HEY AMERICA #WEBUILTIT …AND DON”T FORGET IT! This tweet sponsored by a GOVERNMENT PROGRAM called #EMANCIPATION http://t.co/KioO1iLU — KosherSoul (@KosherSoul)
Louis Hughes was an African-Virginian sold into slavery in the Deep South. In his youth he was sold to Mississippi where he worked as a domestic on a cotton plantation. At Melrose Plantation, a country estate near Natchez, Mississippi I recreated the foods of Louis Hughes’ published narrative, Thirty Years a Slave, From Bondage to Freedom using local produce and meats.
OTHER FARM PRODUCTS.
Cotton was the chief product of the Mississippi farms and nothing else was raised to sell. Wheat, oats and rye were raised in limited quantities, but only for the slaves and the stock. All the fine flour for the master’s family was bought inSt. Louis. Corn was raised in abundance, as it was a staple article of food for the slaves. It was planted about the 1st of March, or about a month earlier than the cotton. It was, therefore, up and partially worked before the cotton was planted and fully tilled before the cotton was ready for cultivation. Peas were planted between the rows of corn, and hundreds of bushels were raised. These peas after being harvested, dried and beaten out of the shell, were of a reddish brown tint, not like those raised for the master’s family, but they were considered a wholesome and nutritious food for the slaves. Cabbage and yams, a large sweet potato, coarser than the kind generally used by the whites and not so delicate in flavor, were also raised for the servants in liberal quantities.
COOKING FOR THE SLAVES
In summer time the cooking for the slaves was done out of doors. A large fire was built under a tree, two wooden forks were driven into the ground on opposite sides of the fire, a pole laid on the forks and on this kettles were hung over the fire for the preparation of the food. Cabbage and meat, boiled, alternated with meat and peas, were the staple for summer. Bread was furnished with the meals and corn meal dumplings, that is, little balls made of meal and grease from the boiled bacon and dropped into boiling water, were also provided and considered quite palatable, especially if cooked in the water in which the bacon was boiled. In winter the cooking was done in a cabin, and sweet potatoes, dried peas and meat were the principal diet. This bill of fare was for dinner or the mid-day meal. For supper each slave received two pieces of meat and two slices of bread, but these slices were very large, as the loaves were about six inches thick and baked in an old fashioned oven. This bread was made from corn meal for, as I have said, only on holidays and special occasions did the slaves have white bread of any kind. Part of the meat and bread received at supper time was saved for the ” morning bite.” The slaves never had any breakfast, but went to the field at daylight and after working till the sun was well up, all would stop for their morning bite. Very often some young fellow ate his morning bite the evening before at supper and would have nothing for the morning, going without eating untilnoon. The stop for morning bite was very short; then all would plunge into work until mid-day, when all hands were summoned to their principal meal.
FOURTH OF JULY BARBECUE.
Barbecue originally meant to dress and roast a hog whole, but has come to mean the cooking of a food animal in this manner for the feeding of a great company. A feast of this kind was always given to us, by Boss, on the 4th of July. The anticipation of it acted as a stimulant through the entire year. Each one looked forward to this great day of recreation with pleasure. Even the older slaves would join in the discussion of the coming event. It mattered not what trouble or hardship the year had brought, this feast and its attendant pleasure would dissipate all gloom. Some, probably, would be punished on the morning of the 4th, but this did not matter; the men thought of the good things in store for them, and that made them forget that they had been punished. All the week previous to the great day, the slaves were in high spirits, the young girls and boys, each evening, congregating, in front of the cabins, to talk of the feast, while others would sing and dance. The older slaves were not less happy, but would only say: “Ah! God has blessed us in permitting us to see another feast day.” The day before the 4th was a busy one. The slaves worked with all their might. The children who were large enough were engaged in bringing wood and bark to the spot where the barbecue was to take place. They worked eagerly, all day long; and, by the time the sun was setting, a huge pile of fuel was beside the trench, ready for use in the morning. At an early hour of the great day, the servants were up, and the men whom Boss had appointed to look after the killing of the hogs and sheep were quickly at their work, and, by the time they had the meat dressed and ready, most of the slaves had arrived at the center of attraction. They gathered in groups, talking, laughing, telling tales that they had from their grandfather, or relating practical jokes that they had played or seen played by others. These tales were received with peals of laughter. But however much they seemed to enjoy these stories and social interchanges, they never lost sight of the trench or the spot where the sweetmeats were to be cooked
The method of cooking the meat was to dig a trench in the ground about six feet long and eighteen inches deep. This trench was filled with wood and bark which was set on fire, and, when it was burned to a great bed of coals, the hog was split through the back bone, and laid on poles which had been placed across the trench. The sheep were treated in the same way, and both were turned from side to side as they cooked. During the process of roasting the cooks basted the carcasses with a preparation furnished from the great house, consisting of butter
pepper, salt and vinegar, and this was continued until the meat was ready to serve. Not far from this trench were the iron ovens, where the sweetmeats were cooked. Three or four women were assigned to this work. Peach cobbler and apple dumpling were the two dishes that made old slaves smile for joy and the young fairly dance.
