The Hardest Research Question

When people find out that you’re writing a historical novel, they always ask how you do your research. I tell them I had an unfair advantage, since I earned a doctorate in American social history when the topic of eternal fascination was slavery. I spent more years than I care to remember reading, writing, talking, and thinking about the peculiar institution. I had the big questions firmly in my mind, and the big answers—the economy of cotton slavery, the cultural world the slaves made, and the great rift that tore the United States apart in the middle of the 19th century—were stuck in my mind for good.

Once I started writing fiction, there were smaller questions that I hadn’t read or talked about in graduate school. All of them had to do with the details of everyday life, some of which propelled the story, and many of which pulled the reader into the world of the 19th century. Those I had to figure out.

How many miles does a mule travel in a day? About twenty-five, depending on the road and the mule. How many bushels of corn can a Georgia Piedmont farmer raise on an acre of land? About a hundred, which makes a hundred bushels of corn meal. How many pounds of cotton in a ginned and pressed bale? Between a thousand and twelve hundred, depending on who ginned and baled it. What did northern Georgians eat for breakfast? For breakfast, and for every meal, some version of “hog and hominy”—cowpeas with sidemeat and cornpone if they were slaves or poor whites, ham and cornbread if they were better off.

Which led me to the hardest research question—not the biggest, or the most significant, but the hardest to answer. What kind of grease did Jews in antebellum Georgia cook their food in?

Even if they were lax about the dietary laws, Jews would have hesitated to use what their non-Jewish neighbors used—bacon grease or lard. Jews who immigrated after 1900 found corn oil in America, which was first commercially produced in 1889. But antebellum Southerners turned their surplus corn into whiskey, not cooking oil.

What the antebellum South also had in surplus was cotton seed. Nearly half the weight of picked cotton was in seed, which the process of ginning removed. Even after using the seed for its proper purpose—growing more cotton—there was plenty left over. I knew that cotton seed could be pressed to make oil, but I didn’t know if it was edible. The history of Crisco provided the clue.

Crisco, introduced in 1911 as an alternative to lard, was hydrogenated vegetable oil. Cottonseed oil, processed to give it a texture similar to lard.

No one hydrogenated cottonseed oil in the antebellum South—in fact, commercially-produced cottonseed oil had to wait for the later 19th century—but cotton seed could be pressed into oil, and it was fine for cooking. Parve, neutral, to use the technical term. So that was the answer to the hardest research question.

Cottonseed oil.