Slaving Over a Hot Stove

15. Michael W. Twitty recently wrote a thoughtful piece on the Hercules children’s book controversy. Food Tells a Story has already hashed over that controversy. But Twitty said something along the way that carries beyond the particular incident:

“Keeping ourselves and others honest about slavery in American history and beyond is constant work. … All of us must be engaged in a greater cultural and historical literacy so that when the story of our ancestors is told and the books are read to all children, our complicated history of struggle and sorrow, joy and triumph receives a depiction that bears resemblance to the truth.”

The intensity of the controversy over the Hercules book reflects our misgivings about our cultural and historical literacy when it comes to slavery. In theory, even younger elementary students should already know enough about the horrors of slavery that they could read a story like Ramin Ganeshram’s and not get the wrong idea; namely, that Hercules was a “happy slave.” It would be understood that Hercules could take pride in baking a birthday cake for George Washington, even as he was planning to make his escape to freedom on Washington’s birthday…because slavery was awful.

In fact, of course, we know that the average kid may not have much knowledge about slavery, and that the “knowledge” may have been framed in the notion that slavery was somehow “not that bad,” and people just need to shut up about it.

After all, in the last couple of years, some have been trying to soft-pedal the teaching about slavery in our schools. In a time when everyone from the President on down is obsessed with the economically-useful STEM side of the curriculum, one of the casualties has been to cut back on history education. It’s no big secret that many Americans are historically illiterate.

That general historical illiteracy is even worse when it comes to African American history. The common practice (ironically) is to segregate it. We have a semi-official “Black History Month” in February and an unofficial “White History” month the other eight months of the school year, as though the two can be separated.

We’ve also seen deliberate attempt to circumvent African American history altogether, especially the history of slavery. Last year, South Dakota established new standards that make it possible for schools to skip over all of American history up through Reconstruction, including slavery and the Civil War. In Texas, new textbook standards minimize slavery as the cause of the Civil War, and ignore the century of segregation and repression that followed.

Even when schools attempt to include honest history, there’s no guarantee that individual teachers can handle the subject. It appears that Black History Month often emphasizes student projects about heroic individuals or celebrities, rather than studying movements, events, and ideas, and lacks a sense of proportion, so that Michael Jordan seems just as important as Frederick Douglass, because watching a cool guy dunk a basketball is a lot more fun for the kids than talking about slavery and abolitionism.

There’s no way to give a proper account of American food history without including the impact of slavery on the development of our cuisine, especially–though far from exclusively–in the southern states. What follows will strike some as awfully obvious, but I feel obliged to make my take on the subject officially part of the story we’re asking food to tell on this blog.

SO…

Legal slavery accounts for about 5/8ths of American history. Until the late 1700s, slavery was legal in all the American colonies. While slavery in the north could be just as brutal as its southern counterparts, slaveholding was never as profitable. Farms were generally smaller and the growing season much shorter. By 1790, of the nearly 700,000 slaves, 94% lived in the south.

The south had been settled by aristocrats, often the younger sons of the landed gentry. In England, landowners generally had no hands-on farming skills of their own, but relied on peasants bound to the manor, either as servants or tenant farmers. In America, that meant they had to import labor: Some workers came from England as indentured servants, free after 7 years, but it was easier to buy slaves from the Caribbean or directly from Africa. Some looked for specific skills. Low Country rice planters, for instance, paid premium prices for slaves from the African Rice Coast.

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Under the plantation system, enslaved people soon outnumbered the white population in many areas. Slavers faced a dilemma: How do you feed so many people, but not too well? In any slave economy, then or now, food rations are considered a business expense that reduces income. There was some concern that an owner who didn’t feed his slaves enough would drive them to pilfer food from other farms. Yet the slavers also feared that if their slaves were too well fed, they might have enough energy left at the end of the day to run off or to revolt.

In all cases, slave rations were generally insufficient. A typical weekly ration might include eight dry quarts of cornmeal, some molasses, and a pound of salt pork. These might provide 2000 calories a day, enough for a modern, sedentary adult, but completely insufficient for field hands or nursing mothers. In comparison, a valued white laborer might eat a pound of meat per day, and the landowners even more, since meat was the primary food among the English colonists.