The crust or pastry of the cobbler was prepared in large earthen bowls, then rolled out like any pie crust, only it was almost twice as thick. A layer of this crust was laid in the oven, then a half peck of peaches poured in, followed by a layer of sugar; then a covering of pastry was laid over all and smoothed around with a knife. The oven was then put over a bed of coals, the cover put on and coals thrown on it, and the process of baking began. Four of these ovens were usually in use at these feasts, so that enough of the pastry might be baked to supply all. The ovens were filled and refilled until there was no doubt about the quantity. The apple dumplings were made in the usual way, only larger, and served with sauce made from brown sugar. It lacked flavoring, such as cinnamon or lemon, yet it was a dish highly relished by all the slaves. I know that these feasts made me so excited, I could scarcely do my house duties, and I would never fail to stop and look out of the window from the dining room down into the quarters. I was eager to get through with my work and be with the feasters. About noon everything was ready to serve. The table was set in a grove near the quarters, a place set aside for these occasions. The tableware was not fine, being of tin, but it served the purpose, and did not detract from the slaves’ relish for the feast. The drinks were strictly temperance drinks – buttermilk and water. Some of the nicest portions of the meat were sliced off and put on a platter to send to the great house for Boss and his family. It was a pleasure for the slaves to do this, for Boss always enjoyed it. It was said that the slaves could barbecue meats best, and when the whites had barbecues slaves always did the cooking.
When dinner was all on the table, the invitation was given for all to come; and when all were in a good way eating, Boss and the madam would go out to witness the progress of the feast, and seemed pleased to see the servants so happy. Everything was in abundance, so all could have plenty – Boss always insisted on this. Old and young, for months, would rejoice in the memory of the day and its festivities, and “bless” Boss for this ray of sunlight in their darkened lives.
See that thing around my neck?
It was the custom in those days for slaves to carry voo-doo bags. It was handed down from generation to generation; and, though it was one of the superstitions of a barbarous ancestry, it was still very generally and tenaciously held to by all classes. I carried a little bag, which I got from an old slave who claimed that it had power to prevent any one who carried it from being whipped. It was made of leather, and contained roots, nuts, pins and some other things. The claim that it would prevent the folks from whipping me so much, I found, was not sustained by my experience – my whippings came just the same. Many of the servants were thorough believers in it though, and carried these bags all the time.
Special thanks to Natchez community leader Ser Seshsh (C.M. Boxley), Kathleen Jenkins–Superintendent of Melrose Plantation/National Park Service for sponsoring and hosting the event. Thank you Darryl for putting us up and thank you Helen for getting us some of our eats through the farmer’s market and Alcorn!
We are on the road. It seems like a blur—Maryland, then Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia. This morning, Alabama. Every place has a different story in my family tree and another set of stories and meanings for the Ancestors who lived in each state and county. I am overwhelmed with the thought of just seeing the places that my Ancestors were and imagining the lives they lived.
Our first event was in North Carolina hosted by Flyleaf Books, an Independent Bookstore in Chapel Hill. Sponsored by ChopNC and UNC Chapel Hill’s Southern Historical Collection, I gave a talk on enslaved foodways in colonial and antebellum North Carolina. The reporter covering the event for the Durham Herald-News was named Cliff Bellamy–a white guy. If you’ve been keeping up with the blogs, you know that was the last name of my great-great-great grandfather Richard Henry Bellamy, born to planter families in northeastern NC. His Bellamy’s were part of a line that went to South Carolina from England and then to North Carolina. Essentially, if you went way way way way back you’d probably find we have a common male ancestor. I’m fully prepared for more of these “coincidences” as we make our way further on the tour.
In the upcoming days I will profile my experiences cooking at Somerset Place and my first time back in Alabama since age 14. Until then, enjoy a few shots from the tour as it has progressed!
