We’re talking about food today, so be prepared to be hungry by the time you finish reading! What comes to mind when you think about Southern comfort food? More than likely, you imagine the classic spread of barbecue, fried chicken, collard greens, okra, cornbread, and a warm berry cobbler with vanilla ice cream for dessert. The American South holds its food traditions dear; it can represent home, community, and the love we have for one another. To outsiders, it’s one of the most easily recognizable cuisines that the U.S. brings to the table -- pun 100% intended. But many of these southern fixins’ originate far from the lands of the American southeast. They tell the story of a people’s significant perseverance and adaptation to a life of enslavement, oppression, and poverty.
Black-eyed peas were often grown by enslaved people as a supplement to their rationed corn and pork. The peas could be cooked and eaten or pounded into a flour and used to make fritters, which are similar to akara, a fried bread made on the West coast of Africa.
Slaveholders rationed food items for those they enslaved – providing a meager daily or weekly allotment of grain, usually cornmeal, and perhaps some type of meat, usually pork. Enslaved people had to augment their diets by growing a small garden near their living quarters or getting permission to hunt or fish in their limited free time. Cooking and food practices were areas in their extremely controlled life which enslaved Africans and African Americans could use techniques and tastes familiar to their African culture in the meals they prepared after they completed their workload for the day.
Slaveholders reserved the so-called “undesirable” cuts of meat and scraps from vegetable and herb gardens as the primary source of food for enslaved people, believing their enslaved workforce was not adequately dignified to experience higher quality foodstuffs. But the opposite occurred. The meat, usually offcuts of pork like feet, ribs, fatback, or internal organs, was strategically seasoned and cooked to resemble a West African type of barbecue (babbake), and those garden scraps planted to cultivate a garden separated from the main kitchen. Enslaved people grew a variety of peppers and vegetables to add to their meals. Dried peppers and herbs heavily seasoned meats to mask the not-so-great flavor of their rationed portions of meat.
Always resourceful and extremely knowledgeable on food practices from their African homeland, enslaved people took what little they were given and effectively re-branded cuisine in the southern United States. Some of these foods that today we label as the classic “southern comfort food” originated directly from enslaved peoples’ kitchens. A staple of Southern cooking, cornbread originated as one of many types of bread baked by enslaved people due to its easy preparation and abundance of ingredients - corn was more prevalent than wheat in 18th century North Carolina and fried breads were familiar to African and Caribbean cultures. Boiled peanuts, black-eyed peas, fried chicken, okra, hushpuppies, hot sauce – even rice! All of these have roots in Africa or in the diets and cooking styles of enslaved people.
While today enslaved people are often regarded as passive characters within a difficult history -- a direction which historians are actively re-thinking --, their legacy in Southern food is a testament to just how instrumental they were in the formation of one of our country’s most easily identifiable American food traditions.
Stop by the Museum on May 21 during our commemoration of the legendary Mecklenburg Declaration of Independence to learn more about the foods prepared by enslaved people in 18th century North Carolina.
To learn more, High on the Hog (book or Netflix series) is a great place to start!
For recipes, the Savor the South cookbook series is a wonderful introduction to individual ingredients, entrees, sides, and desserts, and their history. Jubilee by Toni Tipton-Martin charts over 200 years of food history through meals you want on your table now (please invite me over if you make any).
Enjoy the long weekend! I’ll be in my kitchen, trying to make hushpuppies.
The Charlotte Museum of History
About The Charlotte Museum of History
The Charlotte Museum of History exists to save and share the Charlotte region’s history, helping create a better understanding of the past and inspiring dialogue about the future. The museum is the steward of the 1774 Hezekiah Alexander Rock House and homesite, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is the oldest home in Mecklenburg County. Visit charlottemuseum.org and follow the museum on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. The museum is an independent 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
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“History is not the past, it is the present. We carry our history with us. We are our history.” - James Baldwin