Monday, August 25, 2008

Slave Cuisine

A lot of the foods that we eat here in the United States especially among the African American communities, have roots that stem from slavery.

Along with the African slaves kidnapped and brought to the U.S. in slaves vessels for the purpose of bondage came many foods that were native to their home environment. Records reveal that most of the slave cargo ships carried with them food goods directly from Africa for the enslaved passengers to consume during their journey across the Ocean.

Some ships carried foods central to the African diet, such as rice, okra, tania, black-eyed peas, cassava, yams, kidney and lima beans, peanuts, millet, sorghum, guinea melon, watermelon, and sesame (benne). The ship logs of the slave vessel Elizabeth, bound for Rhode Island in 1754, listed provisions of "yams, plantain, bread [cornbread], fish and rice."

Records from the slave ship Othello (1768-69) listed hundreds of baskets of yams taken on board as provisions along with lesser quantities of plantains, limes, pepper, palm oil, and gobbagobs (goobers or peanuts). However, most ships did not provide an adequate ration of these foods to last the entire journey. As a result many of the captives died.

Of course, the slaves on these ships were extremely fortunate. Other ships provided only small portions of rice and beans with a "slabber" sauce, made from old beef, rotten fish and salt, which was poured over the rice and beans in an attempt to fill the slave's stomachs. As you might have guessed, this often resulted in the death of many slaves from the obvious food poisoning. Its a wonder that only about 1/3 of the original captives on some ships actually made it alive to America.

However, as previously mentioned many crops that had been native to Africa made their way into the Southern cuisine and became staples on the slave menu.

The ordeals of the slaves were many. Many slaveowners did little to see to their comfort or well-being. For those who did, more often than not, it was not the result of any genuine concern for the slave per se. Rather, they had their own interests in mind since they viewed the slaves as an investment and their own livelihood depended on the ability of the slave to perform the free labor needed for the owner to prosper.

Despite this, many provided the slaves with just enough food to produce the energy to complete a day's work. Of course, in those days, the average workday was from sunrise to sunset. For many, this meant a full day of working in the fields performing hard labor in extreme weather conditions. Providing the slaves with just enough food for energy was a good case scenario. Many did not provide adequate rations of food to the slaves. Many slaves who tolled for the benefit of their Masters were nearly starved and subsisted only on meager helpings of food.

In most instances, the slaves raised crops and procured meats for the subsistance of the Master and his family and were not allowed to partake of these foods themselves. For instance, if they butcherd a hog or a cow, the Master would get all the prime cuts of meat such as the shank for ham, bacon, pork chops, steak and the like. The slaves would get all the parts of the hog or cow that the Master would not eat and parts that were traditionally thrown away such as the intestines, feet, neck, ribs(carcass), liver, ears, tongue, tails and such.

But God always has a way of turning something that Satan meant for bad into something good. From these scraps came the genesis of the African American cuisine that today is known as "Soul Food." Many of the sisters that were brought here from Africa brought with them their culinary talents that they had learned in the Mother Land which enabled them to turn the scraps they were given into something next to wonderful. After all, their very survival depended on it.

Hence came the creation of such dishes as chiterlings, pig feet, tails and ears, neckbones, barbeque ribs, hogshead cheese and ham hocks. Add to these, their native yams, okra, black-eyed peas other crops such as greens, rice and beans, it made for some good eating and became slave delicacies.

In addition, dishes make from grains such as skillet and hot water cornbread and grits became slave staples.

When they did get to eat more traditional cuts of meat, you were looking at some cooking. They created such dishes as smothered pork chops, glazed hams, steak with gravy, fried catfish, turkey and dressing and fried chicken.

At Christmas, many slaves described the killing of hogs, turkeys and chicken with plenty of side dishes and desserts to go around. However, during most of the year, this was not the norm. Normally, their food was rationed but again, the slaves made the best with what they were given.

Most of the dishes that the slaves conjured up are still being enjoyed today although many now have modified the ingredients because of today's health concerns, myself included. The prevalence of diseases such as hypertension, diabetes and heart problems especially amongst the African American population have caused many to substitute meats such as pork with chicken or turkey and grill rather than fry meats and vegetables.

Remember, slaves for the most part consumed pork because their survival and the survival of their future generations required them to do so. Prior to them arriving in America, many of them did not consume pork. Instead their diets consisted mainly of other small portions of other meats and mostly vegetables. Many Africans today still do not eat pork. Could our ancestors have known the adverse effects that prolonged consumption of pork could have on their bodies? The Bible, in Deuteronomy teaches it is unclean to consume swine or any animal that has divided hoof and/or chews a cud.

As for myself, I consume pork maybe 3 times a year, ham at Easter and Christmas and 4th of July Ribs. Other than that, it is turkey, chicken and fish, all cuts but I work these meats into the traditional dishes originated by African slaves.

Whatever, your preference, if you enjoy "Soul Food," you have the slaves to thank for its origin.

Psalm 146:5-7

5Happy is he that hath the God of Jacob for his help, whose hope is in the LORD his God:

6Which made heaven, and earth, the sea, and all that therein is: which keepeth truth for ever:

7Which executeth judgment for the oppressed: which giveth food to the hungry. The LORD looseth the prisoners:


Miriam said...

Fascinating post! Reminds me of some articles I read recently in the June 2008 Energy Times magazine. Not all the articles are available online, just the main one about Vivica Fox, but there was more in the hard copy issue about changing African-American soul food recipes to be healthier, but just as satisfying.

Jennifer said...

Very interesting post! I love food because it is such a fabulous (and delicious) gateway into culture and history. Guess I can blame being overweight on my innate curiousity then!

Julie Rose said...

Do you know something about the origins of Gumbo and the relationship of Gumbo to slaves' cuisine?