“Negroes in the North are right when they refer to the South as the Old Country. A Negro born in the North who finds himself in the South is in a position similar to that of the son of the Italian emigrant who finds himself in Italy, near the village where his father first saw the light of day. Both are in countries they have have never seen, but which they cannot fail to recognize. The landscape has always been familiar…Everywhere he turns, the revenant finds himself reflected. He sees himself as he was before he was born…He sees his ancestors, who, in everything they do and are, proclaim his inescapable identity. And the Northern Negro in the South sees, whatever he or or anyone else may wish to believe, that his ancestors are both white and black.”
James Baldwin, “Nobody Knows My Name: A Letter from the South”
Lech Lecha! (Go forth, get you out, Go to yourself…!) to the land which I will show you….” Bereshit/Genesis 12
It’s time for a deep, deep breath. It has been a little over two weeks since our campaign closed and well, as you may well know–we were successful. The past two weeks, apart from a visit to Pittsburgh for the Slavery to Freedom exhibit planning to Phillipsburg Manor and the end of Hebrew school…well.. you get it–its been busy. I can’t be happier with the love and support of a lot of people who took the leap of 5-10-8-36-bucks and beyond. Thank you for not saying, “I don’t have any money….,” thank you for not saying, “that’s nice but I’ll spend my ten bucks on Starbucks but good luck with your project.” We donated to other campaigns, several of which were successful and hopefully those campaigns will give healing to young patients, bring a grassroots movement for peace in the Middle East an anchor, and give other people a headstart on their visions, dreams and solutions for a better future. “Good luck” is not enough these days–it takes resources, action, good wil and moral support. You will see a lot of praise for our Anonymous Angel—who stepped in at about 12 hours to go or so and saved us and made me feel like there is a G-d, and G-d moves through people to answer our prayers.
Almost six months ago I was sitting at a Thai restaurant and asked a close friend the question, “What do you think of this project? I’ve always wanted to go to the Deep South and see the places where my family history started and write about it all through the lens of food.” First question: “What are other people going to get out of this journey if its personal, why should they help?” I had a road atlas in hand and a .50 cent notebook and a few pencils. In between vegetable spring rolls and a rice and tapioca pudding with black sesame, we took out a pencil, and a route started to form….and a vision shaped itself around that route.
At the tail end of the campaign an Amazing Anonymous Angel stepped forward with a check that completed the amount we set our goal for. We cannot begin to thank all of you–friends like Andrew, Heather and Mark who knew me when I was 20 and always told me I had what it took to do something special with my mind and vision no matter how bad things were in life or how far away good things like this seemed. It was new friends like Rob and Megan who gave this project a major boost and provided constant support🙂 It was long time friends like Beth and Jennica and Misty who have never stopped believing in me from the day they met me and share with me the love of bringing history to everybody. It was Rabbi Jack Luxemburg of Temple Beth Ami and Rabbi David Shneyer of Am Kolel both sources of constant support and moral care. It was master archivist Janet Stanley–who has watched me walk through the door of her library for almost 20 years. It was scholars Kym Rice and Martha Katz-Hyman my editors for World of a Slave, and anthropologist Richard Wilk, my editor for Rice and Beans who gave substantially and told everyone they knew! It was Vernice Woodand–who gave not once–but twice–just because she believed in me/us that much. Wow..It’s people like Sandor Katz, Ira Wallace and Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, Denzel Mitchell and Five Seeds Farm and Spike Gjerde of Woodberry Kitchen, Nancie McDermott, Bryant Terry, Jane Ziegelman, and other figures of note in today’s culinary world and people like Michael Pollan and the Lee Bros. who tweeted about it and gave new life to our buzz. This is for Gretchen McKay who ran the FIRST story about this project! This is for Bill Daley of the Chicago Tribune, my ” sister” Brook Obie of Ebony.Com, Larry Brook of Southern Jewish Life, and for Miki Turner at Jet Magazine. It was Kat Kinsman at Eatocracy on CNN and Claire Thompson of Grist. It was the Henrique of the the Ebony Hillbillies for granting us a song to use for our campaign video and it was Joey W. for setting up my blog and getting the word out to thousands of people and being there for me every step of the way. This is for Corey W. whose pictures got people’s attention and galvanized so many! It was Andi Cumbo trying to tell the story of her home in Virginia….It was Sharon Morgan and Grant Hayter-Menzies constant posting and reposting of the news….It was all the people who liked me on Facebook and It was my so called Tweeps–you know who you are…..who constantly constantly retweeted about us. @stellacooks, @stellatex, @savoryexposure, @NEXTStepsYEP, @jwlucasnc, @virginiawillis, @megbailey, @WilliamsWrite, @ChefAmadeus, @Blackgayjewish, @superspace_zac, @Rexi44, @namoore, @blackamercooks, @Wordsmyth199, @Janenhowe, @indoorgarden_er, @LCAfrica, @sandrajlawson, @Sacredfoodguru, @Stephaniekays, @Robb4progress, @aywalton, @foodculturalist, and so so so many others who retweeted!
