A Newport Rhode Island Turtle Feast, 1767

Hawksbill in the Caribbean, c/o Hoffryan Wikipedia Project

Special thanks to Jim Chevallier http://www.chezjim.com for bringing this to my attention.  I knew there were turtle and rum feasts in the colonial North, but there we are! THE cooks!

In Newport a Guinea Coast negro named Cuffy Cockroach, the slave of Mr. Jahleel Brenton, was deemed the prince of turtle cooks. He was lent far and wide for these turtle-feasts, and was hired out at taverns.

Cuffy=Kofi=Friday; a day name from what is now Ghana, formerly the Gold Coast.  Among Twi speaking Akan and those neighbors among whom the custom is shared, a child is often named according to the day they were born.  The custom persisted into the early twentieth century especially among African American communities in the Carolina Lowcountry.  If the name “Friday” sounds familiar, just think of the marooned African in Treasure Island.  The tradition was known in the colonial North, the British West Indies, and other regions.  l

There were no entertainments more popular, from the middle of the past century to the early years of this one, than “turtle frolics,” what Burnaby called turtle-feasts. Every sea-captain who sailed to the West Indies intended and was expected to bring home a turtle on the return voyage; and if he were only to touch at the West Indies and thence pass on to more distant shores, he still tried, if possible, to secure a turtle and send it home by some returning vessel. In no seaport town did the turtle frolic come to a higher state of perfection than in Newport. Scores of turtles were borne to that welcoming shore. In 1752 George Bresett, a Newport gentleman, sailed to the West Indies, Indies, and promptly did a neighborly and civic duty by sending home to his friend Samuel Freebody, a gallant turtle and a generous keg of limes. Lime juice was the fashionable and favorite “souring” of the day, to combine with arrack and Barbadoes rum into a glorious punch. The turtle arrived in prime condition, and Freebody handed the prize over to a slave-body named Cuffy Cockroach. He was a Guinea Coast negro, of a race who were (as I have noted before) the most intelligent of all the Africans brought as slaves to these shores. Any negro who acquired a position of dignity or trust or skill in this country, in colonial days, was sure to be a Guinea-boy. Cuffy Cockroach followed the rule, by filling a position of much dignity and trust and skill — as turtle-cook. He was a slave of Jaheel Brenton, but he cooked turtle for the entire town. The frolic was held at Fort George, on Goat Island, on December 23. The guests, fifty ladies and gentlemen, sailed over in a sloop, and were welcomed with hoisted flag and salute of cannon. The dinner was served at two, tea at five, and then dancing begun. Pea Straw, Faithful Shepherd.

There were many substantial, home-like mansions in Newport then—the British mapmaker to the contrary notwithstanding—and its population lived in a plain but comfortable style. Money was plenty, and lotteries were legal. Merchants and professional men wore cockedhats, wigs, knee-breeches, and silver buckled shoes, fullcut vests, frilled shirt-fronts and cambric stocks; carried ebony canes with ivory heads, and altogether presented a figure worthy of the best models of the times in the old countries. With half an eye one may see now one of those prosperous Newport merchants standing in a low-ceiled, white wainscotted dining room, at a sideboard of Santo Domingo mahogany, mixing in a decorated china bowl a brew of arrack punch, a mixture then never out of place in Newport. West Indian and Medford rum were blended with arrack, lime juice and sugar with such skill, one may believe, that a better kind of punch was never made. The art of mixing arrack punch was esteemed as highly as the skill of a good cook, and Newport had many mixers and cooks who could prepare punch and turtle to satisfy the most exacting seafaring epicures.

It was the custom of Newport captains sailing to the West Indies to bring or send home a turtle whenever opportunity offered. With the turtle usually came a keg of limes, the juice of which was esteemed in punch. A noted turtle cook was Cuffy Cockroach—they were not particular what name they gave a slave. Cuffy was brought from the coast of Guinea when a youth, and had learned to cook in the home of Jaheel Brenton, one of the solid men of Newport, whose hospitality was famous, and whose name we speak to-day in naming Brenton’s reef, for his country house stood on the point overlooking that spur of death. When a fine turtle was received in proper season, it was served picnic fashion at some convenient point, Cuffy being the chef. One notable party was held on Goat Island, on December 23, 1767,

Limes, Wtstoffs/Wikipedia

One of the unique American festivities with which the Frenchmen were entertained was a “Turtle Party.” It was customary for a captain of a vessel to bring home among his cargo a large sea tortoise, a keg of limes and some Barbadoes rum to form the chief features of a ” Turtle Party.” This was a sort of picnic given by a score of men to as many women. The’ turtle meat was cooked in various ways, to be eaten by the company at a two o’clock dinner. The rum and limes formed the chief constituents of the punch which abounded. The dinner was served on Liverpool ware, blue and brown, with cream-colored edges. The covers of the vegetable dishes were molded into the forms of pies, tarts and other devices, and the tureens were made to resemble roasted turkeys. The ladies sat at one side of the table and the men at the other. At five o’clock tea was served, and after that they usually danced until ten.

Cuffy Cockroach (this is a veritable name) was acknowledged to excel as a turtle cook. In fact, to say that Cuffy had had a hand in any dinner was enough to awaken the keenest expectations. He was a negro, brought from Guinea in his youth, and attained his name and fame in Newport kitchens. Often have we heard old Newport people use the expressions, “grand as Cuffy” and “that is almost as well as Cuffy could do.”

To undo some of the ecological damage done by this practice and pollution see www.conserveturtles.org for more information!


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About michaelwtwitty

I am a Judaics teacher and Culinary Historian focusing on the foodways of Africa, enslaved African Americans, African America and the African and Jewish diasporas.
This entry was posted in African American Food History, Food and Slavery. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to A Newport Rhode Island Turtle Feast, 1767

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