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

Class 2: Pickled Herrings and Persimmons: Foodways of Enslaved Americans


Most slaves were given very few and often less than enough food rations. These provisions varied by plantation and one’s status in the slave community. When allowed, the enslaved had gardens. These provisions not only could be used to supplement their diets, but also to participate in internal and external plantation trade activities. George Washington explained to English agriculturalist Arthur Young, that it was cheaper to feed blacks than white men because blacks can be given “common food.” This consists of “bread, made of the Indian Corn, Butter milk, Fish (pickled herrings) frequently, and meat now and then...In addition to these, ground is often allowed them for gardening, & privilege given them to raise dung-hill fowls for their own use.” He goes on to explain that on small farms, “who has not more than two or three Negros,” slave owners and slaves eat almost the same foods. Larger plantations, like Washington’s, were often different.

Along with foods brought from Africa, enslaved men and women brought their cooking techniques. Leland Ferguson, among other archaeologists, discovered that the most common African meal was boiled or simmered in an earthenware or iron pot known as colonoware, one of many essential material possessions. Archaeologists have also recovered plant remains from sub-floor and trash pits in proximity to the living areas of the enslaved communities. Along with vegetables, like okra, and cucumbers grown in garden plots, many early African Americans found plants and vegetation in neighboring woodlands and uncultivated areas. Scholars like Ywone Edwards-Ingram have argued that many of these plants were used to make medicines and poultices for infections, viruses, and other problems.

Class Resources
  • Edwards-Ingram, Ywone. ”Medicating Slavery: Motherhood, Health Care, and Cultural Practices in the African Diaspora.” PhD diss., College of William and Mary, 2005, 152–187.
  • Ferguson, Leland. “Handmade Pots.” In Uncommon Ground: Archaeology and Early African America, 1650–1800. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Books, 2004, 1–32.
  • Olwell, Robert. “‘Loose, Idle, and Disorderly: Slave Women in the Eighteenth-Century Charleston Marketplace.’” In More Than Chattel: Black Women and Slavery in the Americas, edited by David Barry Gaspar and Darlene Clark Hine. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 1996, 97–110.
  • Thompson, Mary V. “The Private Life of George Washington’s Slaves.” PBS. (accessed 10/7/2016).
  • Williams-Forson, Psyche. “We Called Ourselves Waiter Carriers.” In Building Houses out of Chicken Legs: Black Women, Food, and Power. Chapel Hill, NC: University North Carolina Press, 2006, 13–37.
  • Woodhouse, James. An Inaugural Dissertation, on the Chemical and Medical Properties of the Persimmon Tree, and the Analysis of Astringent Vegetables. Philadelphia: William Woodhouse, 1792, pp. 20–25. //
  • Twitty, Michael. Interview by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. “The African Americans Many Rivers to Cross: The Black Atlantic (1500-1800).” Vimeo video, (30:01–32:00), posted by African American Experience. (accessed 10/7/2016).
Discussion Questions
  1. Consider what you know, have heard, or have read about the foods consumed by African Americans during enslavement. Using Thompson’s essay, explain how the practices on these plantations confirm and/or counter the narratives with which you are familiar. Compare the scope and nature of foods consumed at Mount Vernon to those consumed at London Town. What accounts for the differences and the similarities?
  2. Ywone Edwards-Ingram discusses the medicinal uses of the persimmon fruit by some slaves on Virginia plantations. When used medicinally, it was to cure worm, especially in children. It was also used as a beverage for refreshment. Compare Edward-Ingrams’ account to James Woodhouse’s discussion of the uses of persimmons. In what other ways might the enslaved have used the fruit and/or combined it with other herbs for use as a tonic?
  3. View the video segment [30:01–32:00] of Henry Louis Gates, Jr.’s interview with culinary historian Michael Twitty. What ingredients and ways of cooking allowed Africans to place their stamp on American cuisine? Explain how food facilitates a shift in culture and identity from African to African American. How is freedom inextricably tied to food in this context?
  4. According to Olwell, when allowed, enslaved women and men were able to hire out their own time sell produce and other goods at the market, often at prices far more exorbitant than necessary. Explain how this modicum of power and freedom was an affront to the social power of white people. Using Williams-Forson’s chapter, explain how this process was particularly empowering to African American women.
  5. In Ferguson’s essay, why was stewing using colonoware and frying the most viable ways of preparing food for enslaved Africans?
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