This is a special thank you to Tricia/Rose/Richard/Katrina of Colonial Williamsburg for being the FIRST to say–we want to be a part of this project! It is a thank you to Ser Sesh Abtu-Heru/C.M. Boxley of Forks of the Road, and Kathleen Jenkins of Melrose Plantation at and Kathe Hambrick of the River Road African American Heritage Museum for being the guiding lights for this project–and to Somerset Place Plantation, Historic Brattonsville, Kingsley Plantation, Redcliffe State Park, Historic Latta Plantation, Hope Plantation, the Hermann-Grima House, Old Alabama Town, the people of Charleston, Savannah, Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill, Annapolis, Baltimore, Williamsburg, Birmingham, Natchez, the Slow Food chapters of Richmond and Savannah, the JCC’s of Atlanta and New Orleans, Rabbi Michelle Goldsmith and Temple Beth El and the Jewish community of Birmingham as well as Larry Brook of Southern Jewish Life!
Nicole Moore–you are the Mother of this project you are the channel of our ancestors!
Joey W–you are the infrastructure behind this project!
Johnathan and Khi –you are the creative magic behind this project!
The entire list of donors is on The Cooking Gene website….But this isn’t about a list..this is about being grateful and not being able to work on this posting without crying and praying and knowing that what I was created to do is finally coming together…that it and of itself is a miracle I wish on everyone.
“This ain’t no dream. We ran away as slaves, but we come back Fighting Men! Go tell your folks that Kingdom come, the year of Jubilee!” Morgan Freeman, as “Sgt. Major John Rawlins”, in Glory, (1989)
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Sitting here right now its almost sunset in the DC area and this computer is about to be shut off in honor of the Sabbath. It’s been a ride like no other…..this journey to making this dream of mine to find my roots and trace them through food–and bring people together across lines of “race.” There is an old Yiddish proverb–“A man plans and G-d laughs.” I know what that means now. In less than two days time I will find out whether or not my dream was a marketable venture enough for people to want to read about our travels and watch and copy recipes as my team and I wind our way through the South.
I realize that for many people I am only as good as my bio and my “branding,” and those are just buzzwords for a public face. But let’s cut the chase here–I need you because making it to and past my goal is the only way the Southern Discomfort Tour is going to take off and be of some meaning and use to people. I had to think about it long and hard—how do I make this project NOT self-indulgent and make it complex enough to be rewarding for other people and not just me.
When I was a very little kid for some reason I had issues with being Black. My Mother tells me that I often talked about Black people as being ugly or scary or not as smart. If you’ve ever seen the “doll experiments” you can guess why what that reason was. I hated when my Mother would remind me about that…it was embarrassing–still is. Of course things haven’t changed much in some arenas, although our opinions are. That’s the weird thing about “race,” its a construct, its a thing…like gender….like sexuality…like nationality…like religion. It does not really cross most human minds that we choose to opt in or out of these social constructs. Indeed, they do give meaning and structure to our lives and human existence but essentially they are only as real as we put meaning and action behind them. I choose to be an African American male-identifying Jew. I am not inherently any of that….well the male part I can’t help–but how much of that is how I was raised and the society and culture I came through?
Point being–when I became “ethnic,” my life changed. I became ethnic because I really wanted a reason to love being part of the culture I was born into. So many negative stereotypes and perceptions born in slavery, oppression, segregation, cultural and class “tracking,” all sorts of little social beasties that we still have a lot of trouble talking about not just in America but in the entire Western world. Because my Mom taught me to count to ten in Swahili (because that was popular back then and she lived several years in Kenya as a teenager), because my Dad had a Black inventors t shirt he made and sold, because I had Black history posters on my wall and because I went to family reunions, celebrated Kwanzaa, went to museums, listened to the whole gamut of our musical legacy, and watched an all Black cast of Oedipus with Morgan Freeman….LOL…I grew up ethnically Black.
