[Music Clip, Jet by Yung Kartz]
Carolyn Mason (00:14):
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. We’ll be focusing on how enslaved people cooked 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. Each episode of this series, will discuss an important aspect of the broader subject of enslaved foodways and their effect on people. Food history, nutrition, and the legacy of these topics on modern populations are all subjects that we’re going to cover over the course of this series. These episodes are by no means comprehensive, but I hope that they will give you just a taste of the research and information that is available about the diet health and legacy of enslaved people. As I mentioned in the first episode, my purpose is to create something that illuminates with the lives of enslaved people were like. Their lives deserve to be discussed in all their complexity, not only to honor them, but also to give their descendants more information about their ancestors. In the last episode I focused on the foodways of enslaved people. I wanted to answer questions like where did the food of enslaved people come from? How did they cook it? How did they supplement their diets? Answering these questions does not provide the whole picture, however. In order to understand more about the role that food played in the lives and the health of enslaved people, we need to look at their nutrition as well.
Carolyn Mason (01:33):
According to Merriam Webster, nutrition is the sum of the processes by which an animal or plant takes in and utilizes food substances. Nowadays, diet and nutrition have a special spotlight in popular media beyond just taking in nutrients. Every day you can find new companies and methods that claim to help you lose weight or a diet that will somehow make you healthier. Even in less predatory advertisements, it’s easy to see the connection being made between our health and what we eat. This connection, however, was not always made when thinking about the diets and the health of enslaved people. Our dietary needs, while flexible, were determined by our morphology long before Africans were forcibly brought to the New World. At every stage of existence for humanity, we have had specific nutritional needs in order to grow, reproduce and thrive. In fact, before we were even human, when our distant ancestors were just becoming bipedal and growing larger brains, diet was the most important factor for our evolution. It influenced the robustness of our teeth, the size of our skulls and brains, as well as the way our guts function, diet and nutrition was the driving force for our evolution, and to this day remain an important factor in our overall health. The rations of enslaved people, including cornmeal and poor cuts of meat, did not meet the standards that our bodies have set. However, as I mentioned in the last episode, enslaved people were often able to supplement their diets with food from gardens or food they forged or hunted in the area surrounding the plantation. But was this enough for them to survive and thrive upon?
Carolyn Mason (02:57):
A basic answer, which doesn’t take into account the complex lives and slave people lived is that enslaved people did survive and do have descendants living today, as well as a cultural legacy that is felt by everyone in the American South. The more complicated answer, however is more representative of the actual experience of enslaved people and gets into the meaning of nutrition now versus then, and the impact of poor nutrition. Conceptions of nutrition in the past are much different than today, namely meaning that they were much less sophisticated. Understandings of health and wellness in general were not as advanced in the antebellum period as they are today. Connection between health and diet was based upon very different understandings of the human body. Europeans in colonial America, drew upon European understandings of health and the body, which in turn drew upon more ancient, typically Greek and Roman understandings of the human body. One of the most influential medical paradigms, although not a very cohesive one, was the humeral system of medicine.
Carolyn Mason (03:50):
I won’t go into too much depth on the humeral system and how exactly doctors believed the body worked, but what was most relevant to plantation owners, as well as the captains of slave ships was the balancing of the elemental qualities of the body. When I say elemental, in this context, I don’t mean carbon or helium. In this case, I mean the four elements, water, fire, air, and earth. These elements were each classified as hot, cold, dry, and wet- qualities that corresponded to environments, the people that lived there, and the food produced in such places. Environments that were hot or cold, wet, or dry, obviously corresponded to these classifications exactly, such as the rain forest, being hot and wet and the tundra being dry and cold. People that lived in those locations were thought to be more balanced when they were there, because they had more of the quality that had so long dominated their lives. I mentioned in the last episode, how generally it was thought that people fared better on food from their homeland- that comes from this idea. People were meant to have a balance of hot and cold, wet, and dry within their bodies, and food was often the answer to imbalances caused by changes in locale or general sickness, according to the article “Humanism and Social Development in Colonial America.” The amount and type of food balance the qualities in the body and when balanced made for a healthy individual. The environment also contributed to the health of an individual. Africans and their descendants were suited to hot environments as those were reminiscent of the hot environments of Africa and were therefore better suited to doing manual labor in America, which was similarly hot. This was a justification for the enslavement of Africans, as Europeans were not suited to this work environment, being from a much colder place. This was all a long-winded way of saying that the history of nutrition is not as simple as eating enough, leafy greens. Not every plantation subscribed to these ideas exactly or even consciously aware of the influence of the humeral system on their interpretation of health. Some may have even attempted to implement nutritional standards that approach the modern day understanding, but in all cases, the humeral system, undoubtedly influenced the understanding of health across what is now America.
