What the Slaves Ate: Recollections of African American Foods and Foodways from the Slave Narratives

What the Slaves Ate: Recollections of African American Foods and Foodways from the Slave Narratives

What the Slaves Ate: Recollections of African American Foods and Foodways from the Slave Narratives

What the Slaves Ate: Recollections of African American Foods and Foodways from the Slave Narratives

Synopsis

The powerful, long-neglected testimony of former slaves places African American slave foods and foodways at the center of the complex social dynamics of the plantation South.

Excerpt

Much has been written over the years about the complex social, economic, and political outcomes of the institution of slavery in the United States. Authors have explored, from myriad perspectives, the social and cultural upheaval caused by this tragic chapter in our country’s history. Although there is a considerable literature on what slaves ate and how they survived, most of what has been written has been based on second- or third-hand accounts, archaeological evidence, and research of extant documents of the times, such as slave ship logs, plantation rationing logs, and manuals on the treatment of slaves.

Surprisingly, precious little has been written using the first-person accounts of the slaves themselves to tell the story of how they subsisted under slavery. In fact, not only did they subsist, they created flavorful and nutritious dishes by supplementing rations of poor-quality food and leftover scraps with their own enterprise, drawing on the rich African and Caribbean traditions of peppers and spices.

Purpose of the Book

This book focuses on a single but complex aspect of slavery, that of food. It highlights some of the ways that food related to slave culture; how it was used to control, punish, and reward slaves and how it was rationed; and how African American slave foods evolved into the diverse array of southern-influenced dishes, taking into consideration regional differences and other ethnic and national influences (Native American, French, and Spanish) as well.

We began this project nearly three years ago with what, at the time, we thought would be the simple notion of utilizing the Works Progress Administration’s (WPA) Federal Writers’ Project of the 1930s as the foundational base for studying African American slave foodways of the Antebellum period. Despite their flaws and biases, which are detailed in Chapter 1 the WPA slave narratives are nevertheless a rich source of first-person accounts of life under slavery, including details . . .

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