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Carolyn Mason (00:15):
Hello and welcome to “Bigger Fish to Fry,” a podcast that dives deep into the health and diet of enslaved people in the antebellum South. While we focusing on how enslaved people cook for themselves, as well as how what they ate was reflected in their health. I’m your host, Carolyn Mason. And I’m so excited to share this project with you. It’s been a real labor of love to not only do the research that supports this show, but also to reach out to experts, obtain equipment, to record, and then to actually do the recording. Each episode of this series, we’ll discuss an important aspect of the broader subject of enslaved foodways and their effect on people, including food, history, nutrition, and the legacy of these topics on modern populations. These episodes are by no means comprehensive, but I hope that they’ll give you just a taste of the research and information that is available about the diet health and legacy of enslaved people.
Carolyn Mason (01:03):
Before we begin, I want to discuss a few things about this subject and how I will be addressing it. My purpose is to create something that illuminates what the lives of enslaved people were like. Their lives were important and complex, and when analyzing history, we should reflect and celebrate that. We should also make the research accessible to descendant populations who often don’t have their history discussed in public settings. History about enslavement does not have to be completely sober retellings of the horrors of this period. Instead, we can celebrate the lives that these people carved out for themselves and the culture that they were able to create under such harsh conditions. One last comment I want to make before we get into the grit of today’s topic is that the subject of this podcast is enslaved people, not slaves. Slavery was a condition that these people were forced to live under, but it did not and does not define them as people. It was a professor of mine, Keith Clark, who first broke down the distinction and names to me and impressed upon me, the importance of what we call people and the impact the name has and how we perceive others. I will make every effort to not dehumanize enslaved people further by referring to them as slaves and let’s get into it.
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Carolyn Mason (02:11):
Today’s episode focuses on the food history of enslaved people, meaning what they ate, how they ate it, and why. Over the course of my research, I’ve encountered several scholars remarking on the dichotomy of the modern presentation of Africa, as a quote, hungry continent with the rich diversity of edible plants and animals that developed there. Some examples of these edible foods include black-eyed peas, which are also referred to as cow peas, rice, yams, and millet. Many of these foods were brought from Africa on the middle passage, the journey from Africa to what is now the United States. In order to maintain their human cargo, captains of slave ships had to ensure that their ships carried enough food. The food that was kept for enslaved people varied, but it was often of African origin, such as rice, millet, yams, or other types of foods, including those we mentioned before. The reasoning behind this was the idea that people subsist better on the foods that they’re used to, a concept discussed in more depth in the shadows of slavery by Judith Carney. Food that was eaten and made this journey with enslaved people often takes on a mythic quality. In my own household, and in stories from my extended family, we often referenced the ingenuity of our ancestors- the African people brought over under brutal conditions. I can remember specifically my aunts discussing how mothers on slave ships would give their children seeds for them to eat wherever they ended up with or without their mother. While this folklore may not be present for all the foods that made the journey from Africa to the new world,there is no doubt that it was the African people who made this food grow and thrive.
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Carolyn Mason (03:42):
So what were enslaved people eating when they originally arrived and settled in the new world? Rice was an abundant crop and something that enslaved people were familiar with growing, preparing, and eating in Africa because of its versatility. It was brought over and cultivated in the Americas as a cash crop. It was a particularly popular way to make money by cultivating the several varieties of rice available. A well cited advertisement from the 1780s mentions how rice was related to some of the qualities that were of high value in buying and selling enslaved people. In this specific advertisement, African people were brought over from the quote windward and rice coast, and then sold in Ashley Ferry, South Carolina. This area, which is also known as the Low Country is home to the Gullah Geechee culture, descendants of Africans who were enslaved on rice and cotton plantations up the lower Atlantic coast.
Carolyn Mason (04:28):
These Africans are often brought from West Africa for their expertise in growing these cash crops. The concentration of enslaved people from similar areas allowed for a unique and vibrant culture to grow in this area, a culture which continues to flourish today. On the Bigger Fish to Fry website, you can find links to websites discussing modern Gullah Geechee culture, including their language, cultural practices and food history if you want to learn more. In the places where rice was grown, like the Low Country of South Carolina, as I mentioned, it was often provided by planters to enslaved individuals as food rations. Although plantation records suggest that this was an adequate ration to give someone every week for their whole lives, make no mistake. The rice or even corn meal that enslaved people were receiving was not an indicator of care or quality being taken in the rations for enslaved people and slave people had to work to supplement their diets, including interacting with the people who originally occupied the land they were now living on. I spoke with Dr. Robert Gilmer who wrote the article “Native American Contributions to African American foodways: Slavery, Colonialism, and Cuisine,” about the interaction between enslaved people and the native people living in close proximity to plantations in order to learn more about how enslaved people were influenced by indigenous food ways and vice versa.