[Music Clip, Jet by Yung Kartz]
Carolyn Mason (05:53):
So now we’ve established why plantation owners may have given enslaved people based upon the foods of their homelands and how they justified slavery and the amount that was given to people. Enslaved people were able to supplement their diets of meat and cornmeal by foraging and hunting off the plantation, as well as growing foods for themselves in small garden plots, but was this diet good enough to sustain them through the backbreaking labor that they were often required to do? The labor depended on the type of plantation and the crops being cultivated. On some Southern plantations, such as McLeod plantation in South Carolina, cotton was the main crop grown and sold. When touring this plantation, I had the opportunity to observe modern efforts to grow sea Island cotton, which was the variety of choice at McLeod plantation. While the variety of the cotton was exceptional, tour guides explained that it was notoriously hard to pick, both in their modern simulation of the fields, as well as during times of enslavement.
Carolyn Mason (06:44):
Picking cotton, which is the task most often associated with enslavement in the American South was back-breaking especially in the humidity and heat that South Carolina is known for. Having lived in South Carolina. I can tell you that the season when cotton was normally picked- July through November- is normally extremely humid, hot and rainy. This heat isn’t ideal for doing manual labor, bent over collecting cotton as fast as you possibly can. In other areas, rice was grown. Growing rice was also extremely difficult. It required cleaning swamp land along the coast in order to create the ideal conditions to grow rice and then working outdoors for the better part of the day to plant. These conditions, specifically the work in swampy areas, put enslaved people at risk for malaria and other mosquito-borne diseases. Although European people at one time believed that black people were immune to diseases such as malaria and yellow fever, this couldn’t be farther from the truth. Enslaved people were affected by these diseases because of the environments that they were working in.
Carolyn Mason (07:41):
This kind of labor would have required a hardy diet to keep people healthy and moving. It stands to reason that harder work means that you need more calories and more nutrients. There have been several attempts to understand how this kind of backbreaking labor could have been done with fairly limited rations. A particularly well-known example is the book “Time on the Cross,” written by Robert Fogel and Stanley L. Engerman, two economic historians in 1974. In their book, they argue that slavery was an economically viable enterprise and more controversially that slavery may have had some benefits for enslaved people nutritionally. They based their claim upon the record of the amount of food that was kept on a plantation and then established how much enslaved people were eating based on the difference between the amount before and after rations were given out. This approach was influential when it was first presented, but it is highly problematic because it doesn’t take into account the amount and weight of food in its raw form, such as rice and corn before they are husked and how removing non-edible parts of the plants that were provided in rations would result in much less being able to be consumed by enslaved people. This created faulty assumptions that enslaved people had plenty to eat before even addressing the poor nutritional value many rations had, or the much higher energy expenditure of enslaved people compared to their wealthy white counterparts. Beth Blonigan does an excellent analysis of the faults in this argument in her thesis, linked on the Bigger Fish to Fry website. The book “Time on the Cross,” and its claims have largely been discredited today for their faulty reasoning and evidence, but this controversy is important to mention as not only was the book initially very popular, but it also shows that the connection between diet and labor and enslaved people is complex and can’t be understood by analyzing only one source of information about enslaved lives.
