Eric V. Snow



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They got to the fields at daybreak, carrying with them their allowance of food for the day, which toward noon, and not till then, they eat, cooking it over a fire, which they kindle as best they can, where they are working. Their second meal in the day is at night, after their labor is over, having worked, at the very least, six hours without intermission of rest or refreshment since their noonday meal.
Since the adults of both sexes worked such long hours of hard labor in the fields, the cooking equipment consisting generally of fireplaces or open fires, and relatively few or no metal pots, forks, knives, and spoons being available, crudely prepared meals inevitably followed. Solomon Northrup, a free man sold into slavery, said slaves often lacked the motivation to hunt after work because "after a long and hard day's work, the weary slave feels little like going to the swamp for his supper, and half the time prefers throwing himself on the cabin floor without it." Little time remained for the slave woman, if one applies unrealistically the contemporary Victorian middle class' ideology of the separate spheres to this situation, to spend long hours bringing supper's food up to some elevated level of gustatory delight. John Brown, once a young slave in southern Virginia, described how simply slaves often prepared their food: "We used to make our corn into hominy, hoe and Johnny-cake, and sometimes parch it, and eat it without any other preparation."23 If issued unground, just grinding/pounding the corn into something cookable took enough effort and time itself. Nevertheless, the slave diet's fundamental problem was the lack of variety in what slaveowners issued their human chattels to begin with, not the lack of time originating in long days of field work by both sexes that reduced the number of domestic chores, including cooking, that could be done.24
Setting up communal facilities army-style was one partial solution to slaves without enough time to cook. Kemble mentioned that one old woman in a shed boiled and distributed the daily allotment of rice and grits on her husband's Georgia rice-island plantation. Francis Henderson, who escaped from the Washington D.C. area, said slaves cooked food on their own, but often lacked the time to do so: "In regard to cooking, sometimes many have to cook at one fire, and before all could get to the fire to bake hoe cakes, the overseer's horn would sound; then they must go at any rate." Frequently he had to eat on the run and could not sit down to eat due time constraints. During harvest, this problem was solved by cooking everything at the big house "as the hands are wanted more in the field. This was more like people, and we liked it, for we sat down then at meals."25 But the cost of removing this burden this way was still greater regimentation and further weakening of the slave family's role by reducing their freedom as part of individual households to make decisions about consumption, i.e., how dinner was cooked.
Differing Diets for Slaves with Different Positions
Since masters and mistresses were "respecters of men," they treated different slaves--or groups of slaves--differently.26 In particular, the household servants and drivers and their families were apt to receive better material conditions, in exchange for (inevitably) the tighter controls and supervision due to being in the white owner's presence more. (This is the classic trade-off of a sincerely practiced paternalism). The bleak picture of field hands subsisting on "hog and hominy" diets did not apply to all their neighbors dwelling in the quarters. Not having just to subsist on the standard rations, servants benefited from the leftovers of their master and mistress' table, as Kemble observed. Mary Boykin Chesnut's servants mobbed her while visiting near her husband's father's plantation, wanting her to come home. Her cook said, when asked if she lacked anything: "Lacking anything? I lack everything. What is cornmeal and bacon, milk and molasses? Would that be all you wanted? Ain't I bin living and eating exactly as you does all these years? When I cook fer you didn't I have some of all? Dere now!" Her complaint was, in part, "Please come home, so we could eat better again!" Freedman Edward Jenkins of Mount Pleasant, South Carolina, told Armstrong how house servants gained from their owner's meals: "What de white folk had ter eat, de servan's had also, when de white folks done eat dey fill." Although his parents were field hands, aged freedman Tony Washington remembered his mistress made him "the waiter-and-pantry" boy. This job allowed him to get extra food, including leftover alcohol, as he nostalgically remembered:
Dey [the visiting white gentlemen] set down ergain, an' Massa say: 'Sonny, bring de glasses!' I'd bring de glasses, an' de brandy from de sidebo'ahd. Dey know how ter treat dey liquor in de old days an' nobody git drunk. Co'se, I got er little dizzy once when I drink all dat de gen'lemans lef' in dey glasses--heh heh!--but Missus say she gwine tell Massa ter whip me if'n I do dat ergain!
