Food and Slave Culture (Part III)
In order to round out their diet, slaves had to find ways to supplement the rations they were receiving. They did this through cultivation of their own garden plots as well as hunting, fishing, domestication of animals, and on occasion, stealing. Most of these activities took place after the slaves had completed their days work in the fields.
Garden plots played an important role in supplementing the diet of the slave. In some cases, slave owners who could reduce the cost of feeding slaves by forcing them to cultivate their own vegetables insisted upon these plots. Plots varied in size, generally one to two acres, but sometimes larger, although on rice plantations in Georgia the average plot size was reported to be half an acre. Some groups of slaves shared a communal plot.
Gardening was done whenever the slaves had time. South Carolina residents Charlie Grant and Sylvia Cannon recalled:
“Oh, yes, de slaves had dey own garden dat de work at night en especially moonlight nights coarse de had to work in de field all day till sundown. Mamma had a big garden en plant collards en everythink like dat you want to eat. Coase dey let de slaves have three acres of land to a family to plant for dey garden. Work dem in moonlight nights en on a Saturday evenin.” [sic as found]
Slaves of the American South grew a variety of vegetables in these garden plots. What could be grown depended on where the plantation was located. For example, coastal areas offered different planting climates than did inland areas. Coastal areas allowed for the growth of green vegetables like cabbage, collard and turnip greens. Green leafy vegetables, in particular, provide an abundance of vitamins and nutrients. These garden crops often helped offset the nutritional imbalance that standard slave rations created.
Historian Julia Floyd Smith outlined some of the nutritional value gained from slave gardening:
“Provision crops such as turnips (roots and tops), peas, and sweet potatoes were grown on the plantation and served as supplements to enrich the slave’s diet. Turnips have a high iron and vitamin content and may have saved many a slave from having a serious deficiency disease. Peas are fairly high in proteins and contain some vitamins, and sweet potatoes are an excellent source of several nutrients and vitamins.”
Some of the items grown were ‘native’ to American soil, while many had their origins in Africa, as well as other continents. Food items such as rice, okra, black-eyed peas, yams, kidney and lima beans, watermelon, liquorice and sesame all have African origins. Slaves were also able to find wild fruits and vegetables, on occasion.
Some African-American foods of the time were surprising and somewhat unusual. In some parts of Africa the eating of clay is a common practice. Some enslaved people brought this practice with them to America. Clay eating remains an important practice for a number of southern African-American even today.
Some slaves took to eating the fruits of their labor – cotton seed. The seeds would be boiled for hours and skimmed off then corn-meal would be added to the thick liquid left behind. Doc Quinn, a slave, noted in a WPA interview:
“I has never eaten anything whut tasted any better, or whut would stick to your ribs like cotton-seed, and corn-meal cake. Rich? Why dey’s nuthin dat is more nutritious. You never saw a healthier or finer lookin’ bunch of negroes dan wuz on Colonel Hervey’s place.” [sic as found]
Gardening was not the only way slaves supplemented their diets, though. A number of slaves who were given more latitude by their masters were able to take any excess produce they grew and sell or trade it. Slaves who sold their produce would often sell it to their master’s family or to other slave owning families in the area. For example, in Georgia the slaves of Thomas Butler King sold their excess produce to the King family. The Kings also purchased additional produce from other slaves from nearby plantations The money slaves earned from such sales was generally used for one of two things – it was either used to purchase food items, liquor, and tobacco, or was saved in hopes of one day using it to purchase their freedom.
Gardening and the use of the produce grown to both supplement diet and in some cases earn money were not the only ways slaves added to their diets. Hunting and fishing also played in important role in the lives of many slaves.
Hunting and Fishing
Hunting and Fishing further helped slaves to supplement their diets, for those whose masters allowed such activities. On some plantations, slave owners trusted their slaves enough to provide them with guns for hunting. Slaves hunted and fished for a variety of animal life. As was the case with gardens, location played a role in what food sources were available for the slaves to hunt or fish, although the diet was quite similar.
Archeological studies hint at the variety of game slaves caught to add to their diets. In estuarine plantation sites in Florida and Georgia, remains were found of “raccoon, pig, cow, turtle, fish, and shellfish…” Tidewater sites in places like Virginia, Louisiana, and South Carolina showed remains of fish, pigs, cows, chickens, turtle, sheep, and wild birds, while upland sites like Tennessee, parts of South Carolina and Georgia showed consumption of birds, raccoons, pigs, cows, deer, chickens, and aquatic reptiles.
Many of the animals consumed in the different parts of the south are the same, but one could hypothesize that slave diets were likely made up of larger amounts of one kind of animal depending on location. For instance, slaves living near rivers, streams, ponds, or coastal areas likely supplemented their diets with more seafood and aquatic reptiles. Conversely, slaves further inland or near wooded areas likely supplemented their diets with more wild game such as deer and birds.
In many cases slaves were forced to hunt at night because it was the only ‘free time’ they had. Harris has noted that “One reason that possum figured so prominently in slave menu’s is that it is a nocturnal creature and could be hunted when the slaves weren’t working.” The archeological findings above also show a common theme for all plantation areas of the south – the likelihood of domesticated animals playing a part in the slave diet.
Some slave owners allowed their slaves to keep domesticated animals such as pigs, cows, or chickens. For the African-Americans who had them, these animals helped to add variety and nutrition to their often-meager diet. In some cases slaves also stole from their masters and neighbors to supplement their diet.
Harris, Jessica B. The Africa Cookbook: Tastes of a Continent. New York: Simon &
Holloway, Joseph E. “African Crops and Slave Cuisine.”
Hudson Jr., Larry E., ed. Working Toward Freedom: Slave Society and Domestic
Economy in the American South. Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 1994.
MacClancy, Jeremy. Consuming Culture: Why You Eat What You Eat. New York:
Henry Holt and Company, 1992.
Quinn, Doc, interview by Cecil Copeland, nd, transcript, WPA Slave Narrative
Project, Arkansas Narratives, Volume 2, Part 6, Federal Writers’ Project, United StatesWork Projects Administration, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, DC.
Singleton, Theresa A., ed. The Archaeology of Slavery and Plantation Life. Orlando:
Academic Press, Inc., 1985.
Smith, Julia Floyd. Slave and Rice Culture in Low Country Georgia, 1750-1860.
Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1985.