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So how did the enslaved avoid starvation? Some slavers encouraged them grow their own food—planting gardens, raising chickens, etc. Slaves also hunted and fished, as they had in Africa. Since they could only hunt after work, they often hunted nocturnal animals such as opossums and raccoons. It may come as a surprise to some, but it was not uncommon for slavers to allow their slaves to have guns for hunting. Archaeologists at Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage plantation in Nashville, for instance, have found rifle parts at slave cabin sites.

Gardening and hunting also fit into the African diet, which was more flexible than the English. African American cooks knew how to make greens, for instance, that the English avoided, at least until their enslaved cooks in the Big House demonstrated how good they could taste. Poor whites, who were equally vulnerable to starvation, also began to pay attention to what the enslaved were eating. In that way, what we know as “southern” cuisine began to emerge, heavily shaped by the coping and cooking abilities of the enslaved population.

This exchange came into play again after the Civil War. War damage and rationing left many whites hungry as well as blacks. So once again, many white folks looked to their former slaves for clues on how to find, and cook, the extra calories they needed to avoid starvation. Slaves never lived “high on the hog,” and often suffered from nutritional deficiencies, but they did find creative ways to squeak by.

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Slave quarters, South Carolina, c.1860.

(Many slaves lacked basic cooking utensils, so homecooked meals were often rudimentary, and cooked over open fires. The cabins in the photograph above had fireplaces, a step up not always available to others.)

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Christmas in St. Louis, 1861.

(At Christmas, the enslaved were often given extra rations, and it was a time of feasting. What we know today as “soul food” features many dishes that were once considered festival foods, not the sparse daily rations of cornmeal and salt pork.)

So, here are a few broad conclusions about how I see the impact of slavery on American cooking:

1.  Throughout the slavery period, cooking technology was primitive. We have mentioned in earlier posts how challenging open-hearth cooking must have been. But there was plenty more work beyond that. A cook or kitchen staff might well have to chop firewood and carry water before any cooking could be done. On a plantation, the cook might well need to kill and butcher animals, especially chickens and other poultry, turtles, and so on.

As a result, households of any means looked to find cheap labor (in the North) or buy slaves (in the South) to do the work. But that also meant that many African Americans possessed a good deal of cooking knowledge, nearly all of it passed along by oral tradition. We will see that this reality proved to be a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it was used for decades after emancipation to pigeonhole African Americans and lock them into service roles, something that can still be seen today in characters like Aunt Jemima.

On the other hand, those cooking skills have certainly enhanced American cuisine. Recently, my 96-year old father went out in the middle of a February blizzard here in the upper Midwest to get himself some fried chicken. As we will see in a later post, the mere act of coating a piece of chicken and frying it in oil probably came to America from Scotland. But seasoning it up enough to drive an old Swede out into the snow is something that reflects in significant measure the talents of generations of African American cooks.

2. Kitchen slaves were also exposed to foods that were beyond the reach of those whose rations were meager, such as sugar, wheat flour, and imported spices. So, for instance, in time, the know-how for cooking desserts such as sweet potato pies, peach cobblers, pound cakes, and so on would help secure their place on the southern/soul food menu.

3. Because slavery was so inherently dehumanizing, good cooking could be a form of resistance, becoming a source of inventiveness, creativity and personal pride. In some cases, it could also be liberating. In the cities, slaves were sometimes able to use their cooking skills to generate income that could in turn be used to buy one’s freedom, or buy the freedom of a loved one, or finance an escape. Once free, those same skills could also be turned into jobs, and sometimes into lucrative careers. It was not unusual throughout the 1800s for most or all of the leading caterers in the big cities to be African American.

We’re just scratching the surface, of course. But there can be no doubt that the experience of slavery helped shape many of the foods that we know and love. Our task is not to turn into Pollyannas, finding some sort of hidden “good” in slavery when we sit down for a meal. I don’t mean to be preachy here, but I hope it would give us a sense of due repentance, reverence, and gratitude, to know that many of the foods we love the most have come to us at a very steep price. For me, it really is a spiritual thing, something that helps remind me to be on the right side when it comes to America’s ongoing quest for justice and national redemption.

Yup, a good rack of bbq ribs can do that for me. Amen.

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Author: Dan Anderson

I'm an Iowa boy by choice. I love cooking and I love history, so I thought I'd put the two together.

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