Foodscapes of Slavery

Olaudah Equiano — Igbo man brought to Virginia in the 1700’s — “The Father of Black Literature”

Foodscape is my term for the ways that food emerges from the landscape–both natural and cultural.  Slavery in America—by ethnically specific settlements, economic pursuit, custom, culture, choice, law, and individual discretion forced divisions on the landscape.  Cash crops–tobacco, grain, cotton, rice, sugarcane, hemp, indigo—and other business efforts such as ironworking, fisheries, and trade helped to define and make distinctions in colonial America, and in the South, this trend followed through to antebellum times.  These endeavours were directly related to the natural landscape as European settlers and enslaved Africans found them starting in the 17th century.  Of course, the relationship between humans and the land began with Native Americans–and for certain the diversity of Native American peoples–be they Southern Algonquins (Piscataway and Powhatan), Muskogeans (Creek and Choctaw), Caddo-speaking or Iroquoian (Cherokee) still helps us to define the different “Souths” we know today.  The Deep South is still deeply rooted in its largely Muskogean heritage, as the Appalachian South is with the Cherokee.  In similar ways, each “South,” has its specific European lineage—think of the French and Spanish in Louisiana, the Highland Scots of the Cape Fear region of North Carolina, the Scots Irish in the Southern highlands, or the British settlers of Southern England who came to the Chesapeake.  All of this brings us to the impact of African ethnicities in the United States.  This website is too limited to go over the sea of research being done by the likes of Gwendolyn Midlo Hall, Lorena Walsh, Michael Gomez, Douglass Chambers and the like, who are revisiting the databased records of slave ships crossing the Atlantic.  However my research into African American food history before the Civil War depends on those scholars because their work grounds culinary historians like myself in terms specific to space, time and peoplehood.  My ancestors were not just “African” slaves.  They had fluid ethnic identities that we couch in 20th century terms like “Igbo,” “Yoruba,” and terms that are firmly planted in ethnohistory—“Mbundu,” “Kongo,” “Asante,” “Mandinka.”  To that end, “okuru” is not an “African,” word, it is of Igbo derivation.  “Kingumbo,” isn’t just “Bantu,” its Mbundu from Angola.


Foodscapes begin and end in the land itself.  The cool, misty high elevations of the Appalachians are different from the humid, subtropical Lowcountry.  Enslaved Africans and their Afri-Creole and African American descendants had to cope with new realities just as Europeans did.  They applied whatever knowledge they had learned from home, to awarenesses gained in their American experience and actively sought to understand the landscape they lived in.  Sometimes the transition was simple, rice farmers from Sierra Leone would have easily been able to “read” the landscape near Charleston, South Carolina.  Lebu fishermen could understand the waterways of the Chesapeake, as Bamana and Fulbe cowboys understood the plains of Louisiana.  In other ways the landscape could be alien and alienating.  Coming from a culture based on improvisation and adaptation, Africans in the South related to the land and the water based on their perceptions of “spirit,”  proper land usage, and became attuned to the mountains, rolling hills, bayous and mangrove swamps they came to encounter.  Assisted by their encounters with Native Americans and Europeans, Africans had further help in aclimating themselves to the South(s), and in turn would contribute immensely to the way that their “neighbors” related to the land and the food it provided.

The Rappahannock river near Ferry Farm

Our first foodscape will be the region I live and grew up in, the Chesapeake and Albemarle.  Not only was this the first British “South,” it was the area of the future United States where America began at Jamestown in 1619, and indeed my family began.  My white great-great-great grandfather could trace his ancestry back to a British immigrant to the Albemarle region of northeastern North Carolina in the 1670’s.  Three of my grandparents could trace their ancestors arrival in North America to colonial Virginia, site of the largest Black population in the South until the end of the Civil War.  Virginia’s sister colony, Maryland developed in a similar fashion, as did northeastern North Carolina, settled by carryovers from Tidewater Virginia.  The foodscape was built on the tripartite agricultural complex of Oronoko and sweet-scented tobacco, corn and wheat.  The region extended its borders almost to the Blue Ridge, as Tidewater planters and their enslaved workforce moved as tobacco and intensive grain culture wore out the land.  Blessed with mixed hardwood forests, wetlands and estuaries, enslaved people came to exploit a variety of ecosystems and wildlife in their quest to supplement a meager diet based on corn and pork.  Anadromous fish species–the shads and herrings and rockfish–defined the kinds of seafood available just as did mussels, the Northern Diamondback Terrapin, blue crabs, oysters and clams.  Certain trees and plants—upland cress, persimmon, and black walnut—were culturally important in ways they were not in other parts of the South.  Furthermore, the greater Chesapeake, located primarily in USDA climate zones 6 and 7, could not support more subtropical plants and animal species that were imported into other areas of the South.  The land was both abundant and naturally limited.

