The Resistance and Ingenuity of the Cooks Who Lived in Slavery
Garlic sizzles in a big Dutch oven. As Peggy Brunache stirs, the aromatic softens and starts to take on a sweetness in the hot oil.
Soon, meat that’s been marinated in sour Seville orange juice and epis—a medley of onions, bell peppers, herbs, salt, and yet more garlic—will hit the pan. These ingredients stew in a mix containing Scotch bonnet peppers and pumpkin and butternut squash that stand in for a winter squash grown in Haiti.
This dish, called soup joumou, dates back at least to the early 1800s, a time that coincided with the Black Haitian struggle for independence from the French empire. It has become a beloved symbol for Haitian freedom from slavery, savored every January 1, Haiti’s Independence Day.
“It’s our resistance and celebratory soup,” says Brunache, who is Haitian American. The dish is also her favorite of the stewed meals—including callaloo, pepperpot, and gumbo—that appear across the African diaspora.
A historical archaeologist at the University of Glasgow, Brunache has investigated the meals that enslaved African people created in the French Caribbean, food that she calls “slave cuisine.” Through excavations on the islands of Guadeloupe, she and her colleagues have catalogued bones and shells, and analyzed remains of pottery to clue into the ingredients and types of food enslaved people cooked for themselves.
Those studies, along with the work of many other scholars, provide a window into the day-to-day experiences of people who lived in slavery. In discussing such meals, Brunache pairs the words “slave” and “cuisine” because these ideas may strike some listeners as a jarring juxtaposition. Her use of “cuisine” is an intentional homage to the skill and creativity of enslaved cooks, typically Black women, who made these foods that are still celebrated today.
In Brunache’s kitchen, the aroma of soup joumou entices her family long before it’s ready to eat. But Brunache also cooks for audiences of dozens or hundreds, using food to broach the legacy of the transatlantic slave trade.
From the 16th to the 19th centuries, White European enslavers forcibly transported more than 10 million people out of Africa and into the Caribbean and the Americas. Though their stories varied widely, many of these people endured slavery in colonized lands on plantations that grew crops such as coffee, sugar, cotton, rice, and indigo. In addition to tending plants and livestock, enslaved people labored in enslavers’ homes, for instance as maids, butlers, and cooks.
The toll of this trade—in death and suffering—across hundreds of years cannot be calculated. Its vast scale often overshadows the experiences of individuals, including their contributions to culture.
Brunache is one of many scholars who have embarked on a reclamation project, seeking to unveil the humanity of people who lived under slavery. Through research projects across the Americas and the Caribbean, anthropologists and archaeologists are piecing together a more complete picture of the lives led by individuals forced into slave labor.
“Often when we talk about slavery, it puts the enslaved person in the place of victimhood,” Brunache says. “But there were also other aspects of slave culture we can talk about.”
In particular, foodways—that is, the cultural, social, and economic practices linked to food—can illuminate the agency of people who lived under slavery and provide connections to the aspects of their history and culture that have lived on. “Food is a perfect way to talk about these hard histories: that we found something positive, that we did something active—something that we can still be proud of, that we still have a link to,” Brunache says.
The scholars who study the meals that enslaved people created and consumed contend with gaps in the historical record. European and American enslavers wrote most of the documentation that survives today, leaving silences and inconsistencies regarding the lives and foodways of enslaved people, says Diane Wallman, a historical archaeologist at the University of South Florida.
For example, the “Code Noir”—French for “Black Code”—a set of regulations for slavery in the French Caribbean used from 1685 to 1789, described rations that were supposed to be provided to those who were enslaved. But in practice, White enslavers failed to give enough sustenance. Brunache observes that “there was a conscious choice made by planters to not really provide enough food for the enslaved community, even though they were working them to death.”
Archaeological discoveries—including culinary tools and the remnants of meal prep from long ago—help fill in this picture. Researchers have found evidence of not only a varied diet but also diverse, skillful methods of obtaining food, including fishing, hunting, cultivation, and foraging. “What happens,” explains Wallman, “is you have enslaved peoples primarily raising, growing, procuring their own foodstuffs, both plant and animal, throughout this period.”
For example, in her excavations of trash heaps near the dwellings occupied by enslaved people on Martinique and other islands, Wallman has turned up a trove of local fish and shellfish remains—evidence against some scholars’ long-held assumption that only an elite group of enslaved people fished. Lead weights, used to hold nets down and recovered from areas where enslaved people lived, hint at how they fished. “We can use what we find to actually counter a lot of these ideas that have been presented in the historical record,” Wallman says.
Across both the Caribbean and parts of the United States, enslaved workers grew fruit and vegetable gardens, often called provision grounds. In some cases, people living in slavery had time away from other tasks to tend these gardens, as this produce made up for food enslavers failed to provide. “But another way to think about it is that enslaved Africans really pressed for the ability to sustain themselves,” notes Maria Franklin, an archaeologist at the University of Texas, Austin.
