Diet and Nutrition: An Overview

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Diet and Nutrition: An Overview

Lifetime servitude of victims of the African slave trade was in practice in Jamestown, Virginia, by 1640 and was the catalyst for the rise of the plantation economy in the southern colonies of North America. Slavery became very popular as the source of free labor for plantation owners, and by 1776 approximately one-fifth of the southern population was slaves. Considered as property and as a capital investment, slaves were provided the minimum basis needs of food and shelter from their owners. Slave quarters were built near the house of the plantation owners and rations of food were provided on a daily basis. According to William Goodell (1792–1878), "the slave, as a chattel, is fed or famished, covered or uncovered, sheltered or unsheltered, at the discretion or convenience of his owner, like other working animals" (1853, p. 4).

The daily allotment of food required to produce enough energy for the average working adult is between 2,500 and 3,000 calories. This calorie requirement was generally supplied to the slaves but the combination of food that made up this allotment was not very nutritious. Foods central to the African diet, such as rice, okra, tania, black-eyed peas, cassava, yams, and kidney and lima beans were transported from Africa to America along with the slave cargo. Other foods included peanuts, millet, sorghum, guinea melon, licorice, and watermelon. These staples were given to the slaves during their trip to America through the Middle Passage. Once the slave reached the plantation, his or her diet was severely restricted and consisted mainly of weekly rations of corn and fatty meats, particularly pork. The allowances of meat and meal issued to a slave varied in different localities but generally the allowance was one peck of meal and four pounds of meat weekly for each working hand—occasionally molasses and coffee were included. The meat that was provided consisted mainly of the less meaty cuts of the animal such as the feet, jaws, legs, skull, and intestines and came primarily from the hog. If the plantation owner permitted, slaves often grew vegetables in small gardens just outside the quarters. This allowed slaves to vary their diet.

One ex-slave remembered the food of his youth in great detail.

"All the slaves ate together. They had a cook special for them. This cook would cook in a long house more than thirty feet long. Two or three women would work there and a man, just like the cooks would in a hotel now. All the working hands ate there and got whatever the cook gave them. It was one thing one time and another another. The cooks gave the hands anything that was raised on the place." (Born in Slavery, p. 226.)

Slaves on plantations close to the river were fortunate to be able to add fish and other seafood to their scanty fare. Occasionally, they were able to trap or hunt small game. With the addition of the harvest from their personal gardens and the capture of small game and fish, a typical diet was expanded to include dried beans, greens, fish, and cornmeal flavored with the fat of the pig. Although meat, bread, and vegetables were included in the diet, most of the protein came from fats and sugar. The diet was also limited in iron, vitamins, and other essential nutrients. Because there were few if any utensils, slaves mostly ate stews or other one-pot meals. The ingredients for the stews included small quantities of meat, especially hog fat, combined with a variety of vegetables and beans. The ingredients were put in a pot and allowed to simmer, or stew, all day on a low burning fire. When the slave finally came in from the field or finished the daily tasks, he or she would welcome the savory stew along with hoecakes or ashcakes, a type of bread made with cornmeal that was cooked on the spade of a hoe or on the hearth of the fireplace. Food was eaten from the pot with the fingers because slaves generally had no plates or forks and spoons. One of the dishes often prepared was kush, a spicy alternative to cornbread. Kush was made using cornmeal, onions, red pepper, salt, and grease. It was eaten with the pot liquor, or juice left over from the vegetables, or used to sop the vegetables. Many of the ingredients in the slave diet have transitioned into the American southern diet—namely cornbread, greens, and various pork dishes.


Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936–1938. Manuscript and Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress. Arkansas Narratives, vol. 2, part 2.

Goodell, William. The American Slave Code in Theory and Practice: Its Distinctive Features Shown by the Statutes, Judicial Decisions, and Illustrative Facts. New York: American and Foreign Anti-Slavery Society, 1853.

Rees, R.; J. Komlos; N.V. Long; and U. Woitek. "Optimal Food Allocation in a Slave Economy." Journal of Population Economics, vol. 16, no. 1 (February 2003): 21-36.

Steckel, R.H. "A Peculiar Population: the Nutrition, Health, and Mortality of American Slaves from Childhood to Maturity." The Journal of Economic History, vol. 46, no. 3 (September 1986): 721-741.

Taylor, R.H. "Feeding Slaves." The Journal of Negro History 9, no. 2 (April 1924): 139-143.

                                    Euthena M. Newman

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Diet and Nutrition: An Overview

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