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Researcher James Walvin, author of Slavery and the Slave Trade (1983), believes that no generalization can adequately convey the full reality of slavery because of the diversity of the slave experience. Walvin also points out that slaves owned by impoverished masters or those living in harsh climates or locales would suffer accordingly. Determining how climate and locale determine or encourage inhumane treatment may be a subject for another debate. One may argue the point when assessing the similarity of meals and mealtime of slaves from various geographical locations and climates.

Frederick Douglass (1817–1895) describes the typical mealtime for slaves in Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (1845):

Our food was coarse corn meal boiled. This was called mush. It was put into a large wooden tray or trough, and set down upon the ground. The children were then called like so many pigs, and like so many pigs they would come and devour the mush; some with oyster shells, others with pieces of shingles, some with naked hands, and none with spoons. He that ate fastest got the most; he that was strongest secured the best place, and few left the trough satisfied (Gates 1987, p. 359).


Imagine it is mealtime and you have not eaten all day. Now imagine hearing a loud clanging that signals that it is the mealtime hour (or few minutes). You see children and adults rushing to a feeding trough at the sound of the clanging. The trough may not be big enough to accommodate all the hungry stomachs that pressed forward when the signal was given. There may be pushing and shoving. Perhaps now is not the time to worry about table manners (especially when there is no table). It is the time, however, to worry about getting close enough to the trough in order to get the only food that you are allowed to have in a twenty-four-hour period. The Life of Frederick Douglass details the content of such a meal.

SOURCE: Tyler, Ronnie C., and Lawrence R. Murphy, eds. Slave Narratives of Texas. Austin, TX: Encino Press, 1974.

In the narrative To Be a Slave (1853) Solomon Northup gives a description of mealtime with bacon:

… Each one received, as his weekly allowance, three and a half pounds of bacon, and corn enough to make a peck of meal. That is all—no tea, coffee, sugar, and with the exception of a very scanty sprinkling now and then … no salt. When the corn is ground and fire is made, the bacon is taken down from the nail on which it hangs; a slice is cut off and thrown upon the coals to broil. The majority of the slaves have no knife much less a fork. They cut their bacon with the axe at woodpile. The corn meal is mixed with a little water, placed in the fire and baked. When it is "done brown" the ashes are scraped off being placed upon a chip which answers for a table, the tenant of the slave hut is ready to sit down upon the ground to supper ([1853] 1968, p. 73).

Interviewed in 1937 by Works Progress Administration (WPA) recorder Ruth Thompson, Richard Toler admitted that he did not know his exact age but he was sure that he was at least half a century and that slavery was not a pleasant time: "Ah never had no good times till ah was free," he said, "Ah was bo'n on Mastah Tolah's (Henry Toler) plantation down in ole V'ginia, near Lynchburg in Campbell County" (Rawick 1972, p. 97). Toler was very certain about the kind of meals he had on his master's plantation: "We had very bad eatin'. Bread, meat, water. And they fed it to us in a trough, jes like the hogs" (Rawick 1972, pp. 97-101).

A. C. Pruitt, a slave of the Magill family located in Martinsville, Louisiana, recalls a more pleasant mealtime experience: "… Come five in de evenin' us have de bigges' meal, dat sho' seem like a long time 'cause dey ain't feed us but two meal a day, not countin' de eatin' us do enduring de day" (Born in Slavery, Texas Narratives, vol. 16, part 3).


Born in Slavery: Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers' Project, 1936–1938, Library of Congress. Texas Narratives, vol. 16, part 3. Available from

Douglass, Frederick. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave. Boston: Anti-Slavery Office, 1845.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. ed. The Classic Slave Narratives. New York: Signet, 1987.

Northup, Solomon. To Be a Slave [1853], ed. Julius Lester. New York: Dial Press, 1968.

Rawick, George P. American Slave; a Composite Autobiography. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1972.

Walvin, James. Slavery and the Slave Trade: A Short Illustrated History. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1983.

                              Johnnie M. Maberry-Gilbert