Sam Jackson benefited from having relatives in the right places in "the big house." He enjoyed reminiscing about his boyhood job's perks:
I was de waitin'-boy fo' de table. Don' you know, in dem conditions, I had a sof' bed ter lie in? Yaw . . . did I git plenty ter eat? Jus' guess I did. De waiter-boy allays got plenty, an' when his Maw was house-woman, an' his Auntie de cook, guess he goin' go hungry? Ho!27
By having family members close to the master or the mistress, this slave child avoided the customary lack of good treatment ("investment") most received from their owners because they were too young to work in the fields.
Further evidence of tiers within slave society in the quarters, as reflected by differences in diet, comes from archeological investigation. At Thomas Jefferson's Monticello estate, investigators found bones deposited from different animals, domesticated and wild, in different parts of his estate. Although the differences in bones buried between Building 'o' and the storehouse, both areas mainly for slaves, could be explained by some other mechanism, apparently higher quality cuts of meat were eaten at the former but not at the latter. As Crader notes: "Meaty elements such as lumbar vertebrae, the pelvis, and the front and hind limbs also are present, elements that virtually are absent from the Storehouse assemblage."28 Differences between the secondary butchery marks, caused by removing the meat at the cooking stage, appeared between Building 'o' and the storehouse's artifacts. (Primary butchery involves taking the animal apart at the joints after its slaughter). The bone marks found at the site of Building 'o' are like those that would be produced by the way the whites at the mansion ate, but are completely absent from the Storehouse's assemblage of bones. The master, as well as his evidently better-off slaves, ate their meat as roasts, while the worse-off slaves stewed their meat in pots, with the bones chopped up much more.29 The evidence Crader literally unearthed may indicate that Jefferson's domestic servants consumed the big house's leftovers at their homes in the quarters, which gave them a somewhat better diet than the field hands.30
The Slaves' Role in Procuring Their Own Food
Slaves could seek additional food, if they were able and willing to put time into it after a long day working for their masters and mistresses, by hunting, trapping, fishing, and tending their own plots of crops. Some masters banned these activities, but the slaves might still go secretly hunting (at least) anyway. As freedwoman Jenny Proctor of Alabama recollected: "Our master, he wouldn't 'low us to go fishing--he say that too easy on a nigger and wouldn't 'low us to hunt none either--but sometime we slips off at night and catch possums." A strong majority still permitted their slaves extra ways to get food, showing a strongly different spirit from the English rural elite's about almost anyone else hunting besides themselves. Northrup stated why: "No objections are made to hunting, inasmuch as it dispenses with drafts upon the smoke-house, and because every marauding coon that is killed is so much saved from the standing corn." After nearly tripping over a huge pile of oyster shells on her husband's cotton-island plantation, Kemble later commented: "This is a horrid nuisance, which results from an indulgence which the people here have and value highly; the waters round the island are prolific in shell-fish, oysters, and the most magnificent prawns I ever saw. The former are a considerable article of the people's diet, and the shells are allowed to accumulate." The slaves also set out somewhat ineffective traps for birds at the upstream rice-island estate. A neighboring master shot and killed an old man of Douglass' master in Maryland while "fishing for oysters" for the trivial offense of trespassing on his land. In this way they "made up the deficiency of their scanty allowance." Hunting could be of critical importance to the bondsmen's diets. Archeological evidence from the Hampton St. Simons island plantation had 17.6 percent of the bones gathered from wild animals, while one at Cannon's Point had an amazing 89.8 percent by number of bones (44.5 percent by estimated meat weight) from such fauna. These percentages sharply contrast with the 2 percent or less figures from Monticello, the Hermitage, and the plantation at Kingsmill.31 Hence, depending the environment and slaveowners' provisions (or presumed lack thereof), hunting, fishing, etc. could be just a minor way to supplement the slaves' diet, or a mainstay perhaps required for survival.