Oronoko tobacco field, Williamsburg, VA

To understand the impact that tobacco had on the foodscape of the colonial and antebellum Upper South, it helps to know something of its culture.  Tobacco is known as a 13 month crop.  Enslaved men and women were caught in a constant cycle of production and marketing.  While certainly not a food crop, tobacco was intimately tied to the foodways of the region.  First, it was often paired with corn and wheat, and though part of the crop was marketed for cash, corn and wheat were the defining grain starches of the Upper South diet.  Second, tobacco fields were often raw affairs cultivated by grub hoes into hills on land studded with dead girded trees.  These “weed” infested landscapes were ripe with wild greens–lamb’s quarters, wild mustard and poke for example, and were often seeded with turnip and mustard seed to distract pests from the valuable leaves.  Third, as the tobacco grew, turkeys and guinea hens were driven through the field to peck off hornworms, budworms and harmful insects.  When tobacco fields were finally worn out, abandoned fields, colonized by valuable wild food plants such as persimmon trees, sassafrass and berry thickets provided excellent additions to the diet.  Animals that could take care of themselves–the rough and tumble colonial hog—were preferred because more time could be spent with the tobacco while pigs rooted for nuts, fruits and tubers in the local woods.  Wild animals—rabbits, small game and deer–were attracted to these settlements and added to the exploitable resources available.  Finally, many tobacco plantations were located near a water source that fed into the Bay; thus fish and various kinds of shellfish could be caught depending on spawning cycles and levels of salinity.  After cultivating tobacco hills by the thousands, most tobacco farms and plantations had significant celebrations associated with the wheat harvest, tobacco harvest and the corn shucking in the fall.  Each of these occasions along with the standard holidays of Easter, Christmas and Whitsuntide provided opportunities for feasting.

In colonial times, the whole tobacco plant was hung up to dry

Tobacco was often cultivated to the disadvantage of other food crops.  The pressure to produce a premium crop limited other efforts at food production beyond the standard kitchen garden.  For the tenant farmer, gentry planter, middling planter and indentured sevant and enslaved man or woman alike, tobacco’s set cycle and demanding nature limited other interactions with the land and water.  Over time, as tobacco held less of a hold on life in the region, truck farming–the culitvation of market produce—began to become more essential as cities swelled and the days of the big tobacco plantation became numbered.  Free Blacks and the urban enslaved certainly had small urban gardens and sometimes livestock, but much of their food would have come from the market produce raised, produced and sold by people much like themselves.    Tobacco plantations were less conducive to the task system preferred in the rice and indigo areas of the Carolina Lowcountry, where enslaved people might have several hours of daylight to cultivate their truck patches.  However, a significant hallmark of the plantations and small farms of the Chesapeake and Albemarle was the notion that enslaved people could grow produce for sale to their owners and other people at market or through inter-plantation barter, make money from these efforts, and even dominate some parts of the food trade—poultry, cucumbers, melons and sweet potatoes, or oysters and herring for example.  Somehow, someway the enslaved community found ways to take night-time and Sunday gardening and turn it into a lucrative business.  This unique opportunity was not limited to gardening and livestock, from Fishtown along the Potomac in Alexandria, to the markets of Baltimore, Black watermen established themselves as masters of the waterways and as the region’s premier urban fishmongers.

Smokehouse with Virginia hams, Williamsburg, VA

The following profile lists out a portrait of the Chespeake and Albemarle’s food traditions and resources.  I’m saving the full narrative for my books and future research; but for now you get a taste of how I define a historic foodscape and what its components are.  I hope this makes you hungry.

Foodscapes of Slavery: The Chesapeake and Albermarle

Geographic Region: The Chesapeake Bay region of Maryland and Virginia to the Blue Ridge line of those states, encompassing the Tidewater and Piedmont.  The northeastern coast of North Carolina to the fall line…

Fort James, the Gambia, 1700’s

Enslaved Africans Brought:

MD: Senegambians (Wolof, Serer, Diola, Lebu, Manding, Fulani, Bassari. Balante, Papel, Bamana), Windward Coast (Kru, Vai, Gola, Kissi), Akan (Asante, Fante, related Twi speakers), Central African (BaKongo, Mbundu, related Bantu speakers)

VA: Igbo and other peoples of Southeastern Nigeria including the Ibibio, Moko, and Efik; Central Africans, Senegambians

NE NC: Mixture of Senegambians, Central Africans, Windward and Gold Coasts.