Robert Gilmer (05:37):
And in part here, I guess there’s a couple of different kinds of, of history, you know, as you’ve alluded to, um, you know, there there’s kind of folk history or like history that’s being passed down in families. Um, and then there’s also sort of like a scholarly history. Um, and the scholarly side of that, I could probably speak to a little bit more directly. Uh, and I was saying earlier, it’s in many ways, I think it’s been kind of a romanticized notion of, of, of how, how many of these interactions occurred. Typically there it’s depicted as being a collaboration, you know, peoples who were both, um, marginalized, who are being oppressed by a kind of, you know, dominant European or you’re American, um, as a society. And there’s definitely some of that going on. In new England, you had cases where there was a period in the late 17 hundreds, early 18 hundreds, where you have native American societies that are increasingly kind of, sort of surrounded by, by Euro American settlements.
Robert Gilmer (06:45):
Many Native American men were involved in the whaling industry, which was really big in New England at the time. And so, you know, it, it offered a chance for people to get good wages, but it also meant that you’re typically gone for maybe two years at a time. Maybe you come back and stay, but a lot of cases, maybe you drop in and then leave again. And so you had, um, like lots of Native American men who are gone, but more Native American women who were staying behind. And that also there tended to be a higher prevalence of, you kn African-American men who were being kept as slaves and, um, basically in colonial new England. And so one of the theories is that you have a lot of intermarriage there between African-American men and native American women in part, because again, both groups are sort of are being ostracized by, you know, white Euro-American, uh, society there and they are kind of finding common cause with each other and in other places in the South, uh, the Seminole are probably one of the, the main examples of this, where you had a Native American nation that was very accepting, at least, uh, at certain times to, um, to incorporating runaway slaves then to, into their nation. And so again, there’s, there definitely is a real history of that.
Carolyn Mason (07:59):
Um, I know in my family, so my, my grandmother was born in Southport, North Carolina. And like, they, there, they, from what I’ve heard that the family owned a lot of land and the, it was enslaved people, but also it was native American people who once owned the land and that there was like a, uh, mixing and like a lot of contribution like between the two of them. So I think like this topic is super interesting to see like, like I have an oral history of that. But what, like what is the historical record?
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Carolyn Mason (08:33):
So we know that the rations weren’t good enough for enslaved people to subsist on otherwise they wouldn’t have had to resort to going off the plantation to find food, but what exactly were the rations, even like many plantations followed guides to determine how much and what kind of food was given to enslave people? Du Bow’s review was a popular magazine and used by planters in the American South that guided plantation management. In it they described the recommended rations for enslaved people based on their status on the plantation. Work and productivity, determined the amount of food provided. In most cases, plantation owners and overseers played a delicate game, balancing how little they could provide enslaved people while also extracting as much work and labor as possible. According to the archeological evidence presented in “Excavating the South African-American Food History,” when harder work was required, molasses and sweetmeats could be given out to some enslaved people. Alcohol was also used as an incentive or reward by the overseers of a plantation for the desired behavior of the enslaved people. Sometimes enslaved workers in the house were able to obtain sweets and other amenities simply based on their proximity, but generally the most calories were reserved for those doing the heaviest labor in the fields. They were also distinctions made on productivity. Based on age, adults were given twice the amount of children, as it was assumed that they were doing much more labor and being much more productive in the eyes of the plantation owner. Once again, the amount and type of food varied, but generally children receive scanty amounts of food from the plantation owner, as well as the least appetizing. In Frederick Douglass’s “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglas, an American Slave,” he describes children eating like pigs.
Carolyn Mason (10:07):
His exact words are: “Our food was coarse cornmeal boiled. This was called mush. It was put into a large wooden tray or trough and sat down upon the ground. The children were then called like so many pigs and like so many pigs, they would come and devour the mush. Some with oyster shells, others with pieces of shingle, some with naked hands and none with spoons. He that ate fastest got most. He that was the strongest secured the best place. And few left the trough satisfied.
Carolyn Mason (10:36):
This is a literal image of how enslaved children may have eaten, as on some plantations, they were provided their rations in literal pig troughs, sometimes even next to livestock. Without forks spoons or other silverware enslaved children born into the condition of their mothers were forced to eat with their hands or pieces of shell or other found a breeze and fight one another for the meager scraps that they were given. In addition to the lack of food for children, unruly slaves and the sick were also given lesser amounts of food than the most productive workers on the plantation. While plantation guides do specify that enslaved people should never be given less than their original allotment and that they should be given high quality ingredients, the allotments were not filled with essential nutrients. Rations included a communal pot of meat twice a week, and a limited quantity of potatoes and grits often cooked by enslave women, who were also working on the plantation and helping to care for children and the elderly. A staple in the diet of enslaved people was corn meal, which could be cooked into things like corn bread and then crumbled and eaten. In areas where rice was popular, it often replaced the corn enslaved people received as a part of their rations. The main takeaway from the literature about enslaved people’s rations was that they were stagnant and reminiscent of how an owner would prepare and allocate to feed his lifestyle.