Many slaveowners allowed their bondsmen to cultivate small patches of land, similar to the allotments that English agricultural workers tended. The slaves often benefited little from them, because this extra food was eventually obtainable only by working on their gardens after having put in a full day's work for someone else, thus increasing their real workweek. As aged ex-slave Mary Reynolds of Louisiana recalled:
Sometimes Massa let niggers have a little patch. They'd raise 'taters or goobers. They liked to have them to help fill out on the victuals. . . . The niggers had to work the patches at night and dig the 'taters and goobers at night. Then if they wanted to sell any in town, they'd have to git a pass to go.
Some masters stopped their slaves from having gardens, as ex-slave Jenny Proctor remembered. Although this practice was common, Olmsted noted, various planters prohibited it "because it tempts them to reserve for and to expend in the night-work the strength they want employed in their service during the day, and also because the produce thus obtained is made to cover much plundering of their master's crops, and of his live stock." Planter Bennet Barrow allowed his slaves to have gardens, but stopped them from selling anything grown on their plots because it created a "spirit of trafficing" which required of them "means and time" they had no right to possess. Further, he added:
A negro would not be content to sell only What he raises or makes or either corn (should he be permitted) or poultry, or the like, but he would sell a part of his allowance allso, and would be tempted to commit robberies to obtain things to sell. Besides, he would never go through his work carefully, particularly When other engagements more interesting and pleasing are constantly passing through his mind, but would be apt to slight his work.
But by allowing animals such as pigs and chickens to be raised by their bondsmen, other slaveowners were more generous. Fanny Kemble noted that the blacks of her husband's rice-plantation could raise as many domestic birds as they wished, but no longer had permission to raise their own pigs. Some slaves were free to grow even cash crops on their "allotments." Overseer John Mairs wrote to Mrs. Sarah Polk about how much cotton her hands had raised for themselves, which was marketed with the rest of the plantation's output: "Youre servents crope of coten in 1849 was about 8400 lbs of sead coten."32 Hence, the practice of giving plots of land to slaves to raise some of their own food or crops was common in the South, but slaveowners many times placed major restrictions on it.
Variations in What Food Different Slaveowners Provided to Their Slaves
Much variation arose in what food and how much of it slaves had from master to master and plantation to plantation. On the one hand, enough disturbing cases of slaves who rarely or never got any meat appear to cast some doubt on the utter universality of the "standard rations." After all, would Louisiana have a law requiring slaves to be fed (Olmsted believed) four pounds of meat a week if slaveowners were already doing it? He added also: "(This law is a dead letter, many planters in the State making no regular provision of meat for their force)." Frederick Douglass noted Master Thomas Auld in Maryland allowed him and three fellow slaves in his kitchen less than half a bushel of cornmeal a week, "and very little else, either in the shape of meat or vegetables. It was not enough for us to subsist upon." Thomas Hedgebeth, born free in North Carolina, worked on some farms there. As he recounted to Drew:
I have known that the slaves had not a bite of meat given them. They had a pint of corn meal unsifted, for a meal,--three pints a day. . . This is no hearsay--I've seen it through the spring, and on until crop time: Three pints of meal a day and the bran and nothing else.

After being beset by a minor mob of children begging her for meat, Kemble later wrote that at the rice plantation her husband owned: "Animal food is only allowed to certain of the harder working men, hedgers and ditchers, and to them only occasionally, and in very moderate rations." A neighboring plantation owner told her somewhat offhandedly that a meatless diet was a good social control device: "He says that he considers the extremely low diet of the negroes one reason for the absence of crimes of a savage nature among them; most of them do not touch meat the year around." John Brown remembered as a slave child in Virginia that: "We never had meat of any kind, and our usual drink was water."33 Contrary to what some may think, this evidence indicates that the corn in the standard rations was more "standard" than the pork!