Cotton field, Isle of Wight County, VA

Cash Crops: Predominately Oronoko and Sweet Scendted tobacco, wheat, corn, and later in southside/southeastern Virginia and northeastern North Carolina, cotton.

Other Industries: Ironworks, Tobacco Factories, Shad and Herring Fisheries, Maritime Trades

European Ethnic Mixture: British, Germans, Scots-Irish.

Native American Ethnic Groups: Nanticoke, Piscataway, Powhatan Confederacy, Susquehannocks, Tutelo-Saponi, Occaneechi, Chowan, Wapemeoc, Pamlico, Secotan, Neusiok.

Key Ports and Cities:

Northern Diamondback Terrapin

MD: Baltimore, Annapolis, Georgetown/Washington D.C., Upper Marlboro, St. Mary’s City, Port Tobacco, Cambridge, Frederick Town (Frederick).

VA: Williamsburg, Richmond, Alexandria, Norfolk, Charlottesville, Hampton, Portsmouth, Petersburg.

NC: Edenton, Bath, New Bern.

Local Important Resources/Foods:

Staple Crops: Red May Wheat, Hickory King Corn, Maryland/Virginia Gourdseed corn

Garden and Orchard Crops: Cowhorn Okra, Fish Pepper, Goat’s Horn Pepper, Philadelphia Pepperpot pepper, Green Glaze collards, Large Red tomato, Cushaw (Sweet Potato Pumpkin), Nansemond Sweet Potato, Hayman Sweet Potato, White Yam, Spanish Red Sweet Potato, Virginia Peanut, Carwile’s SW Va Peanut, Carolina Black Peanut, Black Eyed Pea, Apples: Albemarle Pippin, Grime’s Golden; Peaches,  Bough Watermelon, Appoquniminc Cheese Pumpkin, Caseknife Pole Bean, Potomac Pole Bean.

Blue Crab

Fish and Shellfish: Diamondback Terrapin, Blue Crab, Eastern Oyster, White Catfish, Brown and Yellow Bullhead, Croaker, Black Drum, Red Drum, Weakfish, Rockfish, Shad, Herring, Clam, Sturgeon, Northern Hogsucker, Brook Trout, Yellow Perch.

Livestock: Chickens—Dorking, Dunghill, Dominiques; Red Guinea Hog, Guinea Fowl, Black Turkey (Mexican/English), Red Devon cattle, Tunis Sheep.

Edible Flora: Wild Persimmon, Beach Plum, Pawpaw, American Chestnut, Eastern Chinkapin, Black Walnut, Lamb’s Quarters, Pokeweed/Sallet, Wild Mustard, Upland Cress, Watercress, Hickory Nuts, Chufa Root, Cherry Dock, Sassafras, Spicebush.

Edible Fauna: Virginia Opossum, Raccoon, Cottontail Rabbit, Virginia Whitetail Deer, Groundhog, Muskrat.

Well Known Dishes: Maryland Fried Chicken, Blue Crabs, Terrapin Soup, Beaten Biscuits, Brunswick Stew, Okra Soup, Peanut Soup, Sweet Potato Pumpkin, Smithfield Ham, Maryland Country Ham, Black Eyed Pea Cakes, Corncakes (Maryland Corn Cake, Johnny Cake, Virginia Hoe Cake), She Crab Soup, Sally Lunn, Lady Baltimore Cake, Possum and Sweet Potatoes, Turkey and Oyster Dressing, Crab Cakes, Fried Oysters, Persimmon Beer, Bacon and Greens, Fried Apple Pies, Apple Butter, Black Walnut Cake, Black Walnut Taffy, Creasy Greens.

Places of Interest

His Lordship’s Kindness at Poplar Hill
Teackle Mansion
Sotterley Plantation
Rose Hill Manor Park
George Paca House
Charles Carroll House
Ferry Hill
Hampton National Historic Site
Mount Clare Museum

Mansion at Carter’s Grove Plantation

Straford Hall
Gunston Hall
Mount Vernon

Re-created slave quarters, Carter’s Grove Plantation

Colonial Williamsburg — Great Hopes Plantation
Arlington House
Scotch Town
Carter’s Grove (Closed until further notice)
Woodlawn Plantation
Claude Moore Colonial Farm
Ferry Farm

North Carolina:
Historic Halifax
Hope Plantation
Somerset Place
Historic Stagville — Bennehan-Cameron Plantation
Historic Edenton
Historic Bath
New Bern

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