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“All the Slaves Ate Together”: African American Foodways and the Colonial Era

Class 1: Colonial Foodways in all of their Splendor


For many, food is considered a many-splendored thing. Foodways, however—that is, what we eat, how we obtain it, from whom and from where, how it is prepared, and so on—are very different. Folklorist Jay Anderson introduced this concept in 1971 to mean, “the whole interrelated system of food conceptualization, procurement, distribution, preservation, and consumption shared by all members of a particular group.” This class focuses on studying food, as well as foodways to enable us to understand how foodways tell stories and communicate the relationship between food and identity, power, behaviors, and emotions. By focusing on food events, we can study the ways in which cooks and eaters, and food production and consumption are complexly linked. Thus, studying foods and foodways (including the mundane events in which they occur) can tell us about more about people’s cultures, places, spaces, and time periods.

Africans came to the Americas not only with intimate memories of traditional culinary practices and cuisines, but also with particular, regionally-based agricultural knowledge. These, and other skills were called upon to benefit New World markets, especially the tending of new kinds of crops. African foods and livestock made their way to the Americas during the Middle Passage, when Europeans stocked and restocked slave ships. African women, in particular, prepared foods both during transport and once they arrived, using their customary methods as well as borrowing from Native Americans and Europeans. They introduced plants and herbs, such as tamarind, hibiscus flowers, and the kola nut to improve tastes and to fight diseases resulting from vitamin deficiency. Africans contributed other foods such as yams, okra, black-eyed peas, plantain, pigeon peas, rice, watermelon, peanuts, sesame seeds, and melegueta or red peppers along with cooking techniques such as slow cooking (stewed) and deep-frying.

Class Resources
  • Anderson, Jay Allen. “The Study of Contemporary Foodways in American Folklife Research.” Keystone Folklore Quarterly 16 (1971): 155–63.
  • Breen, T. H., and Stephen Innes. ‘Myne Owne Ground’: Race and Freedom on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, 1640–1676. 25th anniversary ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004, Introduction and Chapter 1.
  • Camp, Charles. “The Food Event.” In American Foodways: What, When, Why, and How We Eat in America. Little Rock, AR: August House Publishers, 1989, 55–82.
  • Carney, Judith, and Richard Rosomoff. In the Shadow of Slavery: Africa’s Botanical Legacy in the Atlantic World. Oakland, CA: University of California Press, 2010, Introduction, Chapters 3 and 4.
  • Hall, Robert L. “Food Crops, Medicinal Plants, and the Atlantic Slave Trade.” In African American Foodways: Explorations of History & Culture, edited by Anne L. Bower. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2007, 17–44.
  • Thompson, Mary V. “The Private Life of George Washington’s Slaves.” PBS. (accessed 10/7/2016).
  • Trotter, Thomas. “Observations on the Scurvy.” In Observations on the Scurvy: With a Review of the Theories Lately Advanced on that Disease; and the Opinions of Dr. Milman Refuted from Practice. Philadelphia, PA: Published by John Parker, 1793, 17–28. //
  • Voeks, Robert. “African Medicine and Magic in the Americas.” Geographical Review 83, no. 1 (January 1993): 66–78.
  • Harris, Jessica B. “Links in the Chains: Culinary Connectedness in the Atlantic.” Hutchins Lecture at the Center for the Study of the American South, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, NC, March 20, 2014. (accessed 10/7/2016).
Discussion Questions
  1. In his seminal essay on American foodways, folklorist Jay Anderson argues that the study of foodways should include “the whole interrelated system of food conceptualization, procurement, distribution, preservation, and consumption shared by all members of a particular group.” This concept, coupled with Charles Camp’s emphasis on food events, means that in addition to studying the food, we should consider how people identify themselves in relation to the foods. Breen and Innes have studied the lives of free blacks in the Chesapeake. Examine their analysis on the status of free blacks, and Mary Thompson’s discussion of the enslaved at Mount Vernon. How was the process of food acquisition, production, and consumption directly affected by social, cultural, and political changes?
  2. Thomas Trotter, a physician working aboard the infamous slave ship Brookes, describes the conditions under which African slaves contracted scurvy during the forced transport from Guinea to the West Indies. In the process, he details some of the foods that they were fed, often forcibly and under threat of punishment. Trotter details: “Their diet consisted of beans, rice, and Indian corn, alternately, boiled: to which was added a sufficiency of Guinea pepper, and a small proportion of palm oil and common salt.” How might a researcher use this primary source as evidence for better understanding the legacies of African American foodways? How do the events surrounding the consumption of these foods help to answer questions about the Middle Passage? What other research questions might this kind of source help to answer? What stories might we be able to tell using this kind of primary source?
  3. From reading Thompson’s and Hall’s essays and from watching Jessica Harris’ discussion of culinary connections, what can we infer about the foods—those cooked and consumed by enslaved Africans—at Mount Vernon and other early plantations of the Chesapeake? How did the enslaved use improvisation and ingenuity not only to expand their own diets, but also to affect early American food cultures?
  4. For Carney and Rosomoff, noting that Africans grew the majority of the provisions used to keep themselves alive during the Middle Passage in Africa, is an important corrective to the narrative of Africa as a land of starvation. As a result of this analysis, what do we learn about the important role of women on slave ships during this horrific period?
  5. In Carney, Hall, and Voeks, we learn how African crops were heavily incorporated into plantation food systems. Discuss how knowledge of these early planting systems enabled Africans to recreate kinship patterns, practice cultural lifeways, and identities using food.
  6. According to Voeks, how did African knowledge of plants and healing influence plantation remedies and medicines?
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