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

Class 3: Dinner is Served: Food Procurement, Preparation, and Consumption


Cooking for a family in the colonial era was hard and precise work. Cooks required a range of necessary skills, including knowing how best to acquire, prepare, and preserve foods so that they were less affected by climates. Vegetables could easily grow mushy in heat and freeze in the winter; unsalted meats could spoil. Food had to be well preserved during the summer and fall months so that there was enough to eat in winter and spring. In addition to gardens and livestock, the Potomac River and the daily market provided food. On smaller farms and homesteads, all family members participated in procuring and preparing food. On larger plantations, enslaved men and women performed these tasks, often regardless of age or health. Though most often he ate simply, during special mealtimes, George Washington directed that his dinner table “be handsomely, but not extravagantly, furnished,” with a single meal of over two dozen dishes laid out over two courses. The meal might round out with an array of sweets, fruits, wines, and tea.

When meals produced indigestion or other illnesses arose, George Washington sometimes summoned slaves, like the aged Old Doll, to create remedies. Mint water, for example, was used to help relieve an upset stomach, indigestion, or sore throat. In addition to West African slaves having brought their own cooking knowledge, they also brought herbal knowledge. Some transported actual roots and seeds in the protective amulets they wore. During the middle passage, slave captains used West African roots and foods to treat illnesses. Wild licorice seeds, for example, are frequently mentioned by historians as one of many kinds of seeds that made its way to the Americas. Historian Sharla Fett indicates that similar to foods that were intermingled, herbs were exchanged and improvised between Native Americans and Europeans. Among the herbs and plants referenced are boneset (Eupatorium perfoliatum), which was reportedly used by the Iroquois and later, Europeans for fevers. Some slaves used okra as a laxative, along with senne. Pokeweed, a wild grown plant, and potentially dangerous if not cooked correctly was also used for its curative properties, along with sassafrass, snakeroot, red pepper, and comfrey, among others.

Class Resources
Discussion Questions
  1. In McLeod, examine “The Cooks’ Day, 1790s.” From this food event, what do we learn about how the individuals, including Martha Washington, and the place (the kitchen, the slave quarters, the plantation, and the region) were crucial to a day’s meal production? How does this sketch emphasize the important observation that food is more than sustenance?
  2. In McLeod, examine the 1798 portrait of the Washington family by Edward Savage. What can we glean about food and power dynamics from this picture? In this depiction, how does food and domestic ritual serve to communicate strict lines separating people and spaces?
  3. How does Fett illustrate the connections between health, healing, and power for enslaved communities?
  4. Lewis Marks and Tennet both discuss the role of snakeroot in healing slaves of colds and other illnesses. Given that whites also used this herb, how likely was it that slaves went beyond simply using a single herb, but instead combined these plants with African herbal knowledge in order to create their own curatives?
  5. Why did enslaved members of the plantation community prefer the healing techniques of other slaves rather than European doctors? How and why did this pose social, cultural, and economic concerns for plantation owners?
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