Don’t get me wrong–I think ethnic Black and genetic Black are still related. I believe DNA carries memory. You can choose not to believe that metaphysical stuff–but I do. I think we ache with stories and spells and prayers we don’t know the origin of. We pine for genealogy because we know that part of the reason and rationale behind “us,” is in them–the dead and the spirit. Every culture on earth just about has a relationship with their Ancestors. In African cultures libation is poured, memorial prayers are said, altars constructed, shrines put up. In Judaism one honors yahrtzeits and yizkor and say Kaddish and visit cemetaries and place stones on the grave to say “we still respect you, we were here.”
And then there’s that food thing. I’ve said it once I’ll say it again–food is a powerful way to bring us all together and it serves as a vehicle for our identities–not static fixed identities but how they change even while they stay grounded in specific realities. To use Annie Hauck-Lawson’s term your “food voice,” is a shifting paradigm. However, for most of us it starts and ends somewhere–kind of like our identities…”I am this—but I am not that….I come from—I am…” etc. etc. That’s our reality. We are not one thing but many things. Many things working together. Kind of like a plate of something or specific dish–different elements in concert with one another cooking into something new and complex and impossibly un-duplicated.
Ever since I was a little kid this identity thing has been important to me. We pretend that culture is just coincidental–but its not. It’s not like a food preference or a fashion–even though that’s what “ethnicity” means to a lot of people. Culture is always there–its this language I’m typing in–its my thoughts on how the world is ordered and what’s right and what’s wrong. It isn’t something that ever truly goes on the back burner. We do ourselves a great disservice in the modern West pretending that one’s culture is waiting for us on a hook at home while everything else is the “real” us. Nope. You are not your suit tie skirt or pantsuit. You are not your gym. You are not any of those things. You are first and foremost a complex human animal with a complex thing balanced between nature and nurture called culture living inside of you.
I know that for some people this project is a little perplexing. I know some people won’t get it. I hope that people will get it. I want you to understand that I really want to know where I come from because it effects my cooking and food and scholarship. I want to know where I’m “located,” in the very culinary history I write about. I’ve been envious for years of people from Italy or Greece who can tell you about an olive or something from their region and why they love it so much and how what they do is different and irreplaceable. Those types always seem to be able to point out the antiquity of those foods and traditions. All I want is to be able to have the keys to do the same. The full story of Southern food has not been told.
Do you know what it was like to be an enslaved cook?
Have you ever seen anyone like me–a Black American male under 36 put on the funny clothes and cook and do the tasks of slavery to educate and motivate others?
Do you know the songs we sang when we cooked? Do you know the special tools and techniques that have been forgotten? Do you know the prayers and spells our grandmothers used to make things come out perfectly?
Do you have any idea of what its like to go to a Southern plantation site and see your culture and history marginalized, annihilated, obfuscated, removed, unremarked?
Do you know why we put the plates of our loved ones on our graves? Sang poetically about the gourd? Marked our bowls with sacred signs, and scratched secrets into the shells of turtles?
Can you name a single enslaved cook?
Do you know what those women and men went through from day to day? Do you know what they saw and experienced?
And then there is Africa….its my dream to know where my family comes from in Africa. Millions of people are watching “Finding Our Roots,” and “Who Do you Think You Are?” these days. I dream of that…being able to watch that tree grow and use genetic research to go where records can’t. I dream of being able to trace my Ancestors story in the flow of American and World history. This means the world to me–giving honor to my Ancestors and celebrating them and their stories and reaching others and saying hey–because of this dish or this food– we are essentially, “related.” We are one people. One humanity with many Ancestors–and what they left binds us and makes us whole.
Getting on the road means learning and listening to people even as I present what I know and share my learning with younger people. I don’t think one can truly know anything until they’ve traveled. For me–my family history goes back to six places–Virginia, North and South Carolina, Alabama, Tennessee and Georgia. The first four contain the most leads and its my hope that I can see the plantations or the remnants thereof–of the land my forefather’s worked. And if you’d like to volunteer–just say so–and I can put you to work🙂
I want my Ancestors to be at peace, and I want me to be at peace. Even more so I want us all to be at peace.
I’m almost up to 1600 words…So here goes.
I love you. Please help me live this dream. Please.
We need you–I know I’ve bugged some of my readers by saying this for three months, but this is the nature of crowdfunding—and its an opportunity for those of us without grants, loans or bank accounts above month to month survival to work for our public and pursue the dreams and Big Ideas that we hope will make the world a better place.
If I am engaging you, contributing to our project is a very small price to pay in order to keep enjoying the history, research and recipes I’ve worked hard with my friends to present to you here.
