Food, Community & Government

Food Culture of the Antebellum South

Michael W. Twitty

Lesson time 12:12 min

Michael pulls from his experience as a historical interpreter and historian to teach about life in the antebellum South as it relates to food.

Students give MasterClass an average rating of 4.7 out of 5 stars

Topics include: Time as an Ingredient • Plantation Kitchens • Warning: This content includes references to sexual abuse. • Walking in Our Ancestors’ Shoes


[MUSIC PLAYING] MICHAEL TWITTY: Throughout the 250 years before emancipation, West and Central African methods of cooking, traditional ingredients, and Creolized versions of African dishes came to be considered distinctly Southern. But we need to talk about how African-American cuisine came of age. When people talk about slave food-- you may have heard that term, slave food. And some people, unfortunately, attach it to soul food. Soul food is a modern construct. I think that's a misnomer that we need to correct with each other. So for example, enslaved people were given rations. But from what we know, the basic ration system involved corn or rice, unbolted. In other words, you had to process it yourself. So you were given the corn to make into meal. You were given the rice to be pounded, and to be milled as well. You were given salted pork or smoked pork in very small amounts. This was not a food. It was more of a condiment. It was more of an-- a means to get salt to people. A small piece of the boiled meat might go into potatoes or leafy greens or beans or peas and to fresh vegetables like snap beans, collard greens, et cetera. And those things were grown by the people-- again, agency and ownership. Not every food was given to the enslaved by white people. That's-- I really detest that narrative because it makes us sound like pets, like domesticated animals. And of course, the idea of chattel slavery is to equate the Black human being and the Black body with that kind of bestial level of existence. And it wasn't that simple. You know, who do you think grew the corn and wheat and the rice? It was us. So basically, our own production was given back to us in other form as a ration. Some of our ancestors who were Muslim refused to eat pork. So they were given their ration in salt beef or in fish. Some people only had fish in the very beginning of colonial slavery. There was very little pork. So again, colloquial and discretionary based on what were the major crops there, what was accessible-- molasses occasionally makes an appearance as a ration because, remember, we're living-- we're talking about people who are living, our ancestors, at a time that was before easy access to sugar. And sugar, of course, and fruit and other things were important for energy. They grew watermelons for-- mainly for the liquid, for hydration. They didn't know what vitamins were, what nutrients were. But they knew what was better for their bodies and what wasn't. Some enslaved people had gardens. Some did not. Some had larger gardens they were given rations out of-- by the enslaved cook or by the overseer or driver. So in slavery, there were multiple ways that people obtained their basic staples. For example, I tell people all the time when our ancestors lived on the southeast coast of America on the Gulf Coast and by the Mississippi River, their diet was much more diverse. And they were forced to forage, hunt,...

About the Instructor

Through years of unearthing his African American heritage, bestselling author of The Cooking Gene Michael W. Twitty discovered undeniable ties between his ancestors’ past and his own palate. Now he’s teaching how you can get a taste of your family history through food. Explore the migrations that informed the ingredients in your kitchen—then re-create the dishes that helped shape who you are.

Featured Masterclass Instructor

Michael W. Twitty

James Beard Award–winning author of The Cooking Gene teaches how to trace your culinary roots through the food your ancestors ate.

Explore the Class
Sign Up