Thursday, June 6, 2013

Who Ate What? And How?

By Lacey Villiva
Education Manager

Imagine walking into the kitchen pictured here, the first thing you notice is the smell of wood smoke.  It permeates the kitchen, even when there is no fire lit today.  In the 18th century there would always have been some kind of fire lit, something banked down to the barest coals for the ease of lighting when needed.  So the next thing you would notice is the heat, sweat instantly springing on your brow, knowing that if you were to exert yourself, you’d be dripping within moments.  Finally, you might catch a glimpse of or smell the marvelous, seasonal food the cook is preparing: artichokes, peas, corn, potatoes, ham, beef, eggs, fish, cheeses, figs, peaches, berries in bewildering abundance.  Over that might float the scent of spices and seasonings favored by the colonists, drifts of nutmeg, port, cloves, long pepper and lemons.

Hearth cooks hard a work, preparing asparagus,
bread pudding and beaten biscuits. Photo by Frank Barker.
And then imagine that you are the cook, and you might never partake any of the things you are preparing, that you might be beaten for even daring to taste them.  Such was the life of many 18th century cooks in Tidewater Virginia.  Here at Gunston Hall, there are few records of what was cooked and eaten, and by whom.  Nevertheless, there is an active Hearth Cooking program at the museum.  Volunteers demonstrate cooking skills as they would have been used in the 18th century to the visiting public.  They discuss what would have been cooked in the kitchen, and how it might have been served at the table.  One interesting thing to note is that our hearth cooks, all wonderful ladies, are just that, women.  In all likelihood, the cook in the kitchen may have been an enslaved African American man, as evidenced by other Tidewater households.

The question here is what was this cook eating if not the things he was sending up to the table?  The answer is hard to find.  Here at Gunston Hall separate slave quarters have not yet been definitively located through archaeology, and evidence linked solely to what the enslaved African Americans were eating has not been uncovered.  There is some evidence that they were eating a local species of fish, Gar, also found at Mount Vernon, and described there as being something eaten exclusively by enslaved persons.  Some assumptions can be made based on what enslaved African Americans in other households were eating, as with the fish at Mount Vernon.

Engraving by Mark Catesby (1682-1749) of a Garfish,
from the 2nd edition of his book on American flora and fauna.
Courtesy of HistoryMiami.

African Americans had been uprooted from their homeland and transplanted in the colonies, separated from their family and culture.  They were forced into backbreaking labor in most cases and no laws prevented their being beaten if they did not follow their master’s orders.  They were fed, clothed, and given shelter, but this was often meager at best.  George Washington and Thomas Jefferson both allotted their enslaved African Americans one peck, or eight quarts, of cornmeal each week.  In addition to this they received some protein, either beef, pork or salted fish equaling somewhere around two pounds.  William Hugh Grove, a British traveler in Virignia, corroborates this stating, enslaved African Americans “are allowed a peck of Indian corn per week,” and goes on to describe the protein they might receive through their own labor.

Aside from what was given to them by their masters, enslaved African Americans grew or kept all their own food.  While they might not have recognized everything, many African plants were available in the colonies including black-eyed peas, okra, watermelon, peanuts, sweet potatoes, squash and pumpkins.  They would have had to keep these plots outside of the time spent working for their master, in the evening twilight or on Sundays.  They were sometimes allowed to keep chickens, or hunt for game like opossum and squirrels, or take to the river and fish.  Some of these slaves did so well in these endeavors as to have extra to sell to their masters, or in local markets, such as the ones in Alexandria and Colchester.

After all the work to keep their gardens and do their master’s bidding, how might slaves have cooked their meals?  Archaeological evidence at other wealthy Virginia plantations point to a “one-pot” method, in which all the ingredients would be added and left to simmer over a low fire all day.  Bones at these plantations show little evidence of having been cooked by roasting. One-pot meals would not only be a good way to deal with what might be a poor cut of meat, but they were also traditionally African, and required little tending.  Cornmeal and okra could be added to the pot to thicken the soup, something which transferred to the wealthier classes in the form of “Ochra Soup” – which also calls for Lima beans and cymlines (patty pan squash) both originally from the Americas, but having distinct African cultivars as well.  The enslaved peoples of the Tidewater also had access to hot peppers, particularly cayenne, which could be added to the meal for a bit of pop to an otherwise fairly bland dish.

 Johnny cakes, or hoecakes, are another likely African tradition which was discovered on wealthier tables.  Foofoo, a West African dish, was made from yams, or sometimes plantains or cassava, which would be boiled and pounded into dough and rolled into balls.  This would supplement vegetables and meat.  Subsequently in the colonies, corn was substituted for the yams and hoecakes were born.  These could be easily mixed up and fried on short notice just before the meal.

Fish and Sweet  Potatoes roasting on the fire. 
These sweet potatoes have just been flipped and are
awaiting a cover of ash and coals.
Sweet potatoes, another staple and an American cultivar of the yam, were another staple to the enslaved African American diet.  These could be cooked in many ways, though the easiest was to nest the potatoes in a bed of hot ashes and coals, and let them roast while the rest of the meal simmered.  The skins of the potatoes would turn to ash, but leave the insides soft and easy to scoop out with fingers or what utensils they had on hand.

These meals, consumed by the majority of the people on a plantation such as Gunston Hall, were nowhere near what was taken up to table in the main houses on plantations.  And because records are lacking, they certainly don't cover everything that they might have been preparing.  Enslaved people were left to their own devices to feed themselves, often lacking good supplies to start with.  Evidence at other sites shows a certain amount of ingenuity and entrepreneurialism, which we hope to find at Gunston Hall.  They managed, to some extent, to recreate the edibles they were familiar with.

Crump, Nancy Carter.  Hearthside Cooking: Early American Southern Cuisine Updated for Today’s Hearth and Cookstove, 2nd ed. University of North Carolina Press: Chapel Hill, NC, 2008.
McLeod, Stephen, ed. Dining with the Washingtons: Historic Recipes, Entertainment and Hospitality from Mount Vernon. Mount Vernon Ladies Association via University of North Carolina Press: Chapel Hill, NC, 2011.
McWilliams, James E. A Revolution in Eating: How the Quest for Food Shaped America. Columbia University Press: New York, NY, 2005.
Samford, Patricia. Subfloor Pits and the Archaeology of Slavery in Colonial Virginia. The University of Alabama Press: Tuscaloosa, AL, 2007.

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