To my fellow African Americans–we complain a lot when sites and shows and movies and the like don’t reflect our history or experience. We want them to tell it like it is…but many of my colleagues have complained that so often we don’t empower each other to tell our won stories. “Them,” don’t owe us our story well told. “We” certainly do. We can take responsibility and ownership so that the world receives responsibly communicated narratives about the African American experience. It’s your choice. This is an opportunity to help a fellow African American teach our culture and share information about our culture with a lot of people and provide a lot of free content and information about our contributions to American civilization for the world to see. I need to know my community supports me and isn’t just giving lip service to the idea that Black history is important. I need to know that the same people who will rally in times of rain will rally in the sunshine too. And that day is today–but the clock is ticking.
I can’t do anymore, can’t say anymore, can’t think anymore. It’s up to G-d and you.
We will be partnering with The George Washington Carver Seed Bank to work with African American farmers and Reverend Al Sampson to create a seed bank for African American food systems.
This is a crucial and fundamental part of the Cooking Gene. We started talking to Reverend Sampson months ago and his project is exactly part of our plan: to reinvigorate the economic opportunities for African American farmers and to improve our health by making access to healthy organic food an affordable option within the community. Rev. Sampson wants to make sure that we connect farmers in the South with urban communities in the North, create a seed bank for African American farmers and use food and food justice to improve the nutritional, physical, and financial health of African American communities.
We are proud to be a part of his vision for a better life for the descendants of enslaved people and for the spirit and cooperation he has worked hard to foster from his ordination by Dr. King and devoted participation in the Civil Rights movement to his current community activist today in Chicago and beyond. Rev. Sampson has tirelessly worked on our behalf and now the younger generation wants to join him in a fresh vision for food in the Black community–moving us beyond heart attacks and stroke and into better health and a better food supply that is self-sustained and sustainable.
To read more on the George Washington Carver Seed Bank:
You can find out more about Reverend Al Sampson and his vision for improving the health and well being of urban African American communities on his site: http://www.revalsampson.org/.
SIXTY FOUR HOURS TO GO!!! PLEASE CONTRIBUTE! www.indiegogo.com/The-Cooking-Gene-Project-The-Southern-Discomfort-Tour
Claire Thompson did a very nice interview/write up on The Cooking Gene–Southern Discomfort Tour for Grist.Org! We have SIXTY SIX HOURS TO GO at this point—so I wish I could say I wasn’t worried but I am–and we really need your help–this is extremely important to a lot of people and I don’t want to let anyone down. Please make a contribution today—-http://www.indiegogo.com/The-Cooking-Gene-Project-The-Southern-Discomfort-Tour If we can get 160 people or so to each donate 18$ by the end of today we can rest assured the project is fully funded and we don’t have to worry about cutting things, etc. So please contribute and share and dialogue with us about the tour!
Friendly Reminder: Sunday May 6th at 11:59 pm our campaign is done. Its going to mean cutting places, venues, community service opportunies, and losing time to do genealogical research if we don’t make our goal–so please please please don’t take my work here for granted and all the sweat our team has put into this blog and this project and all the work of our network of volunteers. We just need 162 funders to contribute 18$ or more each to make this project a flesh and blood reality. Don’t just peek–do what you can while you can. We love you and know that you want to see the world a better place. G-d bless, Michael! Here’s the link to make your contribution: http://www.indiegogo.com/The-Cooking-Gene-Project-The-Southern-Discomfort-Tour
Let’s start here….
So about 150 years ago, my paternal grandfather’s ancestors in upcountry South Carolina and my maternal grandparents ancestors in northern, central and eastern Alabama, Tennesse and Georgia all worked and lived on cotton plantations of various sizes. By the early 19th century, cotton already accounted for over half of the United States’ exports. My Ancestors helped grow, cultivate and harvest the four million plus bales of cotton produced in 1860–or about a bale per enslaved individual living at the time. How much is a bale? About 500 pounds. A man my size and age might be expected to pick anywhere between 250-350 pounds a day…so almost a bale a day. Hence–(I’m gwine to jump down spin around, pick a bale a cotton, gwine to jump down spin around, and pick a bale a day!”) Cotton didn’t just provide fiber to overseas markets—it helped fuel the industrial revolution in the North to which new immigrants from Northern Europe would provide labor. Most Southern whites were not slaveholders, and those that did largely at smaller holdings in terms of land and workforce. However these facts may be true they exist alongside a paradox–most enslaved African Americans lived in groupings of 10-20 or more. Without this kind of population bunching, family growth and cultural formation and continuity could not have taken place making for the cohesive Black cultural identity of the plantation South. Only a quarter of all Southern slaveholders had planter status (20 or more enslaved workers) With 20 or more able bodied workers you could live the life of a middling planter. When you had about 50-100 people you were pretty rich, and with over 100–which only a select few could claim–you were unbelieveably wealthy. Going back to the 5-10 people holdings—–you can probably bet these were not all whites trying to make their way up in the world in the 1840s-1860s. Most likely these are people owned by members of the same family—-they are inheritances and traded among cousins or siblings. In these situations, landholdings might be contiguous or relatively close allowing for marriages and other kinship patterns to emerge as if they were in fact part of a larger plantation community.
