ‘old north-country rhyme’:

Whenever the cat o’ the house is black
The lasses o’ lovers will have no lack [3]

In Yorkshire Notes and Queries, Volume III (1907), we read: ‘No true Yorkshire wife will shut the door on a black cat, it is a very lucky animal’.[4] To give some further examples: King Charles I reportedly believed that his black cat was incredibly lucky,[5] Winston Churchill reportedly believed that petting a black cat could counteract bad luck,[6] and an art deco sculpture of a black cat, created to ward off bad luck, has been installed in the prestigious Savoy hotel in London.[7] The commercially produced lucky black cat candles and oils found in contemporary hoodoo are likely related to these traditions.

Apparently unbeknown to Puckett, the ‘hoodoo’ instructions regarding the extraction and use of a ‘black cat bone’ are not simply vaguely based on European folk beliefs, but are, rather, lifted from a French grimoire. Grimoires – magical texts from the European tradition – became increasingly popular in hoodoo circles in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. An example of such works is The Grand Grimoire, a European magical text that became particularly popular in the 19th Century, although the book was in circulation in France at least as early as the 1770s.[8] The Grand Grimoire is clearly the source of the black cat bone instructions offered to Puckett in New Orleans. In the book, we read the following, under the heading ‘To make oneself invisible’:

Take a black cat, and a new pot, a mirror, a lighter, coal and tinder. Gather water from a fountain at the strike of midnight.

After you light your fire, and put the cat in the pot. Hold the cover with your left hand without moving nor looking behind you, no matter what noises you may hear.

After having made it boil 24 hours, putthe boiled cat on a new dish. Take the meat and throw it over your left shoulder, saying these words: “accipe quod tibi do, et nihil ampliùs.”.

Then put the bones one by one under the teeth on the left side, while looking at yourself in the mirror; and if they are do not work, throw them away, repeating the same words each time until you find the right bone; and as soon you cannot see yourselve any more in the mirror, withdraw, moving backwards, while saying: “Pater, in manus tuas commendo spiritum meum.”

This is bone you must keep.[9]

In the early nineteenth century, a new edition of The Grand Grimoire was published in France under the name Dragon Rouge. Owen Davies writes:

A spin-off from one of the conjurations in the Dragon rouge was La poule noire, the first known edition of which appeared in 1820. Its popularity was due to the treasure conjuring ritual of the same name which was notorious in eighteenth-century France. There were several variations of the tradition. One required the releasing of a black hen at the treasure site and then sacrificing it. Another consisted of the sacrificing of a black hen at a crossroads or cross around midnight in conjunction with a conjuration to call up the devil.[10]

Amongst the folklorist Harry Middleton Hyatt’s extensive interviews with practitioners of African American folk magic, conducted in the 1930s, we find the following example, encountered in Fayetteville, North Carolina:

Jes’ lak if yo’ wanta learn some tricks, yo’ know, yo’ kin take a black chicken an’ go dere fo’ nine mawnin’s, to de fo’k of de road. Have yo’ a further road — both of ’em public roads each way, not no blind roads, yo’ know. Both of ’em have tuh be public roads, forkin’. Yo’ take dis chicken an’ go dere fo’ nine mawnin’s an’ on de ninth mawnin’ de devil will meet chew dere. An’ he will learn — well, anything yo’ wanta learn.[11]

In other similar accounts, the chicken is also sacrificed as part of the process of raising the Devil. In La poule noire, the aim is to be given treasure, while in the hoodoo accounts, it is instead knowledge, but the essentials are clearly the same, with a ritual at the crossroads, involving a black chicken, the raising of the Devil, and a reward at the end. It seems highly likely that, just as the ‘black cat bone’ method for supposedly gaining invisibility was derived from a European grimoire, so also crossroads rituals such as that involving the black chicken also find their origins in European traditions.

Puckett reports another African American tradition, involving a nocturnal visit to a crossroads, during which the Devil is raised, a contract is made involving the selling of one’s soul, and the reward is musical ability and, indeed, ‘the ability to do anything’. A black cat bone also makes an appearance:

A New Orleans conjurer described the procedure to me as follows: If you want to make a contract with the devil, first trim your finger nails as close as you possibly can. Take a black cat bone and a guitar and go to a lonely fork in the roads at midnight. Sit down there and play your best piece, thinking of and wishing for the devil all the while. By’ and by you will hear music, dim at first but growing louder and louder as the musician approaches nearer. Do not look around; just keep on playing your guitar. The unseen musician will finally sit down by you and play in unison with you. After a time you will feel something tugging at your instrument. Do not try to hold it. Let the devil take it and keep thumping along with your fingers as if you still had a guitar in your hands. Then the devil will hand you his instrument to play and will accompany you on yours. After doing this for a time he will seize your fingers and trim the nails until they bleed, finally taking his guitar back and returning your own. Keep on playing; do not look around. His music will become fainter and fainter as he moves away. When all is quiet you may go home. You will be able to play any piece you desire on the guitar and you can do anything you want to do in this world, but you have sold your eternal soul to the devil and are his in the world to come. One of this informant’s acquaintances sold himself to the devil in this way. He could then do anything. Put him in a refrigerator-car and lock the door with a “Yale lock”; the man would meet you as you walked away. He could make himself so small that no jail bars could hold him, and, through his power of invisibility could take anything he wanted from the stores without fear of detection.[12]

Here we see the basis for the well-known legend of the Mississippi bluesman Robert Johnson supposedly selling his soul to the Devil at a crossroads and being gifted with his musical talent in return.[13] While Johnson apparently never made this claim about himself, another earlier Mississippi bluesman, Tommy Johnson (no relation), certainly did claim to have sold his soul to the Devil, presumably following a similar procedure.[14]

As with the black cat bone, this hoodoo story regarding selling one’s soul to the Devil at a crossroads has strong antecedents in European lore. Indeed, while spiritual happenings at crossroads appear in a number of cultures, this particular narrative theme dates back to the Middle Ages in Europe, in the form of the story of Faust (also called Faustus or Doctor Faustus), ‘hero of one of the most durable legends in Western folklore and literature, the story of a German necromancer or astrologer who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for knowledge and power’.[15] The Faustbuch (1587) introduced readers to the character of Faust and his story, and the book was ‘speedily translated and read throughout Europe’, with an English prose translation being published in 1592.

The 1587 edition of the Faust story begins:

Johann Faustus was born in Roda in the province of Weimar, of God-fearing parents.

Although he often lacked common sense and understanding, at an early age he proved himself a scholar, mastering not only the Holy Scriptures, but also the sciences of medicine, mathematics, astrology, sorcery, prophesy, and necromancy.

These pursuits aroused in him a desire to commune with the Devil, so–having made the necessary evil preparations–he repaired one night to a crossroads in the Spesser Forest near Wittenberg. Between nine and ten o’clock he described certain circles with his staff and thus conjured up the Devil.[16]

The Faustbuch inspired a number of other works based on the story, including a 1604 Elizabethan tragedy by Christopher Marlowe titled The Tragical History of D. Faustus and, of course, the early nineteenth century German play, Faust, by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. The story also unsurprisingly finds echoes in Western occultism, with an example being found in an account given in the 1705 English text An Historical, Physiological and Theological Treatise of Spirits, Apparitions, Witchcrafts, and other Magical Practices. In this book, ‎John Beaumont reports a story recounted by ‘Mr. Bedford, Minister of Temple Parish in Bristol’, which tells of a Thomas Jerps of Gloucester, who sought to commune with spirits at a crossroads:

I ask’d him several particulars concerning the method he used, and the discourse he had had with the Spirits; He told me he had a Book whose directions he followed, and accordingly, in the dead time of the Night, he went to a cross way, with a Lanthorn and Candle, which were Consecrated for this purpose, with several Incantations: He had also a Consecrated Chalk, having a mixture of several things within it; and with this he used to make a Circle at what distance he thought fit, within which no Spirit had power to enter; after this he Invoked the Spirits, by using several forms of Words; some of which he told me were taken out of the Scriptures, and therefore he thought them lawful.[17]

Jerps had reportedly ‘Discoursed with them [the spirits], and heard them Sing, &c. to his great Satisfaction’. Of the music, we read:

[H]e could hear a pleasant Consort, but of such Musick, of which he never heard the like; and in the upper part he could hear something very harsh and shrill like a Reed, but as it was managed, gave a particular Grace to all the rest.

Even the notion of hearing music of a supernatural nature at the crossroads was already present in British folk magic, then, long before accounts of its inclusion in hoodoo beliefs appeared.

As we have seen, the African American belief in the efficacy of the ‘black cat bone’ is derived from a European grimoire. It seems very likely that the African American narratives regarding selling one’s soul to the Devil at the crossroads, and possibly those of hearing the Devil playing music at the crossroads, are also derived from similar European traditions, rather than simply being relics of pre-slavery African belief.