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Food and Slave Culture (Part II)

Updated on June 20, 2012

Planting Cotton

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This second part of Food and Slave Culture examines food rations and nutrition for southern slaves.

Food Rations

It was the general operating procedure of slave owners to give their slaves food rations once a week. The types of food slaves might receive varied by region, but were generally very similar across the board. Slave rations generally consisted of what historians James Dormon and Robert Jones refer to as the “hog and hominy diet.” Slaves would receive one peck of cornmeal and anywhere from two to four pounds of salt pork or fatback. Webster’s New World Dictionary describes a peck as “1/4 bushel or eight quarts.” On some coastal plantations, rice was substituted for corn. A pint of salt was often issued monthly and molasses was also commonly issued to slaves. Vegetables were issued as well, but not always on a regular basis. These basic food rations were periodically supplemented with “sweet potatoes, peas, turnips, fruits (in season), beef, mutton, salted fish, coffee…”

Jessica B. Harris gives a vivid description of slave rations:

"In parts of South Carolina, rice, especially cracked rice was a major part of slaves’ usual ration. It was frequently served combined with salt pork, fish, or game and vegetables. In other parts of the South, corn was king. Planters claimed and their records agree that they gave a ‘peck of cornmeal weekly per slave.’ This averages out to about a pound a day. Much of it was consumed as hominy with fatback, perhaps seasoned with molasses, or in mashes and porridges, cornbreads, ashcakes, and the like."

Food rations could also change with the season. In places like South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida sweet potatoes were sometimes substituted for corn depending on the time of year. Some plantation owners were more liberal with their rations than others and gave out more than was customarily seen. During Federal Writers’ Project interviews in the late 1930’s of former slaves in Georgia, one ex-slave mentioned that on Saturdays the slaves would be given “three pounds of meat, twelve pounds of flour, twelve pounds of meal, and one quart of syrup.” Another added: “They would give you a plenty to eat so you could keep strong and work. They weighed your meat, flour, meal and things like that, but you got all the potatoes, lard and other things you wanted.”

Nutrition

While some slaves received rations above the norm, the opposite was also true in many cases. Many slaves received inadequate food rations and were seriously malnourished. Former slave Ella Daniels, in another Federal Writers’ Project interview in Arkansas stated: “Sometimes they didn’t have any food to eat….My mother’s master was pretty good to her and her children, but my father’s master was not.”

Sidney W. Mintz adds that “the slaves were poorly provided, often half starved. Despite the many laws prescribing cultivation or rations, slaves commonly died of hunger, and a prime reason for marronnage – running away – was hunger.”

Whether they were given the average ration or not, the standard slave diet was generally deficient in the nutrients needed for a person to stay healthy. Historian Leslie Howard Owens notes that “only a handful of slaveholders raised enough varieties of vegetables, fruits, and meats to satisfy the nutritional needs of their families and slaves.” A good example of this is cornmeal, which lacked “three of the eight essential amino acids” and pork did as well.

Dormon and Jones further explain why slaves were malnourished:

"Even when the slave got enough to eat, he often did not receive adequate nourishment. The typical slave fare provided a surfeit of starch and fat, but its protein content was sometimes seriously low. Even the occasional consumption of vegetables did not furnish the amino acids necessary to a balanced diet. Hence, some slaves lived in a state of chronic malnutrition, and considerable numbers suffered from zerothalmia, beriberi, pellagra, and scurvy as a result of vitamin deficiency. The slave diet usually produced the appearance of good health, but it often failed to provide stamina for sustained labor in the fields and adequate resistance to infectious disease."

Part III will examine ways in which slaves supplemented their diets.

Sources

Dorman, James H and Robert R Jones, The Afro-American Experience: A Cultural History through Emancipation. (New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc, 1974).

Owens, Leslie Howard, This Species of Property: Slave Life and Culture in the Old South. (NewYork: Oxford University Press, 1976).

Smith, Julia Floyd, Slavery and Rice Culture in Low Country Georgia, 1750-1860. (Knoxville, TN:The University of Tennessee Press, 1985).

Harris, Jessica B, The Welcome Table: African-American Heritage Cooking. (New York: Simon &Schuster, 1995).

Weld, Theodore D, American Slavery as it is: Testimony of a Thousand Witnesses. (New York:The American Anti-Slavery Society, 1839).

Oliphant, Louise, interviewer, compilation, vol 4, part 4, WPA Slave Narrative Project, Georgia Narratives. (Federal Writers' Project, United States Work Projects Administration,Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, no date).

Daniels, Ella, interviewed by Samuel S. Taylor, vol 2, part 2, WPA Slave Narrative Project, Arkansas Narratives. (Federal Writers' Project, United States Work Projects Administration,Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, DC, no date).

Mintz, Sidney W, Tasting Food, Tasting Freedom: Excursions into Eating, Culture, and the Past.(Boston: Beacon Press, 1996).



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