Scaling “the Wall”
Admitedly, part of this journey is about breaking down, “the Wall,” the barrier of time and space that so frustrates many African Americans doing genealogical research before 1860. You have to know your families’ “owners,” including the surname, the individual property lines, the counties, their biographical data, etc. etc. You have to learn all about them in order to discern whose who in your family tree. If you are lucky you will get some legal papers—andy many many were destroyed in and after the War…or you will find property or auction lists or wills. In South Carolina we belonged to the Twitty, Mungo, Reeves and Pate families of the South Carolina upcountry. In Alabama we were the property of the Bellamy, Townsend, Hancock and Hughes families. In Russell County, Alabama my great-great-great Grandfather, Captain Richard Henry Bellamy CSA, was both my families’ slaveholder and an ancestor. In Northern Alabama, my family was owned by the Townsend brothers in Madison County, Alabama who had large cotton plantations with lots of enslaved people. In that case at least we know that my Ancestors lived on one of the two brothers large holdings (they had eight plantations). The Townsend brothers both died with the desire to liberate many of their enslaved laborers and their families.
I bring all of this up because there were some very very complicated relationships going on in our history. Both my paternal grandparents came from enslaved Ancestors who were “married” in 1861. Some formal recognition was going on. And both families obtained land within years of emancipation to one generation after. This is not to say that there probably wasn’t significant brutality and oppression of my Ancestors. I think you have to be real—this was slavery, my great-great grandmother was taken advantage of against her will along with other women in my family tree–and frequently. These people didn’t get a paycheck–or an education—and didn’t have the right to vote, marry, or the right to move around as they saw fit. They were legally forbidden from reading or writing and they lived lives of severe restriction and control. Family values–forget it–my Ancestors were sold away from one another without any concern for their emotions, psychological stablity, familal bond, or the decency of Spirit. As a community they were told to believe they were naturally inferior, undeserving of G-d’s love and bound for hell if they did not obey their Masters who supposedly represented G-d on earth to them as “servants.” Enslaved children saw parents whipped, ate worm and parasite infested food, went naked much of the year and some were physically or sexually abused by their owners and overseers and patrollers who policed the Southern countryside on behalf of the planter class. Given the high volume of biracial Ancestors in my family trees some of them undoubtedly faced teasing, ostracism and likely abuse for their identities. My African ancestors arriving here against their will probably experienced unbelieveable heartache and traumatic stress in their transition to exile America. Those are the facts…
Not bitter, not angry–just telling the truth. I’m teach about the Holocaust in Hebrew school–how would have me tell the story of my Ancestors in slavery if not in clear terms of “it was complicated, it was bad, it was confusing, its legacy is unending and its our history and we need to deal with it.” Nuff said. Moving on.
Cotton and Slavery’s Food Supply–A Primer
Food and slavery was colloquial and discretionary. Judging from the strange and complcated relationships had my Ancestors with their “owners,” I can guess that the relationship with the food supply was probably interesting as well. If your ancestors lived on cotton plantations in the Deep South, by 1860 they probably lived on a diet based on corn and pork in their preserved form. Corn=hominy, hominy grits, cornmeal, cornbread, hoecake/ashcake, mush, kush—a cornbread scramble made with hot pepper, fat and onions, dumplings, meal breading, cornbread/cornpone, corn liquor, and corn on the cob (green corn). Pork=salted and smoked meat, offal (the heads, feet, tails, intestines, ears and the like) were the predominant carbohydrate and protein of the Cotton Kingdom. Only occasionally would people enjoy fresh meat in other forms–beeves, sheep, goats, chicken, fish, or game. And of course there were gardens….if you were allowed to keep them. In the word of King Cotton–industrial style slavery had taken hold. Probably–and this is me guestimating here–only about 2/3 of enslaved people living under King Cotton were allowed to keep their own garden spaces in any signficant way. Many enslaved people reported not being allowed to do any work or labor other than working in cotton or receiving garden truck from a large communal garden maintained by the elderly. The most commonly mentioned field crops were cabbage, cowpeas, watermelons, and sweet potatoes–often grown in their own separate fields and after that–enslaved people might grow greens gardens–usually collards and turnips—and string beans and white potatoes were usually the remaining big crops. Other foods like homegrown rice, red peppers, peanuts, tomatoes, herbs, pumpkins, okra and the like were infrequently dispersed and we should not think of them as being necessarily common. This system was not based in part on a new literature unique to the antebellum era where the management, care, and control of enslaved people was a frequent subject of agricultural and trade journals basically encouraging planters to maximize results and get more bang for their bale.
