Monday, December 22, 2014

Antebellum Food Fare


In the last week, I’ve put away more than my share of panatone, fruitcake, and pumpkin pie. I’m saving the stollen bread to console myself in January. What gastronomic pleasures! What guilty pleasures…I’ll pay for this.

The quantity and variety of foods in bygone days pale in comparison to what we have today. At the same time, if you lived in the Old South, there was a vast difference between the diet of white owners and that of slaves.

At Christmas, beefs, hogs, and sheep were butchered and barbecued over an open pit. It was the one time of the year when slaves had their fill of meat. They might get as gifts prized rations, such as sugar, coffee, and flour. 

It wasn’t uncommon for white families to get together for Christmas at one or another plantation, in which case there would be a sizeable group to feed. Here’s a menu I copied (from a source that I’ve lost) of a menu for a plantation owner’s feast: wild turkeys; 4 hams; 3 pates; partridges; pheasants; canvassback ducks; charlotte russes; pyramids (2 of crystalized fruit and 2 of coconut); orange baskets; Italian creams; bonbons; coconut rings; kiss cakes; macaroons; mounds of jelly; bavarian cream.  Needless to say, the slaves could only dream of eating such fare.

The slaves prepared indulgent meals with rudimentary equipment, 
most of the time a fireplace equipped with numerous iron pots.

Throughout the year, plantations produced whatever provisions they consumed, though as cotton fever spread, some owners planted it to the exclusion of crops such as sweet potatoes, peas, sugarcane, and corn. Planters, and in some cases slaves, grew vegetable gardens with such as tomatoes, beans, okra, squash, collards, and turnips. They had fruit trees and grape vines. For their own consumption, owners raised sheep, cattle, hogs, chickens, turkeys, ducks, and geese. It wasn’t uncommon for a slave to have chickens or a hog or goat. 

Those plantations near the coast ate seafood. Both whites and blacks supplemented their diet by hunting and fishing. Former slaves told of eating possum and coon. This from one of the slave narratives: “I love possum and sweet taters, but de coon meat more delicate and de hair don’t stink up de meat.” Another one said the coon was a cleaner animal. “Coon won’t eat everything like a possum.”

Though most plantations had cows and milk products (butter, cream, clabber, buttermilk, and yes, ice cream!), there’s rarely mention of cheese. 

Throughout the year on a regular basis (e.g., weekly), the owner distributed to the slaves a given quantity of foodstuffs, which might consist of salt, bacon (we’d call it sidemeat), corn meal, molasses, rice, grits, or hominy.

To my surprise, I’ve seen reference to Hopping-John, a dish common to present-day Lexington County. I’ve eaten my share and still enjoy it. You cook up a pot of black-eyed peas flavored with a ham hock and another pot of rice. To serve it, scoop rice into a plate and spoon peas on top. We often put on a toping of chow-chow (a relish made with cabbage). With a side of applesauce (my husband makes homemade) it’s adequate for a meal.

Sharing food is an intimate pleasure, perhaps one of the reasons we search out family and friends during the holidays. Cheers! And blessings of the season.

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