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

Class 4: Steal Away — The Enslaved Persons’ Quest for Freedom


Reportedly, one of the greatest chefs in American history was the chief cook of President George Washington, who was known only by a single name—Hercules. He was considered ”a celebrated artiste,” by Martha Washington’s grandson, and has been remembered as highly precise in ordering maids and scullions to keep everything in order in the kitchen. Though compensated for his skills and highly revered, Hercules was ever aware that he was a slave. On February 22, 1797—Washington’s 65th birthday—Hercules left Mount Vernon never to be heard of again. Ona Maria Judge was prompted to flee when she learned of Martha Washington’s decision to give her (Ona) as a wedding gift to Washington’s granddaughter. In an interview published in the Granite Freeman, Judge, a “waiting maid,” noted that she left both because she longed to be free and “she was determined never to be [granddaughter Custis’] slave.” When asked how she escaped, Judge replied, “Whilst they were packing up to go to Virginia, I was packing to go, I didn’t know where; for I knew that if I went back to Virginia, I never should get my liberty…[I] left while they were eating dinner.” In writing about Judge, Erica Armstrong Dunbar reminds us of the importance of using food events as a diversion when she explains that because house slaves were under constant supervision, it was extremely difficult for enslaved people like Ona to find time to “Steal Away.”

During enslavement, food and freedom were often intertwined. Not only did some slaves use moments of celebration as a distraction in order to escape, but also many more actually used food as a means of resistance. The forced labor of slavery affected everything from work routines to food distribution, preparation, and consumption. Slaves often registered rebellion by feigning illness, breaking tools, or other ways of sabotaging production. In the kitchen, food could be slowly cooked, burned, and even poisoned. Recognizing that many enslaved African women had knowledge of herbs and plants, from which poisons could be made, the Bristol (UK) Weekly Intelligencier published the recipe for an antidote to slave poisons. With varying degrees of success, slaves also resorted to stealing both out of hunger as well as retaliation. During escape, food acquisition could be impossible, leading to capture. In these contexts, food was more of an obstacle than a tool of resistance.

Class Resources
Discussion Questions
  1. Harris, LaBan, and McLeod describe Hercules, an enslaved chef who cooked for George Washington, using words like “exactitude” and “tyrant” to describe his strict standards in choreographing the preparation of daily meals. Compare these discussions of the African American chef to the criticisms levied by Eyder Peralta on the image and depiction of the heralded chef in Ramin Ganeshram’s children’s book, A Birthday Cake for George Washington.
  2. Using Douglass’ and Gartrell’s writings, analyze the historical document, “Recipe to adverse effects of poison,” as a primary source of information about colonial slaves and resistance using herbs and plants to poison plantation families. What might this recipe suggest about the prevalence of slaves using poison as a means of resistance? Including cakes and pastries, what other foods could be an easy vehicle for the transmission of such poisons?
  3. Historians have noted that despite the compensation that many slaves, like Hercules, received for their labor, their ultimate recompense was freedom. Erica Armstrong Dunbar discusses the specific ways that women like Ona Judge were able to get way before detected. Using Josiah Henson’s experience and that of Judge, what can we learn from the notice about runaway slaves and slavery in general (for example, some slaves had personal belongings suggesting their station on the plantation, some runaways were skilled workers, some could read and write, some had markings indicating their ethnic group)? Discuss what we might be able to gather about food, gender, and freedom from reading runaway notices.
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