Rations of salt, molasses, coffee, white flour, orchard fruit (apples, peaches, etc.) and the like rounded out any sort of gathered, hunted, caught foods avaialble within the plantation ecosystem. I like to describe game as usually belonging to the four food groups–including possum, squirrel, rabbit and racoon. Living in largely landlocked places, various species of catfish, perch, buffalo, bream, bass, trout, gar, crawfish and freshwater clams and mussels formed the surf to your turf. Usually those If you’re ancestors were subjects of King Cotton like mine, this is probably how they ate.
Each plantation crop during slavery had its own unique food profile. Among the enslaved people of sugarcane alley and the rice coast, African, tropical American and Afro-Caribbean foods were available to round out the diet. In the old Tobacco Kingdom, personal gardens and access to Tidewater fishing grounds rich in both fresh and saltwater species, crustaceans, mollusks and reptiles were among the reasons why the Black population multiplied and reproduced at a natural rate almost incomprable with any other community of Blacks in the New world. Most enslaved workers on the sugar, coffee, rice and cotton plantations of Latin America and the Caribbean died within seven years of arrival, right up to the last days of slavery. Virginia and Maryland would lend most of their workforce to the Kentucky, Tennessee and Missouri, while others would end up in Western Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, Arkansas and Louisiana. There they would join people from the Carolinas and eastern Georgia and the Lower Mississippi Valley sold across the Cotton Kingdom. When these two group merged so did their dietary practices. Rice cultivation and consumption spread from the Gullah-Geechee corridor and the Lower Mississippi Valley into the Lower South while the corn culture and turnip greens and the like dominated the Upper South.
Food tells you a lot about how we got to be how we are….In 1750 we were anywhere from 1-3 generations removed from Africa…if that…….We were not largely Afro-Christian and there were various dialects of Black English and Black French–read Gullah/Geechee, Patois, Creole, etc. In 1850 we were largely 4-5 generations removed from Africa (especially in the Upper South) while in the Lower South this number was lower owing to the late slave trade. We were largely Afro-Christian LEANING (varieties of Baptist and Methodist) with elements of folk religion and we spoke a generalized Plantation Creole English based largely on those dialects from Maryland, Virginia and upper North Carolina with inflections and loan words in the Deep South from Gullah/Geechee and Afro-Creole dialects of French in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama. Our music was the “Virginia music” based on gourd banjos, rattles, the bones, the fiddle, triangle and clandestine drums made from gourds, barrels, and boxes, flutes, quills and mouthbows.
How does it feel to pick cotton?
Cotton is an extremely beautiful crop in the Southern fields….it is heartbreakingly beautiful…soft, inviting, miraculous. Out an almost alien like green shell pops out a clear and delicate whiteness that soon envelops the boll’s space until the green turns to a brown husk. The field turns a blinding white–the whiteness of the link is set afire and gleams wih the sunlight until you can’t see anything else. It is repetiive, painful, and makes your back ache. Doing this alone you can understand why field hollers, the blues, and all of that music—was created to endure this mechanical, backbreaking process. And until you’ve picked cotton–you have no idea how a hoecake “should,” taste, or how far we’ve come….
1 cup of white stone-ground cornmeal
3/4 cup of boiling hot water
½ teaspoon of salt
¼ cup of lard, vegetable oil or shortening
Mix the cornmeal and salt in a bowl. Add the boiling water, stir constantly and mix it well and allow the mixture to sit for about ten minutes. Melt the frying fat in the skillet and get it hot, but do not allow it to reach smoking. Two tablespoons of batter can be scooped up to make a hoecake. Form it into a small thin pancake and add to the pan. Fry on each side 2-3 minutes until firm and lightly brown. Set on paper towels to drain and serve immediately once all the hoecakes have been cooked.