A culinary history of American slavery

July 28, 2013
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Scott Beveridge / Observer-Reporter
Nationally recognized culinary historian Michael W. Twitty of Washington, D.C., prepares okra soup Saturday at Meadowcroft Rockshelter and Historic Village in Avella in a demonstration on how slaves provided for their families before the Emancipation Proclamation. Order a Print
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Scott Beveridge / Observer-Reporter
Some of the more than 50 people who attended a presentation Saturday at Meadowcroft Rockshelter and Historic Village on the culinary history of American slavery. Order a Print

AVELLA – Someone would ring a bell when it was time for American slave children to eat and they would all come running to the hog trough on Southern plantations before the Emancipation Proclamation was signed.

The children would be given either an empty oyster shell or a piece of a slate shingle that fell from a roof to scoop out their dinner of a bland mush of ground corn and flour mixed into boiling water called ash cake.

“It doesn’t taste like anything,” said culinary historian Michael William Twitty, who gave a cooking demonstration Saturday at Meadowcroft Rockshelter and Historic Village on how slaves provided food for their families.

The scene around the hog trough, Twitty said, appeared as if the children were living in a Third World country eating from the same container used to feed pigs.

“The children were running around without shoes. Their hands were not washed. There was no clean water to begin with,” said Twitty at the presentation that attracted an audience of more than 50 people at the Avella-area tourist destination.

To give the mush flavor, slaves drizzled as much molasses as possible on the cakes, or, if they were lucky, they would top it with a piece of fatback.

“In Colonial times, they didn’t care if (slaves) had protein,” Twitty said.

As for adult slaves living in Virginia, the men were given a weekly ration of three salt herrings and two gallons of corn.

“The woman got half of that and children got the least,” Twitty said.

“One person had to work 16 hours a day. How would that feel?”

In order to better sustain their diets, the slaves learned to set traps to capture such small game as rabbit to eat and would also forage among the plants.

“They did what they had to do.”

Twitty prepared for the crowd a pot of okra soup over an open flame while debunking some of the myths about slave life that persist today, including the notion there was segregation on plantations.

“Poor whites came from miles around to hear banjo playing.”

White and black children played together, fished side-by-side and ran away with each other, Twitty said after he smashed whole tomatoes in a bowl with his hands to toss into the pot of soup.

“You were expecting an iron chef chopping? It was one-pot cooking because that’s all they had in those days was one pot.”

They didn’t have the luxury, either, of owning a spice cabinet.

To add flavor to such dishes a rhubarb pie, slaves would ferment and use the holiday gift of spiced rum into the density of vanilla extract, Twitty said.

“What I’m feeding you is not like what it was.”

Scott Beveridge is a North Charleroi native who has lived most of his life in nearby Rostraver Township. He is a general assignments reporter focusing on investigative journalism and writing stories about the mid-Mon Valley. He has a bachelor's degree from Indiana University of Pennsylvania and a master's from Duquesne University. Scott spent three weeks in Vietnam in 2004 as a foreign correspondent under an International Center for Journalists fellowship.

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