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Captive Passage: The Transatlantic Slave Trade and the Making of the Americas

Captive Passage
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National Endowment for the Humanities
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Legacy: Building New NationsCreating Institutions and Community
Africa's GiftsThe Black ChurchEducationFoodMusicA Lasting Legacy

Food

A number of the foods we think of today as standard American faire are rooted in the foodways of African slaves. This is seen in both the style of cooking and the foods eaten. Slaves would cook for both their owners and for fellow slaves, and many incorporated the familiar style of African cooking and Creole from the West Indies (often the first stops for newly arriving slaves) in the food prepared.

The typical African diet consisted of numerous vegetables, little meat, and was high in fiber. Meat was consumed in greater portions by chiefs, hunters, and pastoralists. One of the most important foods of the African culture was the yam. Yam harvest ceremonies were marked with laws and superstition. Among the tribes of Nigeria, yams were symbols of human fertility. Sweet potatoes, a completely different botanical plant from the yam, was introduced into Africa in the 16thcentury along with maize (corn).

Once in the Americas, slaves were typically provided with a weekly ration consisting of corn meal for bread and salt pork or bacon. A report by a northern doctor indicated that on one particular plantation, the head of each slave family was given "a half pint of homany (sic.) and three qtrs. pound of salt pork, with a very small allowance for each child." One doctor recommended that "Negroes should be liberally supplied with garden vegetables, and milk and (cane or sorghum) molasses should be given out occasionally at least. These afford an agreeable variety (supplementing the 'hog and hominy' diet) and serve as preventatives to scurvy and other diseases."

In some instances, slaves would be provided with one or more of the following to supplement their diet: rice, eggs and poultry, Irish or sweet potatoes, field peas, sugar, coffee, and some fresh fruit. Some slaves were permitted to cultivate small vegetable gardens for their own use.

While most slaveholders recognized the importance of feeding their slaves well, others provided the slaves with a very poor diet. This often resulted in slaves stealing vegetables and poultry from their owners and from neighboring plantations.


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