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Sunday, December 22, 2013

What Did the Slaves Eat When They Arrived in America?

Research conducted by Lynne Olver, editor The Food Timeline

"It is difficult to assess the abundance or the quality of average Southern food in the absence of an average Southerner--that is, a member of the middle class, for there was not much middle class to occupy the wide gap between the plantation owner and the poor white, a group which already existed in those times and could hardly expect to rise to any comfortable standards of living in competition with the unpaid labor of slaves. The famous "hog and hominy" diet was at least rendered a little less unhealthy by the prevalence on the Southern menu of greens, often ignored by food writers, perhaps as a food so lowly as to be unworthy of their attention, but providers of vitamins all the same. A significant passage in Frederick Law Olmsted's Seabord Slave States, a product of his travels of the 1850s, suggests that slaves may have enjoyed a diet better balanced than that of may whites. Olmsted remarked that the more modest Southern planters lived on bacon (sometimes cooked with turnip greens), corn pone, coffee sweetened with molasses, and not much else, while their slaves had corn meal and salt pork, plus sweet potatoes of their own raising in the winter. Some owners encouraged the Negroes to grow vegetables for themselves also, because thy discovered that "negroes fed on three-quarters of a pound of bread and bacon are more prone to disease than if with less meat but with vegetables." It did not occur to the masters to draw any conclusions from this empirical observation for their own benefit."
---Eating in America: A History, Waverly Root & Richard de Rochemont [William Morrow and Company:New York] 1976 (p. 145)

"Corn and pork were Southern staples of diets for both master and slave. The master might have delicate puddings and hot breads, rich with eggs and cream, and thin slices of choice smoked ham, while his slaves at mush and chitlins; but it was still corn and pork. The rations issued in "The Quarters" were likely to be light on meat, with hominy or sweet potatoes added to the ration of cornmeal. On some plantations work was assigned by task. Workers who finished early might have the rest of the day to fish or hunt, to work in their own vegetable gardens, or to tend their own livestock, varying, when possibly, the monotonous rations. From the big house rations plus what the slaves could grow, hunt, or catch for themselves, grew the beginnings of the cuisine we today call "soul food"."
---Better Homes and Gardens Heritage Cook Book [Meredith Corporation:New York] 1975 (p. 145)
[NOTE: this book contains several popular period recipes adapted for modern kitchens]

"The cultivation of their own crops by slaves during the free time that they task system afforded them made a strong impression on white observers. Johann Bolzius explained that "they are given as much land as they can handle" and that "they plant for themselves also on Sundays." Hans Trachsler, a German visitor to Carolina, noted the slaves' system of self-provisioning by explaining how "these people were worth a high price because they are much more able to do the work and much cheaper to keep in food and drink than the Europeans."...Reflecting their extensive backcountry interaction with Native Americans, slaves leavened with West African diet with a number of Native American methods of food acquisition...Janet Schaw, a visitor to Carolina, noted that "Negroes are the only people that seem to pay any attention to the various uses that the wild vegetables may be put to." Slaves routinely shot and ate opossum, deer, rabbits, and raccoon...Carolina slaves further supplemented their diet with ample amounts of fish...In addition to corn, rice, beans, and pumpkins, archaeological excavations have unearthed evidence of peach pits, walnuts, and grape seeds...For all the abundance of grains, vegetables, and fruit that slaves grew in their "little piece[s] of land," domestic animals were virtually nonexistent. For meat, they depended on their masters, and their masters proved to be less than reliable--if not completely negligent--suppliers. One slave overseer mentions that slaves "never had any meat except at Christmas." Excavations show almost no proof of domestic beef or pork. "If a master wishes," Bolzius explained, "He gives them a little meat when he slaughters," but otherwise "their food is nothing but Indian corn, beans, pounded rice, potatoes, pumpkins."
---A Revolution in Eating: How the Quest for Food Shaped America, James E. McWilliams [Columbia University Press:New York] 2005 (p. 158-162)


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