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Food and Slave Culture (Part IV)

Updated on June 23, 2012

Sweet Potato


Food played a crucial role in helping slaves maintain some level of the culture they had left behind. This will be explored more deeply in this section.


The first slaves who survived the long trip to America brought with them a distinct African cooking style. While cooking traditions may have varied by country or tribe in Africa, author Jessica B. Harris has found six major cooking techniques that Africans generally shared:

1. Boiling in water.

2. Steaming in leaves.

3. Frying in deep oil.

4. Toasting beside the fire. [“grilling”]

5. Roasting in the fire.

6. Baking in ashes.

These distinctly African cooking styles were maintained by slaves and their traditions carried on from generation to generation, even after African-Americans had long since lost any memory of Africa. Shad Hall, a slave from Sapelo Island, Georgia shared her grandmother’s memories:

“Muh gran hestuh say she kin membuh de house she lib in in Africa…She membuh wut de eat in Africa too. Dey eat yam an shuguh cane an peanut an bananas. Dey eat Okra too. Dey dohn habtuh work hahd wid plantin deah. Jis go in woods an dig, an git big yam. Dey eat udduh roots too.” [sic as found]

Aside from the basic cooking techniques brought from Africa, African-Americans in the United States (and throughout the hemisphere) tended to stick to seven culinary styles. Harris outlines these seven tendencies:

1. The preparation of composed rice dishes.

2. The creation of various types of fritters.

3. The use of smoked ingredients for flavoring.

4. The use of okra as a thickener.

5. The use of leafy green vegetables.

6. The abundant use of peppery and spicy hot sauces.

7. The use of nuts and seeds as thickeners.

Explanation of these cooking habits are further added to by sociologist Josephine Beoku-Betts who noted that African-American slaves “prepared food with a variety of herbs, spices like hot pepper and ginger, and seasonings like sesame and smoked meats.” The slaves used all the resources at their disposal when cooking, from the fire to the ashes, and consumed as much of a food source as they could. It seems reasonable to believe that slaves made use of items like beet or turnip greens and other leafy ‘tops’ of ground laden vegetables to gain more food and more nutrients, while the master class was content to eat only the bottoms.

Harris paints a picture of how all the cooking techniques would come together:

“Cast-iron pots – either griddles, skillets, cauldrons, tripod “spiders,” or Dutch ovens – were used for boiling, frying, or baking. Spits were used for roasting when fowl or meat was available and vegetables like sweet potatoes and breads like ashcakes could be cooked in the hot embers that were raked out onto the hearth. These cooking methods recalled African ones and undoubtedly allowed for the retention of several dishes. Slaves also retained African habits of eating stews and thick soups: one-pot meals accompanied by a starch.”

This method of eating “one-pot meals” was new to most white, slave holding families. While whites traditionally liked to serve meat as roasts, archeological evidence shows that northern African-Americans preferred their meat to be cut in pieces and served in a stew. In fact, much of the cuisine produced by African-Americans was entirely new to their white counterparts. Slave owners and their families took notice, and in many cases liked what they tasted.

Maintaining Culture

Through food and cooking, African-American slaves were able to keep a part of their African culture alive. Using traditional methods of preparing and spicing foods enabled the slaves to maintain independence, in a way. By not caving into the cooking norms of the day, African-American slaves kept not only their culture, but also their individuality. Any form of individuality that could be maintained in a system where one is owned by another else and forced to do that person’s bidding is vitally important. Family meal times were especially important cultural times for slaves.

In general, slaves ate only twice a day - usually once at around eleven in the morning and then once at night when they were finished with the day’s work. The morning meal was usually held in the fields, but the meal at night offered an opportunity for the slaves to gather together and share one another’s company. This allotted the slaves an opportunity to maintain a sense of community and in doing so maintain more of their culture.

As Harris has noted, “meals were a time of communion and of getting together.” The time after eating allowed for catching up with one another and sharing each other’s company. A slave noted: “When us finished eatin’ us would tell tales or somethin’ for a while, then everybody would go home.” [sic as found] Gathering at night after meals to garden, hunt, fish or perform other necessary duties was also common.

The manual labor necessary to make foods usable even became a communal event. Smith shares an anecdote from slave Edward J. Thomas who “remembered how the ‘young men and girls [who were slaves], on moonlight nights, would meet to grind their corn around the hand mills,’ and the plaintive songs they sang as they waited for their turn at the machine.”

By preserving culture through food and cooking, slaves maintained their own identities the best they could Although they weren’t free, this also gave the slaves what could be considered small piece of freedom. They were free to cook in a manner their family members had known for generations and by doing so exercised freedom of choice in culinary technique.


Harris, Jessica B. The Africa Cookbook: Tastes of a Continent. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998.

Hudson Jr., Larry E., ed. Working Toward Freedom: Slave Society and Domestic Economy in the American South. Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 1994.

Oliphant, Louise, interviewer, compilation, nd, transcript, WPA Slave Narrative Project, Georgia Narratives, Volume 4, Part 4, Federal Writers’ Project, United States WorkProjects Administration, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, DC.

Piersen, William D. Black Yankees: The Development of an Afro-American Subculture in Eighteenth-Century New England. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1988.

Smith, Julia Floyd. Slaver and Rice Culture in Low Country Georgia, 1750-1860. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1985.

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


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