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How Rhode Island’s slaves came to be world-class chefs

George T. Downing, noted Newport caterer, with his family.

Rhode Island’s African-American culinary history is unique, says Robb Dimmick, program director for Stages of Freedom, a nonprofit promoting black cultural events. “We are not talking about soul food. That’s a Southern invention. We are talking about slaves working at the highest level of chocolate and turtles. The finest cheese in the world in the 16-, 17-, and early 1800s was out of Narragansett and other parts of South County, all produced by slaves. There was an extraordinary level of mastery.” In Newport, then a major slave port, the affluent and influential expected nothing less.

This history is being showcased in Stages of Freedom’s “Opening the Oyster: A Black Culinary Arts Experience,” which includes a meal of dishes created by African-American chefs of Rhode Island during the 18th and 19th centuries. Some highlights: oyster dishes by famed Newport caterer George T. Downing and Emmanuel Bernoon, the first person to open a restaurant in Colonial Providence; mock turtle soup by “turtle specialist” Cuffy Cockroach (“he would organize what were known as turtle frolics. . . . He would take all the fine silver and porcelain and linens and go on a boat to a small island off Newport and create these events”); and the frosted plum cake of Charity “Duchess” Quamino , a.k.a. the Pastry Queen of Rhode Island, who served George Washington twice and purchased her freedom with money made by selling baked goods.


There will also be a slideshow and talk by Dimmick and a performance of food-related songs by Rose Weaver. Proceeds from the event help finance swimming lessons for children of color.

“Opening the Oyster” takes place Feb. 27 at noon at Pot au Feu, 44 Custom House St.,Providence. Tickets are $100; go to www.stagesoffreedom.org. DEVRA FIRST

Devra First can be reached at dfirst@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @devrafirst.