[Music Clip, Jet by Yung Kartz]
Carolyn Mason (09:18):
The World Health Organization recommends the following for the diet of a healthy adult: an energy intake, meaning calories, that is balanced with energy expenditure, fruit, vegetables, beans, and lentils nuts, and preferably unprocessed, whole grains, little salt, and less than 30% of the diet being made up of fat. Now, I can’t say the exact percentages of the types of food eaten by enslaved people because of the lack of the exact record, as well as regional variation. But speaking broadly based upon the literature available, I can say that it was likely that enslaved people rarely received this kind of a balanced diet. For one, they weren’t provided much fresh food, although they were sometimes able to grow their own. And while they may have been able to obtain supplemental foods, the quality of their overall diet is most important when considering their health. Quality is most important because not all diets and foods are made equally. In some cases, enslaved people may have been given adequate amounts of food, but foods that were nutritionally deficient. In other cases, enslaved people may have had access to nutritious food, but not enough of it. Diseases and health conditions resulting from the lack of food or a lack of nutritious food can tell us a lot about the quality of life and overall health of enslaved people.
Carolyn Mason (10:32):
Such conditions and diseases included, scurvy anemia, pellegra beriberi, rickets and marasmus, all of which are result in the different vitamin/mineral deficiencies. Pellegra was 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 and process food into energy. Pellegra can result in symptoms known as the four D’s: dermatitis, diarrhea, dementia, and even death. It was relatively common in lower classes in the South because of the reliance on corn. Niacin in corn can only be accessed after it has been treated with lye or lime, a tactic that native and central Americans made use of. However, European populations and therefore enslaved African and African Americans did not always have access to this information and therefore did not treat their corn. As mentioned before corn meal and corn products made up a great deal of enslaved diet and therefore niacin intake was limited. Despite not having the knowledge or the techniques to treat their corn, enslaved people did have some ways of dealing with nutritional deficiency. Enslaved people were often described as eating dirt or clay, an involuntary condition called pica. This condition often arises when people have diets that are insufficient in different minerals, which present in the soil resulting in a craving for clay or dirt. You may have heard of this in pregnant women who crave for things like dirt or laundry detergent! During the antebellum period, this condition was not associated with diet, however, and it was instead seen as a primitive cultural practice of enslaved people that plantation owners must deter and prevent. Dr. Herb Covey, a historical expert who wrote the book on food as it is discussed in the slave narratives- a collection of oral histories from formerly enslaved people during the great depression- talks about it more in this interview I did with him.
Dr. Herb Covey (12:23):
A number, um, you know, medicine for the period. And I covered this a little bit, uh, differently in a book I did earlier book called “African American Slave Medicine, Herbal and Non-Herbal Treatments,” and, uh, medical practice at the time wasn’t terribly sophisticated for anybody, let alone for African Americans. So connections between diet and disease not always made, uh, by anybody let alone, uh, enslaved people, okay. Or even plantation owners or whites just in general, or are folks who are, are black, uh, either. So, um, making some of those connections, wouldn’t have been obvious. So to kind of run through some of those diseases that are tied, very much tied to diet like pellegra, anemia, beriberi, scurvy, rickets, andother ailments that are all tied to the adequacy of your diet. Pellagra was a good example. When you live on a very high portion of your diet being corn, corn meal or corn products, uh, you’re susceptible to, uh, vitamin B3 or niacin deficiencies, which can be a devastating disease that was very quickly. Uh, African Americans, certain slaves have called it ‘black tpngue’ because that’s one of the symptoms of it. And it’s tied to way too much reliance on corn in your diet.
