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  • Writer's pictureNancy Rogers

Baby Sister

THIS IS THE SECOND INSTALLMENT OF THREE ABOUT CHARLOTTE'S PUNISHMENT


Charlotte’s father was furious with her; she had gone against his specific orders and she could have been swallowed up by the plantation at night. More over, she risked disrespecting the People and their traditions.

Charlotte’s punishment was to be two weeks of kitchen duty, and she was expected to follow Cook’s orders without complaint. Following the two weeks, she was to report back to Papa.

Cook’s given name was Zephaniah, which she didn’t like on account of it being a boy’s name and all, so Charlotte was told to call her Baby Sister. Charlotte hadn’t been there five-seconds before Baby Sister sat her down at the work table and handed her a big yellow potato.

Then she gave her a paring knife and told her to teach herself to use it. There wasn’t much of the potato left by the time she was through, but she got it peeled. She nicked her thumb once, but it didn’t break the skin, so she kept going. “If you cut yourself next time, just stick the bleeding part in your mouth ‘til it stops,” Baby Sister said. “If you think you’re going to bleed to death, come show it to me.”

ON THE RIGHT IS AN ORIGINAL BUILDING AT MANSFIELD PLANTATION THOUGHT TO BE EITHER THE LAUNDRY HOUSE OR ONE OF THE MANY KITCHENS.


Charlotte’s next job was to sweep the floor beneath the biscuit table. The floor in that part of the kitchen was made of four-by-four-inch pavers nearly two-inches thick. Charlotte knew how thick they were because she’d seen some of them pulled up and repositioned earlier that year. Baby Sister said they get lopsided over time since they’re laid up dry, and if they’re not lined up good, someone will eventually trip, and the pot roast ends up on the floor.

THIS PHOTOGRAPH WAS TAKEN IN A RESTORED CABIN AT LATTA PLANTATION. YOU CAN SEE HOW DIFFICULT IT WOULD HAVE BEEN TO KEEP THE FLOORS CLEAN.

Over the next two weeks, Charlotte must have done every dirty job in the kitchen, except cooking, on account of Baby Sister not trusting her to do it right, but she did stir every pot and kettle. She polished Mamma’s silver with lemon juice and salt. She cleaned copper with catchup, scrubbed tabletops with vinegar, and learned that you can soak off cooked-on crud in a bath of water and soda ash.

“Valuable lessons,” Baby Sister proclaimed.

Charlotte was a miserable failure, however, at whipping egg whites because her muscles weren’t strong enough; swinging a kettle over the fire, again, weak muscles, and gutting a fish. That was her biggest failure by far. She’d never even seen fish guts before, when Baby Sister handed her a washtub containing a fish big enough to put a saddle on. She named him Jonah.


THIS PHOTOGRAPH IS OF ONE OF THE ORIGINAL KITCHENS AT HAMPTON PLANTATION. IT IS THE KIND OF KITCHEN THAT I PICTURED CHARLOTTE WORKING IN.



When Baby Sister told her to cut an opening along the bottom edge of Jonah’s belly, and then to dig out his guts, Charlotte started gagging. “Just keep at it,” Baby Sister told her. “You’ll get used to it,” but she didn’t. She gagged again and ran out the door to throw up. Jonas landed on the floor, guts and all, and Charlotte only got as far as the porch.

After her stomach settled, she expected sympathy. Instead Baby Sister handed her a bucket and a scrub brush and told her to clean up the porch.

She was good at other jobs, though. She learned to separate egg yokes from the whites, snip white sugar, sift flour, measure molasses sugar—you have to press it into the measuring cup to get it measured right—grind coffee, tell the difference between flat and curly parsley, get butter out of a butter mold, and with some assistance from Baby Sister, she even trussed a turkey.

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