Other slaves enjoyed a more luxurious, or at least varied, diet. For example, Thomas Jefferson's slaves had at least a diversity of meats in their diet. They received .5 to 1.5 pounds of beef, 4 to 8 fish, and 4 to 4.5 pounds of pork per month per man or woman. Judging from archeological remains at Andrew Jackson's Hermitage, Jefferson's Monticello, and the Hampton Plantation in Georgia, beef may have been more significant in the slave diet than commonly believed. Aged freedwoman Harriet McFarlin Payne recalled in the quarters: "Late of an evening as you'd go by the doors you could smell meat a-frying, coffee-making, and good things cooking. We were fed good." Although admittedly this coffee may have been ersatz, McFarlin's account still shows these slaves were far removed from the basically corn and water diet Brown described above. Although now seen as a proven public health menace, the giving of tobacco to slaves by planter Bennet Barrow demonstrates they received more than the bare necessities. In Louisiana Olmsted encountered a plantation that to a minute degree made up for the almost inhuman hours of grinding season: It issued extra rations of flour and allowed the sugar refinery's hands to drink as much coffee and eat as much molasses as they wished. Tobacco rations were regularly dispensed year around, and molasses during winter and early summer. Cato of Alabama remembered as a slave his mistress on Sunday gave out chickens and flour. He also had vegetables and dried beef for eating later. Plowden C. J. Weston, a South Carolina rice planter with several plantations, prepared a standard contract for his overseers which included standard rations (some weekly, some monthly, some in only certain seasons or conditional upon good behavior) of rice, potatoes, grits, salt, flour, fish or molasses, peas, meat, and tobacco. Some masters also issued (appropriately) buttermilk to the often lactose-intolerant slaves. Many slaves got their hands on alcohol through their own earnings or by selling property stolen from their masters.34 So although Fogel and Engerman's rosy perceptions of the slave diet have some support, the weight of the literary sources available fails to sustain their case overall, thus implying the existence of flaws in their quantitative sampling methodology. The slaves usually "enjoyed" a spartan diet--although their poor white neighbors perhaps often were only somewhat better off--but a number had more than the standard rations through having more progressive and/or indulgent masters and mistresses and/or unusual opportunities or abilities to get food on their own.
The Diet of English Farmworkers: Regional Variations
Turning to the English agricultural workers' diet, strong regional variations must be remembered. In the same way the Border States usually treated their slaves better than the Deep South partially because of their ability to more easily escape to the North, the English farmworkers living in areas north of the Midlands lived better than their brethren to the south, where the most desperate rural poverty prevailed. Additionally, the grain-growing arable districts in the southeast, due to greater seasonal variations in employment, normally had worse conditions for their generally more numerous inhabitants than the pastoral, shepherding, dairying districts in the southwest. Sir James Caird's dividing line, drawn from the Wash (north of East Anglia) across England through the middle of Shropshire, quite accurately divides the high-wage north from the low-wage south. In the north, because farmers as employers faced the competition of mine operators and factory owners for labor, they had to pay higher wages. Otherwise, low wages would provoke farmworkers to "vote with their feet," causing them to migrate to nearby booming urban areas benefiting from the economic expansion produced by the industrial revolution. Even the likes of E.P. Thompson admits that the real wages of laborers in such areas probably "had been rising in the decades before 1790, especially in areas contiguous to manufacturing or mining districts. 'There wants a war to reduce wages,' was the cry of some northern gentry in the 1790s." By contrast, in the south, outside of London, a city of trades dominated by skilled artisans which also contained relatively little factory employment, few nearby urban areas possessed employers competing for unskilled labor. The increasingly overpopulated southern English countryside during this period (c. 1750-1860), and the very understandable reluctance of rural laborers to relocate long distances, enabled the gentry and farmers to successfully rachet down wages to levels often barely above subsistence, especially for married men with large families. According to Brinley, in 1850-51 southern England's average weekly agricultural wages were eight shillings, five pence, about 26 percent lower than northern England's. By James Caird's calculations, the difference was 37 percent.35 Under the old poor law (pre-1834), parish relief increasingly became a way of life for many of the rural poor, especially during winter months in arable counties due to their strongly seasonal swings in agricultural employment. The subsidizing of wages directly out of parish relief funds raised by local property taxes ("the poor rates") put mere bandages over the deep wounds ultimately inflicted by the decline of service, the enclosure acts, and population growth. Unfortunately, such "solutions" as the Speenhamland system, which gave supplemental allowances from parish relief funds to members of families commensurate with the rise and fall of bread prices, only served to depress wages further. The grim picture of southern farmworkers' families depending year around mostly on the (frequently irregularly employed) father's wages of ten shillings a week or less and little else besides parish relief sharply contrasts with the northern agricultural workers' much higher wages, the greater availability of work for wives and/or children, and the frequent survival of service (the hiring of (unmarried) farm servants under one year contracts).
