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More Southern Food
November 11, 2011
In the economic uncertainty immediately following the Civil War, some newly freed slaves remained on the plantations of their former owners, working the land as tenant farmers for a share of the crop.
They were joined by a new underclass of desperately poor whites, some of who had been marginally poor farmers who were forced off their land for being unable to pay the four years’ worth of back taxes demanded after the war by the federal government.
Sharecroppers, both black and white, often fell victim to the “crop lien” system, in which they received food, seeds and supplies on credit from the landowner or the local store.
In 1938, the Works Progress Administration interviewed African American sharecroppers in Mississippi about their diet. They reported that the “furnishing men” supplied a peck of cornmeal, three pounds of salt meat, two pounds of sugar, one pound of coffee, one gallon of molasses and one plug of chewing tobacco, essentially the same rations their grandfathers had drawn as slaves.
As these “furnishings” were advanced at inflated prices against their earnings from their share of the crop, most found themselves in debt to the landowner at the end of the season and beholden to work another year to pay off a debt that could never be paid.
Although these weekly “furnishings” were nearly identical to what they had lived on during slavery days, there was a major shift in their diet because of the crop lien system. The small patches of land used for the personal vegetable gardens that supplemented their diets during slavery were given up in order to grow more sale crops to help pay the debt. Soon the truly poor, black and white, were living almost exclusively on poor-quality cornmeal and molasses with no vegetables or meat other than fried hog fat. While they were taking in enough raw calories, their diet lacked enough protein and vitamins. This led to widespread malnutrition and disease until steps were taken to enrich cornmeal and flour with vitamins.
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