Carolyn Mason (11:48):
In a cooking demonstration by Kelly Dietz and Dontavius Williams titled “American Foodways,” I was able to learn that stews were one amazing way that enslaved people were able to cook their food. In their example, okra, which serves as a thickener, tomatoes, meat, and potlicker vegetable water that was boiled into a stock were added to stews to create a hardy, if not nutritious meal. Recipes like this were common for enslaved people who needed dishes that could be cooked while they worked, according to Kevin Mitchell in “From Black Hands to White Mouths”. Cooking was an essential way to add nutrients to food, as well as to add flavors and textures that otherwise would not be present in the ingredients that they were given and able to find on their own. Although black cooking in America is now known for its flavor and heavy use of seasonings, these parts of diet and cooking were also subject to the limitations enslaved people had with materials and time. Instead of carefully choosing which dried herbs and spices to use with a specific dish like we do in cooking today, many enslaved cooks utilize things like kitchen pepper. Kitchen pepper was a spice blend using plantation kitchens, which had a different recipe and ingredient list depending on which plantation you were looking at. Like many parts of plantation life seasonings changed depending on the area and specific plantation you were in.
Carolyn Mason (12:56):
According to Michael Twitty’s recipe, author of “The Cooking Gene,” kitchen pepper may have included black pepper, ginger cardamom, allspice cinnamon, cloves, and even mace. Salt did not play as large of a role in these blends because the meat that was used in cooking most of the time was already salted for preservation. The seasonings could have been used in a variety of ways, including to season dishes that supplemented enslaved rations such as fried catfish or fried squirrel. A great book that synthesizes both the history and recipes of Afro-American peoples throughout this period of enslavement is “Aspects of Afro American Cookery.” Recipes like fried catfish or baked rabbit depended on seasonings like kitchen pepper to give them the unique flavor that is emblematic of Southern cooking today.
Carolyn Mason (13:35):
So now that we’ve discussed the rations, as well as the journey enslaved people in African foods made to the Americas, we can talk more about the work enslaved people themselves put into providing food for their families, enslavement and colonial America began as a system of servitude that included both indentured servants and enslaved people. This role/social class in society, as a person that serves and works in difficult conditions for others, was not originally as closely tied to race as the system of enslavement was later in American history. Both enslaved black people and white field workers were employed in producing cash crops for the owner of the plantation. The agricultural system for cash crops squeezed out every drop of profit from wherever it could. It was only later when slave codes codified the inheritance of slavery with laws that indentured servitude began to decrease. To subsist for themselves and their families, the enslaved were allowed the opportunity to grow food and even cash crops for themselves, either to eat or to sell. The money generated often went to buy food comfort items or even clothing. The food that was reserved for eating allowed it slave owners to bypass the need to pay, to feed their laborers.
Carolyn Mason (14:34):
Slave gardens were one way that enslaved people were able to grow extra food and crops. According to “Slave Gardens in the antebellum South: the Resolve of a Tormented People,” slave gardens had a variety of purposes and forms. In some cases, enslaved people grew food in a communal garden, belonging to the master of the plantation. They were able to grow food for the plantation itself, as well as grow food for themselves. On other plantations, enslaved people were given plots of land either by their cabins or on the edges of the plantation, where they were able to grow some of the foods, including those that were brought from Africa. Food that was grown in these gardens included okra beans, collard greens, or as my family says, collard greens [said with a Southern accent], onions and sweet potatoes. This is by no means a comprehensive list of what was grown in every garden and every region, and each plantations had variations on what was grown and eaten.
Carolyn Mason (15:21):
Slave gardens were also not limited to growing food. Flowers were grown in some occasions for both scent and beauty and in places where cash crops such as tobacco and surplus crops could be grown and eventually sold in the market, or even to the plantation owner. The ability to grow food and earn money from the surplus was one way of obtaining a limited form of independence on the plantation. Enslaved people would not have had to depend completely on the owners of the plantation for food, and also had avenues to earn money for themselves to be spent on clothes, food, and other market items. Some plantation owners pushed back against this independence as it was a threat to their power and control over enslaved people.
Carolyn Mason (15:57):
Thomas Jefferson once said, “I have ever found it necessary to confine them, meaning enslaved people, to such articles as not raised on the farm. There is no other way of drawing a line between what is theirs and mine.” In regards to his banning of enslaved people growing tobacco. By limiting what could be grown, Thomas Jefferson and other planters like him limited the amount of money that enslaved people were able to make. More on the gardens at Monticello and Thomas Jefferson’s attitudes towards them can be found in the Monticello webpage linked on our website.