Dr. Herb Covey (13:47):
Doctors identified, uh, it was called pica and that’s the practice of eating clay and/or dirt, certain types of dirt to deal with dietary deficiencies. There were all kinds of nutrients and clay and the white doctors and the plantation owners determined that that was not a cultural practice that was acceptable in the South at the time. And so they labeled it as a disease that should be eliminated when in fact, uh, even though the folks that were doing it weren’t aware of it, they were actually meeting a dietary need for vitamins and minerals. When I was in graduate school, I had a co-student from Georgia and he said that his family continued to eat clay. And I don’t know if they necessarily made the, made a connection between that and dietary deficiency, my guess is that there wasn’t any need for it, but it was just a cultural thing that his family did, uh, kind of a traditional food. And although I don’t think he did it very often, but they did eat clay. And this is a contemporary, you know, 20th century America that this is occurring. [Fade out]
Carolyn Mason (14:53):
Scurvy is another disease found in enslaved people related to nutrient deficiency. You probably have heard of this one because of their association with pirates scurvy can result in bleeding gums, which is probably the most visible symptom of the disease, as well as extreme fatigue, unusual bruising, and eventually if untreated death. Like enslaved people, pirates may not have had access to a variety of fresh fruits and vegetables that provided the necessary amounts of vitamin C needed to prevent scurvy. Vitamin C helps to form blood vessels, cartilage, muscle, and collagen in bones, according to Mayo clinic, as well as helping to store iron because of this, a lack of vitamin C in the body puts individuals at risk for scurvy, as well as anemia. As you can see these nutritional deficiencies manifested themselves in a variety of ways with a variety of effects, despite the differences they were all related to the inadequacies of the diet of those who lived in enslavement and poverty in the American South, not only did enslaved people bear the burden of slavery, they also face severe health consequences and were penalized for how they coped with them, such as eating non-traditional foods, or as mentioned in the last episode, being limited in what they were allowed to grow. Dr. Covey also expanded on the relationship between the burden of slavery, food, and health and our interview,
Carolyn Mason (In Interview) (16:04):
Um, food as a means of control. But, um, I wanted to dig a little bit deeper into like, what that meant for enslaved people and their relationships with like masters of a plantation or with each other.
Dr. Herb Covey (16:16):
Uh, yes, it speaks to the, those, uh, race relations and that master slave or slavemanager, uh, slave relationship. I mean, the thing that’s, uh, well, first of all, let’s just start with a general observation. I think if you can control a person’s food supply, you can subjugate them to whatever wills you have. Okay. And civilizations have fallen in, and in the world as a result of shortages of food. Certain dynasties of, uh, of, uh, the Egyptians, uh, disappeared temporarily because of famine and drought and things like that. So, but if you can control food that you really have a very powerful tool at your, at your disposal with people, okay, it’s important. The food space, if we don’t live without it. So anybody that controls it. So, but on the psychological level, back to your original question, uh, I always conjure up this vision of what it must have felt like, and looked like to have infant, infants and children be fed from hog troughs, not at tables, not with utensils, but just to have, uh, what they call clabber milk, basically broken up hard bread and what I would consider to be spoiled milk poured into a trough and the kids sometimes even with, uh, animals competing with them, would uh, be expected to just eat out of the trough. And that sends to me, um, a powerful message that I control your food. And not only that, I control the status by which you enjoy that food or take in that food. I think it’s just terribly powerful. And Frederick Douglas also thought it was powerful. I’ve used it in some of his own biographical materials of describing that. So it reinforces the idea of superiority of some people over others, because we eat at these fancy tables and you eat at this level. And so I just find that. [Fade out].
[Music Clip, Jet by Yung Kartz]
Carolyn Mason (18:28):
So to answer the original question on whether or not the diet of enslaved people was good or bad, the answer is more complicated. Obviously some people survived and went on to have children, but other suffered the terrible consequences from an inadequate diet. In all situations the concern for the health of the enslaved people came from the enslaved themselves. The rations set out by the plantation owners and overseers was not enough. And they did not have the diversity necessary for a balanced diet. Enslaved people were the ones who added produce to their diet and figured out ways to cook their food that would not only taste better, but would provide more available nutrients for digestion. Their strength and ingenuity was the cause for their survival and that is what I want to celebrate with this podcast.
