Food as Resiliency
Reading the interviews from the Federal Writers’ Project, the connection between food and relationships is apparent.
Food, including its agriculture, preparation, and consumption was integral in fostering relationships among enslaved peoples on their plantations. Food was not merely a form of sustenance, even though they were given the plots of land to work by their slaveholders as a means for them to cut feeding costs.
Food was grown in these garden plots, tended by the enslaved peoples during the evening and on their days off.
They procured food in a myriad of ways. They sometimes stole from their slaveholders, hunted birds and small animals on land nearby, gathered fruits and crops from orchards and forests, and even traded with enslaved people on neighbouring plantations. Some were allowed to tend to their own flocks, but that was very rare.
This supplementary food was used in courtship, sold to raise money to buy other goods, and to provide extra nourishment to those who needed it, including runaways who were escaping their slaveholders.
In his article, “Slave and Food: A means to Resistance, An Obstacle to Freedom,” Ryan Chappel analyses the ways in which “food aided, hindered, and ultimately shaped [various] types of slave resistance.”
The three excerpts below focus on the interviewee’s description of food and food practices.
John Bectom interview: food excerpt
In his interview, Bectom describes how the enslaved people on his slaveholder’s 300-acre plantation each had an acre of land they could use to grow crops to sell and eat. He explains that they would tend to their acre on “moonshiny nights and holidays.” Despite being fed well, they would still steal some of the “marster’s chickens or a hog and slip off to another plantation and have it cooked.” This narration shows how they used food to build relationships with neighbouring enslaved peoples, fostering a sense of community and enabling future reciprocation. Letting enslaved peoples grow, distribute, and sell their own food actually gave them more autonomy and control over their own lives and the lives of others. This arrangement also allowed enslaved men to provide for their own families, thus changing the slave-master dynamic on the plantation.
Alice Baugh interview: food excerpt
Baugh speaks to the hunting, gathering, and even to the bee-keeping done on the plantation where she was enslaved. She is sure that her enslaved family “et as good as his marster et.” This interview does not speak of any acreage for growing, but she does mention some gardens. On their days off, Baugh claims they would hunt, fish, and that they even had some of their own chickens and pigs to tend. In this interview, Baugh relays a story about the apiary sharing that she was sure the bees hummed when she told them Miss Mary died. Clearly, the bees, with their honey and pollinating abilities, were an important part of the food life and culture on this plantation.
Zeb Crowder interview: food excerpt
In his interview, Crowder remembers how he would go “bird blindin’” in the winter where birds would roost in the sage and then they would go catch them to eat. He explains the ingenious way they would go at night into the grass fields with torches to see, and then they would all make a circle, then hit the “piles o’ brush,” and kill the many birds that would fly out. They were working as a group together at night, during their time off, to feed everybody. It was a communal activity that also helped their spirits, as Crowder explains, “those were good times.” He explains they would use these caught fish and other birds, like robins, doves, and partridges to make a soup called “slick.” These little ventures would add something to look forward to, especially because it was done by all members of their group.
Furthermore, if enslaved people had to supplement their diet by hunting, fishing, or gathering, this shows their master could not provide enough for his own enslaved people, again speaking to his inadequacy and this challenged his dominance.