Sitting by the Fireside: African American History, Women’s History, and Food

Circulating Now welcomes guest blogger, Psyche Williams-Forson, PhD. Dr. Williams-Forson is an associate professor and chair, Department of American Studies, University of Maryland-College Park and the guest curator of NLM’s exhibition, Fire and Freedom: Food and Enslavement in Early America.

A detail from a painting showing a black woman carrying a tray between buildings.Leaving the month of February, when we celebrate Black History Month, and entering March, when we highlight the achievements of women, seems a fitting time to discuss Fire and Freedom: Food and Enslavement in Early America. The exhibition recognizes the ways in which meals can tell us how power is exchanged between and among different peoples, races, genders, and classes. Food, as an object or set of objects, reveals a great deal about who we are, and some of the life experiences that we have and have had.

Only in the last several decades have food and cooking as a cultural process, been given serious attention. Prior to this, the discussion was deemed less significant. But food and eating are different sides of the same coin—one may involve the process of acquisition, preparation, and presentation, while the other is the act of consumption—they are both activities basic to human life. And, far from simply resting in the domain of women, food permeates every element of our existence.

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George Washington and Family, Thomas Prichard Rossiter, ca. 1858-1860
Courtesy of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association

Fire and Freedom recognizes the importance of food cultures, as well as the intersections of race and gender in the discussion. Centering this discussion during the era of enslavement—and especially in the colonial period, we learn more about American and African American history, as well as women’s history.  For example, those interested in the subject of slavery have undoubtedly heard of the Middle Passage—so named as to reflect the part of the horrific journey that brought the slaves from West Africa to the West Indies, often before moving on to other parts of the New World. Established in the early 1500s by slave traders primarily from Spain and Portugal, the Passage bore witness to horrors to come. Enslaved men, women, and children were tightly packed onto a ship to make the three- or sometimes four-week journey. Many slaves did not survive the journey due to starvation, disease, and undoubtedly, brokenheartedness.

By studying the Middle Passage alone, we not only learn a great deal about trade, early maritime practices, and more, but also we learn about food and foodways—the intersection of food, culture, and economics. Perhaps more importantly, we learn about African American food cultures and roles that women played. As written in the higher education module for Food and Freedom:

Africans came to the Americas not only with intimate memories of traditional culinary practices and cuisines but also with particular regionally based agricultural knowledge. These, and other skills were called upon to benefit New World markets, especially the tending of new kinds of crops. African foods and livestock made their way to the Americas during the Middle Passage when Europeans stocked and restocked slave ships.  African women, in particular, prepared foods both during transport and once they arrived using their customary methods as well as borrowing from Native Americans and Europeans. They introduced plants and herbs such as tamarind, hibiscus flowers, and the kola nut to improve tastes and to fight diseases resulting from vitamin deficiency.  Africans contributed other foods such as yams, okra, black-eyed peas, plantain, pigeon peas, rice, watermelon, peanuts, sesame seeds, and melegueta or red peppers along with cooking techniques such as slow cooking (stewed) and deep-frying.

A painting of a black woman with a black child on her knee tends to a cook fire in a dark room.

Washington’s Kitchen, Mount Vernon, Eastman Johnson, 1864
Courtesy of the Mount Vernon Ladies’ Association

As we move to celebrate the enormous contributions of women to American society, we should take a moment to recognize women of all statures—the most notable as well as the lowly. Perhaps understanding the ways in which these women helped others and themselves to survive, the ways that they forged new paths through unbearable odds, and the ways that they helped to build our American food traditions, enables us to be a bit more knowledgeable about and appreciative of the world around us.

To learn more about colonial era foodways, read an interview with Psyche Williams-Forson and watch her recent lecture at NLM. Also check out Fire and Freedom: Food and Enslavement in Early America online and visit the Exhibition Program website to find out when the traveling exhibition is coming to your town.