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Eating the Past: The Pastry Queen of Rhode Island

An upside-down cake with plums on top.
A plum upside-down cake.

On Eating the Past, we often focus more on the food than the cooks who prepare it. Today, then, is a chance to highlight both the state of Rhode Island and a famous pastry chef in that state, Charity "Duchess" Quamino.

In recent years, Duchess Quamino has been the subject of a number of popular newspaper articles, including one in the Boston Globe, so word about her skills and her impact on Newport cuisine is becoming better known.

Quamino was born in West Africa, probably near or in modern-day Ghana, sometime in the 18th century. She was enslaved as young person, then brought to New England by the 1750s. Her owners were Lucy and William Channing, affluent and well-connected members of Newport, Rhode Island's elite. She learned cooking and baking in their kitchen along with other household skills.

Two things changed the trajectory of her future: first, she was a talented baker, which allowed her to start her own catering business. She was especially known for her plum cake. The second major change came when she became a free woman in 1780, either through purchasing her own freedom or because the Channings signed manumission papers. By the time she was free, she had been married to John Quamino, a slave educated at the College of New Jersey (Princeton). Her husband, a privateer during the revolution, died in that conflict, but only after training as a missionary and purchasing his own freedom. After his death, Duchess had to raise their children and make her own way in the world, and baking became her route to success.

The "Duchess," who was known to her friends as Charity, appears to have been a shrewd businesswoman with a talent for self-promotion, and she must have possessed considerable charm and connections. The Channings often opened their kitchen for her to use for her catering, especially when she was getting started, and Quamino herself told people she was the daughter of an African prince. Because she was the pious widow of an educated aspiring minister, Charity also had a large presence in the Newport Christian community.

Eventually she was known throughout the region as the "Pastry Queen of Rhode Island" for her catered sweets. She bought a house in Newport, continued to cater until her death in 1804, and served as a model for future abolitionists. On her gravestone (she's buried in the Newport Main Cemetery), the inscription reads: 'In memory of Duchess Quamino, a free black of distinugished excellence; intelligent, industrious, affectionate, honest, and of exemplary piety." The inscription was the work of William Ellery Channing, her former owners' son. It is not hard to imagine that her time in the Channing household and her success as a businesswoman helped inspire William to become an abolitionist preacher.

Interestingly enough, several enslaved people "cooked their way to freedom" according to an article by Nneka Okona, including Cuffy Cockroach – the first caterer in Newport – and Elleanor Eldridge, a cheesemaker in Warwick, Rhode Island.

Newport – a slaving capitol of New England and later the site of pleasure palaces of the rich and famous – in this story features as a place of emancipation through food, where talented and entrepreneurial colonial-era slaves could win both independence and success by cooking.

Plum Cake
(8 servings)

½ c. unsalted butter (softened)
1 lb pitted plums, cut in halves
1 ¾ c. sugar
½ c. water
½ chopped walnuts
3 eggs
1 c. all purpose flour
1 t. cinnamon
1 t. baking powder
1 t. vanilla

Butter a 10-inch pie or springform pan and preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Arranged the plums cut side down in circular design. Mix 1 c of sugar with water in pan and cook/stir until you've created an amber-colored caramel sauce. Pour over plums in pan and top with walnuts.

Cream the butter and remaining sugar in mixer, then add eggs one at a time. Mix together dry ingredients and add to batter along with vanilla. Spread batter over caramel/nut/plum mix.

Bake 30 minutes, remove and cool. Then unmold onto a dish. Dust with powdered sugar if desired.

Tammy Proctor is a specialist in European history, gender, war, and youth. Dr. Proctor has written about Scouting, women spies and the way war affects the lives of ordinary people. Currently she is writing a book on American food relief to Europe during and after World War I. She has worked at Utah State University since 2013 and is a native of Kansas City, Missouri.