Carolyn Mason (16:24):
Theft was another way that enslaved people were able to control their access to food and more broadly, how they were able to seek out some forms of independence. Archeological evidence from plantations suggests that theft was incredibly common due to the substandard nature of rations. According to Christopher Farish, author of “Theft, Food Labor, and Culinary Insurrection,” rationing and theft were intertwined with one another.
Christopher Farrish (16:45):
So I think, you know, Frederick Douglas famously has some passage where he’s like, it’s just taking meat out of one tub and putting it into another, you know, that if, if I’m property and you own me and you own this meat and I eat the meat, it’s not really theft at all because it’s just moving things around. Um, so I think that just like anything people justify it obviously as a mode of survival. Um, but of course, folks who are more wary or more cautious would have potentially looked down on it. Um, so I think it depends, but certainly theft pilfering was not just a mode of resistance, but also a mode of survival. Um, that a lot of times taking food, um, was a way of supplementing a diet that was otherwise pretty meager. Um, uh, really, really meager. You know, in terms of like agency of the enslaved, I mean, this is not a diet that would have been at all common in say West Africa. It was highly, you know, a lot of vegetables, not a lot of meat, um, and slave patches or slave gardens were a place where, you know, enslaved did actually grow vegetables and eat vegetables. Not because they had some necessarily, you know, modern understanding of diet, but rather that it was part of their culture. It was part of the culture to eat leafy greens and to eat pepper and all of these various things that were traditional, um, actually supplemented their diet. But obviously it was not, not enough.
Carolyn Mason (18:10):
He also discusses the role that black cooks played on Southern food history.
Christopher Farrish (18:14):
Yeah. I mean, it’s something that I kind of, I think I touched upon a little bit in the article that like, or maybe I don’t flesh it out even enough that in terms of like, what is the black influence over Southern food? It’s everything because we can look at, I think, you know, you look at Mary Randolph, one of these old cookbooks and you go like, Ooh, like okra and tomatoes. That’s definitely like an African dish and it’s got chili pepper in it. That’s definitely an African dish. Every single dish in that cookbook is an African dish because the woman doing the cooking is a black woman. Right. So I think that actually, when people are trying to suss out, like, what is African American history and what is Southern cooking, if it’s poor white vernacular, okay. That’s a different thing. But if it’s anything that showed up in a published cookbook from like a plantation mistress, it’s, it’s black. It’s a black food way, right. It’s like a black woman cooking. She may have not been eating it, um, but she was cooking it. And I think that in that regard, it’s all black, it’s all black food history.
Carolyn Mason (19:15):
Yeah, definitely. I think it’s interesting. Um, there in the literature that I’ve read there, isn’t much of a distinction made between poor white people at that time and plantation owners and like how that was a very different social class. Um, and I don’t know if that’s on purpose of the people writing or if it was on purpose of the people who lived at that time to separate and make distinct that like, these are like so different that they can’t even be talked about at the same time. Um, what is really interesting about Southern history in general, how segmented it is, but when you look at it, like from the outside looking in, it’s not, like it doesn’t look like that.
Christopher Farrish (19:54):
Yeah, absolutely. Absolutely. It’s very, very like two dimensional, unless unless you were, of course, unless you really are doing the research, then it kind of becomes more complicated. But certainly I think the popular understanding of Southern history and Southern food history is very, two-dimensional.
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Carolyn Mason (20:12):
A great deal of the enslaved experiments related to food and its importance for survival, for both the people and their culture. Whether it was being used as a reward or a begrudging necessity, it played a vital role in the growth of a distinct African-American culture in the US South. It also played a large role in the health of enslaved people, a topic which we’ll discuss more in the next episode. Thank you so much for joining me in the first episode of Bigger Fish to Fry. Find out more about me and this project, as well as sources and transcriptions on the Bigger Fish to Fry website, Bigger Fish to Fry Podcast.com. Remember that this episode deals with a small and generalized amount of regarding enslaved foodways. However, we can still use these facts to better understand the past and the legacy it may have had on the future. Shoot me an email or leave a message on my site with what you thought the biggest takeaway was for this episode, and then share with your friends, family, and anyone who you think might be interested in learning about this subject. Thanks Yung Kartz for the use of his song, jet for the intro and outro this program. And thank you so much for listening to bigger fish to fry, stay tuned for a sneak peek of our next episode:
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Carolyn Mason (21:15)- Music Plays Over Audio:
Such conditions and diseases included, scurvy anemia, pellegra, beriberi, rickets and marasmus, All of which are resultant of the different vitamin slash mineral deficiencies. Pellagra is a particularly harmful dietary disease that affected many malnourished people around the world, both enslaved and free. It was a result of a niacin otherwise known as B3 deficiency. The vitamin that allows you to break down… [Fades Ou].
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