The agricultural workers south of Caird's wage line often endured truly desperate material conditions. A majority of them probably had a lower standard of living than the moderately better-off slaves. In particular, meat had largely fallen out of the diets of southern English farmworkers. Remembering as a child how scarce meat was in Warwickshire, Agricultural Labourers' Union organizer and leader Joseph Arch (b. 1826) commented:
Meat was rarely, if ever, to be seen on the labourer's table; the price was too high for his pocket,--a big pocket it was, but with very little in it . . . In many a household even a morsel of bacon was considered a luxury. Flour was so dear that the cottage loaf was mostly of barley.
He then discusses how scarce potatoes were in "country districts"--or at least in 1830s Warwickshire. (For the growing dependency of the English on potatoes, see pp. 33-35). Locally only one farmer, a hoarder in 1835, had grown them. Similarly, a "Rector and Conservative" described the status of "bacon, [which] when they can get it, is the staff of the laborers' dinner." A careful rationing exercise accompanied its appearance, which befit male privilege, or female self-sacrifice, depending on one's perspective: "The frugal housewife provides a large lot of potatoes, and while she indulges herself with her younger ones only with salt, cuts off the small rasher and toasts it over the plates of the father and elder sons, as being the breadwinners; and this is all they want."36
The Southern English Agricultural Workers' Diet Was Poor, Often Meatless
William Cobbett, the great Tory-turned-radical journalist and gadfly, saw up close the poor, largely meatless diet of southern farm laborers. While travelling in Hampshire, he noted the "poor creatures" who "are doomed to lead a life of constant labour and of half-starvation." After mentioning the snack of a pound of bread and a quarter pound of cheese he and his young son ate came to five pence, or almost three shillings, if they had it daily, he wondered:
How, then, Gracious God! is a labouring man, his wife, and, perhaps, four or five small children, to exist upon 8s. or 9s. a week! Aye, and to find house-rent, clothing, bedding and fuel out of it? Richard and I ate here, at this snap, more, and much more, than the average of labourers, their wives and children, have to eat in a whole day, and that the labourer has to work on too!
When facing such tight budgets, laborers spent little on meat, but concentrated on cereal foodstuffs or (perhaps) potatoes, which Cobbett hated to see. Later in the same county, he indignantly observed:

These poor creatures, that I behold, here pass their lives amidst flocks of sheep; but, never does a morsel of mutton enter their lips. A labouring man told me, at Binley, that he had not tasted meat since harvest; [this was written Nov. 7th] and his looks vouched for the statement.37


Cobbett's polemics constitute only a small part of the evidence describing how poor the laborers' diet was in southern England. Caleb Bawcombe, a shepherd, recalled for Hudson how the sight of deer tempted his father Isaac into poaching while living in Wiltshire (c. 1820):
For many many days he had eaten his barley bread, and on some days barley-flour dumplings, and had been content with this poor fare; but now the sight of these animals [deer] made him crave for meat with an intolerable craving, and he determined to do something to satisfy it.
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