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More Southern Food
January 5, 2009
The food provided to plantation slaves varied widely depending on several factors: time period, location, what food the plantation produced, and the owner’s economic situation all came into play.
Frederick Douglass, the escaped slave and abolitionist, wrote in 1845: “The men and women slaves received, as their monthly allowance of food, eight pounds of pork, or its equivalent in fish, and one bushel of corn meal.”
In The Life of Josiah Henson (1849), Henson, who was born a slave in1789 in Charles County, Maryland, wrote: “The principal food of those upon my master’s plantation consisted of corn-meal and salt herrings; to which was added in summer a little buttermilk, and the few vegetables which each might raise for himself and his family, on the little piece of ground which was assigned to him for the purpose, called a truck-patch.”
On coastal plantations, like those in the South Carolina Lowcountry, broken or dirty rice was plentiful and was a staple of the slave diet.
Archeological evidence from excavations of slave cabins at Ashland Plantation in Louisiana shows that in some cases slaves added to their diet by fishing and trapping. The bones of opossums, raccoons, rabbits, wild birds and fish such as freshwater drum, gar, catfish, sunfish, and mackerel have been found at the site.
In Flowerdew Hundred: The Archaeology of a Virginia Plantation, 1619-1864 (1993), James Deetz detailed archeological findings of food remnants from slave cabins at Flowerdew Hundred plantation on the James River near Hopewell, Virginia. Deetz found the foods most often eaten by slaves at Flowerdew Hundred, based on the amounts of identifiable remains, were pork, catfish, various types of birds and fish, sturgeon, chicken, beef and opossum.
Deetz also found evidence that slaves on this plantation also regularly supplemented their diets by trapping and fishing as well as by keeping pigs and maintaining garden plots.
According to Patricia A. Gibbs, a former member of the research staff at Colonial Williamsburg, there is documentary and archaeological evidence that slaves grew a variety of plants in these gardenssuch as lima beans, pole beans, cabbages, collards, corn, cymlings (patty pan squash), onions, peanuts, black-eyed or other field peas, potatoes (both Irish and sweet), and pumpkins.
These garden patches were tended after the slave’s twelve-hour workday was over (often in the dark) and on Sunday, usually a day of rest on most plantations. The vegetables chosen were high-yield, didn’t require much care after planting, and by staggering plantings, would yield successive crops throughout most of the year.
Although slave gardens were apparently fairly common in the eighteenth century, there is less evidence of their being maintained in the nineteenth century; they were rarely mentioned in traveler’s accounts of Southern plantations of the time. Slaves of this period were more likely to be dependant on the food furnished by the plantation owner, with less supplemental vegetables available to them.
No matter what they were furnished or could procure for themselves, the diet of the slave was barely adequate in the best of times, especially considering the large amount of calories they expended. Malnutrition and the diseases it spawns were common among slaves, and the mortality rate was staggering, especially among the young.