Food and Slave Culture (Part V)
This final piece on food and slave culture looks at how the food of slaves has carried on for over a century and incorporated itself in mainstream American eating.
It is interesting to note that as African-American cuisine became more mainstream in white cooking and eating habits, particularly in the south, a situation arises where slaves are actually sharing their culture with whites. In all probability, white slave holders and their families are choosing to accept and make a part of their lives a piece of culture from a supposed lesser race. It is a blending of sorts of two dramatically different cultures, coming together through food (but not freedom).
Historian Sidney Mintz suggests that food was an early step toward freedom for slaves, though. He notes:
“…nearly all of the slaves had something to do with food, with its production or processing or distribution. In these differing tasks (and in eating), they were able to exercise in human potentiality to take, to compare, to elaborate their preferences…Yet the ability to render judgements of food, to develop comparisons, to calibrate differences in taste – and to be prevented from doing so – help to suggest that something of the taste of freedom was around before freedom itself was.”
Food allowed for independence, even if only at an elementary level. It allowed for retention of cultural values that could be passed on from generation to generation. It allowed a small level of control in the otherwise dictated lives of slaves. Food also formed an unlikely commonality between the controlling class of white planters and enslaved African-Americans.
African-American (slave) cuisine was slowly assimilated into the very fabric of southern (white) cooking throughout the late 18th and early to mid 19th centuries. This assimilation is clearly evident today, as southern cooking is a way of life for many people in the American south, whether black, white, or otherwise and is its popularity can also be seen across the country – north, south, east, and west.
Southern Cooking Today
Southern cooking, or Soul Food, is one of the more popular types of American cuisine today. Over the past quarter century or so, an influx of Southern cooking restaurants, cook books, and even TV cooking programs have exploded on the scene. Many of today’s most popular food and cooking techniques have roots in African-American slave kitchens. One only has to flip through a southern cookbook to find a number of themes familiar to slave cooking. One example is barbecue.
In his book Southern Food: At Home, on the Road, in History, John Egerton notes of barbecue:
“The practice was not confined to the South, of course, but it took root there when slavery was practiced, and black men were the ones who did the hot and difficult work that was and is a necessary part of good barbecue making. To this day, a high percentage of the South’s master pit men are black.”
Old cooking habits still survive today everywhere. On Sapelo Island in Georgia, the cooking practices of today are very reminiscent of the slave period more than two centuries ago. A group of African-American women on Sapelo Island were asked what makes the food in this area different from other places. One woman responded:
“Culture and what’s available to you. I call it a make do society in Sapelo because you can’t run to the supermarket to get things. We are plain cooking. We use salt, pepper, and onion, as basic additives. Our flavoring comes from the type of meat we put in. Bacon is white folks food, pigs tails, neck bones and hamhock is what we use. Soul food is what other Americans call it, but we consider these to be foods we always ate. We never label ourselves or our food.”
These are just a couple examples of mainstream foods today that have origins in American slavery. One can see dozens of other examples by picking up a southern or Soul Food cookbook and leafing through the pages. By maintaining their culture through food, slaves paved the way for a plethora of exciting culinary options to be available to people around the country (and truly around the world) today.
Egerton, John. Southern Food: At Home, on the Road, in History. New York: Alfred A.
Knopf, Inc, 1987.
Hudson Jr., Larry E., ed. Working Toward Freedom: Slave Society and Domestic
Economy in the American South. Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 1994.
Mintz, Sidney W. Tasting Food, Tasting Freedom: Excursions into Eating, Culture, and
the Past. Boston: Beacon Press, 1996.