what the slaves ate -- 1/31/22

Today's selection -- from What the Slaves Ate: Recollections of African American Foods and Foodways from the Slave Narratives by Herbert C. Covey and Dwight Eisnach.  Much of what we know about the food that slaves ate comes from interviews done by the Federal Writers' Project during the Depression. The Federal Writers' Project was part of the United States Work Progress Administration, and it employed thousands of out-of-work historians, teaches, writers, librarians and professionals in other white-collar fields. The collection of slave narratives is a treasure trove for historians:

"The largest collection of ex-slave narratives was assembled by the Federal Writers' Project during the late 1930s. During the middle of the Depression, the federal government, through the WPA, created jobs for unemployed writers and researchers by paying for interviews of ex-slaves. This massive project was an effort to capture the life experiences of older African Americans who had experienced slavery before their life stories were lost. Under the Federal Writers' Project, staff conducted interviews with ex-slaves wherever they could find them throughout the country, but mostly in the South. The collection of narratives includes accounts of interviewees from every state that condoned slavery. The narratives, however, are organized by the states in which the former slaves lived at the time they were interviewed, which were not necessarily the same states in which they had lived under slavery.

"After more than seventy years, these WPA narratives remain a major and rela­tively untapped source of information about everyday African American life during and after slavery. Scholars have used the WPA narratives to uncover information such as the experiences of women who were enslaved (Goodson 1979; Martin 2000, folk medicine (Covey 2007), old age (Close 1997; Covey and Lockman 1996), and general life under slavery (numerous works, including Baker 2000; Blassingame 1977; Clayton 1990; Escott 1979; Genovese 1976; Hurmence 1990; Rawick 1972). However, few scholars have fully explored the narratives for references to diet, food, and foodways. ...

Henry Ossawa Tanner (1859–1937), The Thankful Poor (1894), oil on canvas, 90.2 x 112.4 cm, Private collection. Wikimedia Commons.

"More than 2,200 ex-slaves from seventeen states participated in the WPA slave narrative project during the 1930s (Rawick 1972). This is a sizable sample of respon­dents who lived under slavery, which provides a biased but large study of ex-slaves. The interviews represent a large sample of rural, southern, older African Americans during the Depression. Several of the interviewees continued to live and work on the same plantations as they did when they were enslaved (Rawick 1972). The narratives provide a rare glimpse into the daily lives of slaves and their interactions with plan­tation society. Scattered throughout these narratives are references to food and its preparation by African American slaves.

"Scholars have noted that the narratives have limitations and shortcomings, such as the editing done by some of the WPA interviewers (Clayton 1990). In addition, there was no effort on the part of the interviewers to select a systematic sample of ex-slaves (Escott 1979; Yetman 1984). Researcher Anne Yentsch (2007: 68), while noting that the narratives are invaluable and insightful, also concluded that they lack the specifics of food preparation.

"Life in the Jim Crow rural South during the 1930s was also marked by continued discrimination and racism, which undoubtedly affected the perceptions and attitudes expressed by the respondents in that region. It may also have affected what they were willing to tell predominantly white interviewers, even though some interviews were conducted by African American interviewers. Some respondents undoubtedly avoided dangerous questions or told stories that were irrelevant (Escott 1979). Comments about white society and slavery often were guarded because many of the former slaves resided in the same areas as their ex-master's descendants and depended on them for help in obtaining old age pensions (Baker 2000; Blassingame 1975, 1977). The WPA respondents would occasionally paint a somewhat rosy picture of life under slavery because they had been conditioned to not say anything critical or uncomplimentary about plantation life (Genovese 1974). ...

"Interviewees sometimes are unclear as to what they are referencing. For example, a few respondents referred to 'pot liquor' or 'pot likker' as a dish, but it is unclear what specific vegetables were used to make it. It could refer to any combination of liquids resulting from boiling vegetable, meat, and plants. Sometimes the WPA respondents' use of foods was highly regionalized. At times, their folk and slang expressions are unknown, unclear to the reader, or simply inaccurate. in addition, some foods have different or multiple names, depending on the region or the knowledge of the respondent. At other times, the WPA interviewer may have misspelled, misreported, or misheard terms (Moore 1989). For example, respondent Wash Wilson (TX) referred to sweet potatoes as 'sweet pertaties.' In ad­dition, respondents were not always specific in their use of words. For example, bread could mean white bread or cornbread. The words potato or tater could mean white or 'Irish' potato (Solanum tuberosum) or sweet potato (Ipomoea batatas). When the respondents mentioned meat, they did not always specify the type of meat. ...

"Caution should also be exercised regarding whether the food references found in the narratives actually concern the Antebellum period or refer to a time thereafter. Toward the end of the Civil War, as Union soldiers swept through the South from plantation to plantation, they would take the best stores of food for themselves, and they sometimes would share it with the slaves. In studying the narratives, one must be careful to distinguish which foods were available to slaves during this unsettled period as opposed to their more 'normal' Antebellum diet before the northern incursions. Although the intent of the interviews was to capture information about life under slavery before it was lost, the respondents frequently drifted back and forth to times other than the period of slavery. The WPA respondents made many references to the Great Depression and to their lives after emancipation. It is sometimes difficult to conclude whether their food references and knowledge apply to periods before, during, or after the Civil War. In some cases, however, the respondent clearly linked comments to the period under study.

"Despite their shortcomings, the WPA narratives represent a rich source of information about everyday slave life and should not be ignored (Woodward 1974; Yetman 1967). Without the WPA narratives, the largely neglected but important voices of those who experienced slavery would remain unheard. As Paul D. Escott noted in Slavery Remembered (1979), the words of the slaves themselves constitute the best source on the black experience under slavery. The WPA sample represents a broad spectrum of African Americans who lived under slavery during the period immedi­ately before the Civil War and during the war itself (Joyner 1971; Yetman 1984). These narratives, when used with supplementary documents, represent a valuable foundation of information about life under slavery from the ex-slave's viewpoint.

"Finally, as anyone who has studied the narratives will attest, there is a richness to the storytelling and the expressions of the ex-slaves who participated in this WPA effort. The more one looks, the more one finds interesting human stories and accounts of what life was like. A case in point is an observation made by respondent Harriet Robinson (OK) who described in one paragraph what life was like for her under the cruel oppression of slavery and the changing times with the North's defeat of the South -- most importantly, that she had triumphantly outlived all of the other slaves and her owners:

One day whiles master was gone hunting. Mistress Julia told her brother to give Miss Harriett (me) a free whipping. She was a n----- killer. Master Colonel Sam come home and said, 'You infernal sons o'bitches don't you know there is 300 Yankees camped out here and iffen they knowed you'd whipped this n----- the way you done done, they's kill all us. Iffen they find out, I'll kill all you all.' Old rich devils, I'm here, but they is gone.

"Ms. Robinson captured much of history and feeling in her comments."

with all thanks to dr. k

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Herbert C. Covey and Dwight Eisnach


What the Slaves Ate: Recollections of African American Foods and Foodways from the Slave Narratives


Greenwood Press


Copyright 2009 by Herbert C. Covey and Dwight Eisnach


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