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Food and Slave Culture (Part I)

Updated on June 18, 2012
Cotton Cultivation
Cotton Cultivation | Source

For roughly 400 years, from the mid 1400’s until the Civil War in the 1860’s, slaves were a major piece of the fabric of America and American life. These men, women, and children struggled through the hardships of this ‘peculiar institution’ in both the North and the South. Uprooted from their homes and families across the African continent and shipped to America under the cruelest of conditions, it was difficult for slaves to maintain the culture they had once known. Assimilation into the culture of the slaveholder was difficult if not impossible to avoid at one level or another.

These uprooted Africans, now African-Americans, fought every day, for generations, to maintain some level of independence by keeping their culture and beliefs alive. One important area where slaves were able to preserve their culture was through food and cooking. Food and cooking became an important part of slaves’ daily lives, not only by fulfilling the basic human need to eat and be nourished, but by helping the slaves to maintain a part of their culture brought from Africa and a homeland they would likely never see again.

Through food, a piece of African culture survived and had a lasting impact not only on the lives of the slaves during this period, but it is an impact that affects almost everyone in the United States today. Much of the food we in the U.S. would call southern cooking or soul food has its roots in slavery. The impact of slave culture, through food, has left a lasting impression.

Previous researchers of slavery and slave culture have touched on the subject of food to various degrees, but few have devoted a great deal of time to it. It is only a piece of a larger picture. Similarly, food historians have explored the issue, but have not gone into great depth. Perhaps the best works on this topic are the cookbooks/histories written by Jessica B. Harris. While her cookbooks contain mostly African and African-American recipes, she also devotes a good amount of energy and writing in her introductions to exploring the historical side of food and Africans/African-Americans.

This five-part series of Hubs will explore the connection between food and slaves in America, in the time period roughly from the establishment of the United States of America in the last quarter of the 18th century until the Civil War in middle of the 19th century. The focus will be primarily on slaves in the south, for a few reasons. First, information about food in southern slaves’ lives appears more abundantly documented than their northern counterparts, likely because of the large number of slaves and the nature of plantation life in the south.

Slavery itself tended to be different between the north and south. Southern slaveholders tended to own large groups of slaves, sometimes hundreds, to work on their vast plantations growing crops such as cotton or tobacco. Northern slaveholders, on the other hand, tended to own much smaller groups of slaves who served more often as house servants, skilled and unskilled laborers. In many cases these slaves lived under the same roof as their master and his family.

Climate in the southern states made the plantation model possible and very lucrative, whereas northern climate would not allow for such agriculture, leading to this different form of slavery. Also, northern states were either free or became free of slavery during this period (although still not offering equal treatment in many cases), leaving the formal institution of slavery relegated solely to the south for a large part of the first half of 19th century.

By looking at what slaves were given to eat, how they supplemented what they were given, and how they made it their own through their cooking techniques, one can get a sense of how they took what they had and made it something entirely different. While the food itself in some cases may have been different, the cooking style used to turn that food into a meal had deep roots in African culture. The upcoming Hubs on this subject will explore food and culture more deeply.

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