[Music Clip, Jet by Yung Kartz]
Carolyn Mason (19:12):
Though many people did survive the torture and degradation that was the system of enslavement, that doesn’t mean that they did so without any consequences. Certain segments of the enslaved population bore the brunt of poor nutrition, namely enslaved children. Although we now know that growth and diet during childhood can have major effects on the individual’s quality of life as an adult, this was not the understanding during the antebellum period. As I mentioned in the last episode, the rations for children were half that of workers. They were paid little attention, both in the quantity of food they were given as well as the quality in which it was served. Food was rationed based on the work that an individual was expected to do, and because children were expected to do very little, they received an equivalent amount. This is especially important when considering a lifelong approach to nutrition.
Carolyn Mason (19:57):
This theory, which Dr. Langley Evans describes in his book, “Nutrition, Health, and Disease: a Lifespan Approach,” discusses how at every stage of our life, from conception to adulthood, we have certain nutritional requirements that influence our health and growth before children were even born. They, as well as their mothers, face difficult circumstances regarding their nutrition. Pregnant women were not typically afforded extra rations according to Du Bow’s review and were often made to work until their child was born, on a diet that was already debatably insufficient. This undoubtedly could have caused harm to both the mother and fetus. Enslaved women had incredibly high rates of miscarriage on plantations, most likely due to the stress of working and living there. For the mother, the work didn’t stop even after she had given birth. Enslaved mothers were often asked to breastfeed their own children, as well as the white children and the plantation owner. This could be a cause for the purchase and sale of enslaved women as it was a skilled and intimate type of labor that was in high demand, according to Jones Rogers in “[S]he could … spare one ample breast for the profit of her owner’: white mothers and enslaved wet nurses’ invisible labor in American slave markets.” For children, once they had grown out of infancy and passed the need for breast milk, they needed a dietary intake that is both energy and nutrient dense in order to be high metabolic demands, according to Nutrition, Health, and Disease, the book mentioned previously. With a static diet without much variability, besides what parents and children could cultivate on their time and terms, children were the worst cared for residents of the plantation with the most tangible effects on their health.
Carolyn Mason (21:23):
The stature of enslaved children when compared to modern children would be a cause for alarm in modern pediatrician’s office, as mentioned in “A Peculiar Population,” a journal article by Richard H. Steckel, their growth was severely stunted due to the lack of food, although surprisingly, they were often able to make up this growth later in life once they began receiving higher quantities of rations. Once they grew up enslaved people reached adult height earlier than their European counterparts, and were often taller according to the article, “The Heights of American Slaves.” This fact seems incompatible with the poor quality of their diet, but instead speaks to the effects of long-term poverty in the body. Poor whites, while not suffering the immense brutality of slavery also faced challenges related to receiving an adequate diet. Enslaved people were just able to make up their growth very rapidly once they began receiving the rations of an adult enslaved person. There is a suggestion, however, that this delay in growth could have an effect on mental development that can’t be made up like height. This may have affected the enslaved well after slavery was brought to an end.
[Music Clip, Jet by Yung Kartz]
Carolyn Mason (22:23):
In modern day populations of African American people, we still see malnutrition as a result of structural inequality. While obesity is often touted as a new and overwhelming dietary issue of today, in reality, we see people who exist on both ends of the spectrum because of their diet. These dietary issues, which have more to do with the food and labor system in our country, rather than the poor choices being made by people, have a lot to do with the legacies of enslavement. We’ll talk more about that legacy in next week’s episode. Thank you so much for joining me in the second 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, BiggerFishtoFrypodcast.com. Remember that this episode deals with a small and generalized amount of information regarding enslave nutrition. However, we can still use these facts to better understand the past and the legacy that it may have had on the future. Send 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 to Yung Kartz for the use of his song Jet for the intro and outro this program. And thanks again for listening to Bigger Fish to Fry. Stay tuned for a sneak peek of our next episode.
[Music Clip, Jet by Yung Kartz]
Carolyn Mason (23:35):
When the model of a good Southern cook is a white woman who has admitted to repeatedly using the N word, It makes you question where the place is for black people in this food genre, although by all accounts, it would not exist without them. If it was black hands and black ingredients that shaped these recipes into what they are today, but white mouths who eat and claim them, who does the legacy of Southern cooking really belonged to on the national stage?
[Music Clip, Jet by Yung Kartz]