Thursday, November 24, 2016

Enslaved Cooking

Although Thanksgiving did not become an official national holiday until a presidential proclamation in 1863 (and then only initially in the Union states), the weeks and months after harvest in the antebellum South often came to be viewed as a time of plenty. In the autumn, food larders were replenished from the gathering and processing of that year's subsistence crops and the annual fall animal slaughters. As the leaves from the trees fell, food seemed to be in more abundance than at any other time of the year.

In the time before food was prepared on wood stoves, most culinary skills were honed by open hearth cooking. Like the field slaves' work, domestic slaves' duties of cooking and cleaning were labor intensive, and dangerous. Preparing three daily meals for the slave owning family (and probably more during the holiday season) meant long hours and aching muscles for the enslaved cook.

The process of cooking at the time did not just involve policing the goodness frying in the pans, boiling in the pots, and baking in the dutch ovens; the work to prepare for the cooking process alone was more physical work than some people did all day. Wood for fuel had to be chopped, spit, and carried to the hearth. Water had to be drawn from the well and toted to the kitchen for both cooking and cleaning. Poultry had to be killed, plucked, and dressed. Ingredients had to be gathered and measured.

Open hearth cooking was dangerous work. Clothing fires were not uncommon. Some female cooks had to wet their skirts or aprons to avoid their catching fire. The closeness to heating sources was also a problem due to breathing in wood smoke and the potential contact of hot metal handles with bare skin hands. Bending over heavy pots and pans to reach them on the hearth floor, where the cooking was completed to help control the piles of embers, and thus the various required temperatures, meant sore backs, necks, shoulders, knees, and legs.

Enslaved cooks probably received little recognition for their labors. A congratulations may be forthcoming if the mistress was in such a mood. A little taste while cooking or potential leftovers were sometimes the only compensation they received. All of which was little consolation knowing that the whole process would need to be started again almost immediately for the next meal. The cooks knew it would be the same the following day, and the next, and the next. And unlike the enslaved field hands, the domestic slaves more often than not did not get to enjoy a day of rest during the week. Is there any surprise then that if given an opportunity to escape their condition, it was the domestic slaves who often made first efforts?

Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.

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