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What the Slaves Ate: Recollections of African American Foods and Foodways from the Slave Narratives Illustrated Edition
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Carefully documenting African American slave foods, this book reveals that slaves actively developed their own foodways-their customs involving family and food. The authors connect African foods and food preparation to the development during slavery of Southern cuisines having African influences, including Cajun, Creole, and what later became known as soul food, drawing on the recollections of ex-slaves recorded by Works Progress Administration interviewers. Valuable for its fascinating look into the very core of slave life, this book makes a unique contribution to our knowledge of slave culture and of the complex power relations encoded in both owners' manipulation of food as a method of slave control and slaves' efforts to evade and undermine that control.
While a number of scholars have discussed slaves and their foods, slave foodways remains a relatively unexplored topic. The authors' findings also augment existing knowledge about slave nutrition while documenting new information about slave diets.
"This fascinating anthropological documentary excavates 1930s WPA-funded interviews to find the testimony of former slaves on the subject of food's role in daily life. In 12 absorbing, essay-style chapters, Covey (African American Slave Medicine) and independent scholar Eisnach explore how food was used to reinforce power relationships, how slave recipes gradually entered plantation kitchens, and how the Civil War changed entrenched traditions. Fourteen appendixes, categorized by food type, list specific ingredients mentioned by interview subjects and indicate the subject's home state, a record that facilitates awareness of regional customs.'
"This book is among the first to explore the diet and cooking behaviors of American slaves through the use of first-person narratives as opposed to archaeological evidence such as slave ship logs, plantation rationing logs and manuals on the treatment of slaves. Covey, an author and Vice Chair of the Colorado State Juvenile Parole Board, has teamed with
Eisnach, and independent scholar and editor, to collect oral histories handed down from generation to generation and compiled by a WPA narrative project. The authors discuss African traditions and roots that influenced food consumption and break down the slaves' diet according to food category."―
Reference & Research Book News
"…contribute greatly to our knowledge of African-American diet and cuisine, a subject often clouded by myth, misinformation and ignorance. …This book helps us understand the use of food as a control mechanism, through rationing, denial and timing of the supply as well as the effect of these issues on nutrition and health. Researchers tell the story of how the people they enslaved repurposed what was available to create new cuisines, often supplementing meager supplies by farming, fishing and hunting. Many recipes are included, and appendices list more than 300 foods or dishes found as researchers examined all 2,200 narratives recorded by the WPA."―
Diverse: Issues in Higher Education
"Highly recommended for high school, community college, college and public libraries."―
Catholic Library World
About the Author
Herbert C. Covey is the author of African American Slave Medicine: Herbal and Non-Herbal Treatments (2007) as well as of numerous books and articles on juvenile gangs and on drug addiction. He has been Vice Chair of the Colorado State Juvenile Parole Board since 1994 and Field Administrator for the Colorado Department of Human Services since 1999.
Dwight Eisnach is an independent scholar and editor. He began his career as an investigative reporter and later served the Colorado Department of Human Services for some 25 years, successively as Legislative Liaison, Public Information Officer, and Administrator of the Colorado Juvenile Parole Board.
- Publisher : Greenwood; Illustrated edition (May 20, 2009)
- Language : English
- Hardcover : 311 pages
- ISBN-10 : 031337497X
- ISBN-13 : 978-0313374975
- Item Weight : 1.85 pounds
- Dimensions : 7 x 0.75 x 10 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #1,560,827 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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1. The use of rice dishes
2. The use of smoked ingredients for flavoring
3. The use of okra, nuts, and seeds for thickening agents
4. The use of leafy green vegetables
5. The creation of different types of fritters
6. The abundant use of peppery and spicy hot sauces
The book goes to tell us what the slaves were given in terms of ration and how many calories that ration gave them versus how much they needed. On the coast, enslaved African received more rice and fish as a part of their rations. More inland, they received more pork and corn. Some even received yams and goat. Cows were never really apart of rations (though later on in the book, enslaved Africans are showed to have eaten beef infrequently) because cows required grazing and therefore needed to more land and couldn't be penned. Pigs also were less picky about foods they were given. Rations were usually never enough. This caused enslaved Africans to plow their own plot of land (if the Master allowed it) to supplement their meager rations, despite that, nutritional diseases was common. The lack of nutrition usually lead to rickets (vitamin D deficiency), scurvy (vitamin C deficiency), beriberi (thiamine deficiency), pellagra (vitamin B3 deficiency), and anemia (low red blood cells) from deficits in iron and vitamins. If they weren't allowed a plot of land, enslaved Africans just starved, stole (risking severe beatings) or as one free African said, "Ate out of the garbage."
Many of foods eaten today is a stark contrast to what African-Americans eat now (because of misguided government subsidies, lack of grocery store with adequate fruits and vegetables, lack of transportation, cultural ignorance and more). Enslaved Africans may had a bit more an eclectic diet because they ate seasonally. Some foods I didn't know they ate at all and many of the foods and dishes purported by the Works Progress Administration (WPA; who collected the free slaves narratives that the book heavily sources) blows the lid off of common soul food. Enslaved Africans ate anything they could get their hands on for the most part and nothing went to waste. Possum, okra, cowpeas, blackberry leaves, pecans, cabbage, watermelon seed (for tea), catfish, shrimp, eel, perch, conch, crawfish, butter, clabber, cheese (rare), cottonseeds, sorghum, millet, apples, berries, cherries, grapes, oranges, peaches, watermelon, walnuts, chestnut, hazelnuts, peanuts, eggs, and more. Benne though brought over with Africans, were curiously never mentioned in the WPA the book mentions. For the record, Thomas Jefferson did mention enslaved African putting benne in their soups and breads. Other sources I've read claimed enslaved Africans ate benne leaves and soaked rice in benne boiled water to give their rice dishes a unique flavor. But since the book only mention WPA work, benne dishes were left out.
The book also touches on celebrations and what was eaten during celebrations like sugar, honey, alcohol, and candy/candy pulls. These were not common and again, were only usually eaten at [the end of] harvest and religious holidays.
Fun Fact: Chicken, despite the stereotypes was not the most eaten form of meat in the slave diet (I already knew this though).
I gave this book a three out of five because it quite a dry academic book. I lived that you can pretty much skip to any part of the book though. However, with the exception of learning enslaved Africans ate possum (and sometimes goat), ate a few uncommon (in America) ingredients (like blackberry leaves, conch, and cottonseed), the surprising mention the enslaved Africans creating grits, and the Alabama version of Hoppin' John (use grits instead of rice), I learned little. I'd recommend this book for true beginners of soul food. You should always know the roots.
Thankfully, after slavery, soul food expanded as freed Blacks had access to more resources and went off to create the more iconic soul food dishes like shrimp and grits, okra soup with chicken, she-crab soup, and red rice.