Franklin has excavated the grounds surrounding the quarters of enslaved people at Rich Neck, a plantation in Virginia’s Williamsburg area, occupied between 1636 and the 1800s. From subfloor root cellars, hearth areas, and trenches, she and her colleagues have uncovered hundreds of plant specimens. Among the varieties unearthed are corn, cultivated at the plantation and probably rationed to enslaved people, and cowpeas and melons that enslaved people likely grew in their own gardens. Her team also found evidence for foraged fruit, such as cherries and blackberries.
Seed pods from the honey locust tree were the most abundant botanical. In Peter Randolph’s autobiography, the formerly enslaved man who lived in a county near Rich Neck recounts brewing the seeds in a coffee-like beverage and using the pods as a sweetener.
Franklin adds: “Those trees were growing right around that area, and still are, actually.”
Franklin’s work also suggests that, during the 1700s, people living in Rich Neck’s slave quarters were raising livestock and had access to many cuts of meat. They also hunted and trapped animals. Evidence of diverse game meat—including possum and raccoon—suggests a varied diet and that at least some hunting occurred at night, given the nocturnal animals captured.
In this way, the archaeological evidence for these varied meals hints at the experiences of enslaved African people who lived on plantations. Another example comes from evidence of fish dishes at Rich Neck, which suggests that enslaved people had mobility beyond the plantation. The closest river was at least a mile from the slave quarters, “so they’re traveling at great lengths,” Franklin notes.
“Food is a perfect way to talk about these hard histories,” says archaeologist Peggy Brunache.
While it’s not clear if that travel was permitted, she says, the presence of firearms suggests that overseers and enslavers knew that enslaved people were hunting. In addition, Franklin observes, it’s notable that enslaved people were “the ones who are dictating, to a large extent, what they are going to eat.”
Several archaeologists are trying to better understand the power dynamics that existed on individual plantations, using foodways as a clue. Barnet Pavão-Zuckerman at the University of Maryland has explored differences between what enslaved domestic workers and field workers ate—the latter typically having less time to gather their own food.
On some plantations in Virginia, Pavão-Zuckerman and other archaeologists have found flints, lead shot, and parts of guns. Some of the people who had access to firearms accompanied enslavers on hunting trips. And they may have served as enforcers of the enslaver’s rules, she explains. “That was also a part of social control—to give privileges to some folks and not others.”
Her work and others’ underscores the unique position of the Black enslaved cooks who prepared food for their White enslavers. Often, their recipes blended disparate traditions and ingredients in ways that would come to define regional cuisines. “It was a combination of African techniques, American ingredients, Native American influences, and European preferences,” Pavão-Zuckerman says, “that came in together in the kitchens of these enslaved communities.”
In some locales, enslaved people raised and gathered such a bounty of food that the excess could go to market. In the Caribbean, these open-air gathering places likely resembled markets that some of these islands host today, Wallman, the University of South Florida archaeologist, observes.
Written eyewitness accounts from the 1600s to the 1800s suggest enslaved merchants bartered foods and handicrafts, sometimes on behalf of the plantation and sometimes for their own benefit. On Martinique, despite the French government trying to suppress the growing of food in provision grounds through the “Code Noir,” the practice continued. By 1700, and through emancipation in 1848, through these markets, Wallman says, “the enslaved end up almost feeding the entire island with surpluses from the provision grounds and gardens.”
Similar markets all over the Caribbean and in parts of the United States also provided a social venue for enslaved people, helping to build a community. So, too, did the various steps of procuring and preparing meals. Hunting, fishing, and cooking were sometimes done in groups—and skills were shared and passed on over generations. For instance, a late 1930s account by Jim Martin, a formerly enslaved man who lived in Mississippi, includes a song that calls the men to go hunting. They would have taken young boys along with them, Franklin remarks, teaching them animals’ habitats and behavior, and how to use a firearm.
Sharing food was an important way to pass down traditions. Franklin explains how mothers socialized their children through meals: “It’s their early indoctrination into seeing the world in a certain way, and to understanding their roots, their identity, their heritage through what they were consuming on a daily basis.”
And foodways helped maintain traditions from Africa over generations. Archaeologists have found fragments of ceramic vessels called colonowares at plantation sites in Virginia and South Carolina. Enslaved people made these unglazed ceramic vessels for preparing, serving, and consuming food, adapting earthenware bowl production practices from West Africa.
These vessels stewed many of the same ingredients Brunache uses in preparing the spicy, long-simmering stews and soups that were themselves based on West African cuisine. Recipes often contained a carbohydrate, such as corn or rice; some vegetables, such as leafy greens and peppers; and spices. And Brunache’s excavations in Guadeloupe revealed the shells of marine snails, clams, and conches that offered a meaty addition.
Some ingredients came from Africa, brought during the transatlantic slave trade, including yams and okra. Meanwhile, chili peppers from the Americas commonly featured in West African and diasporic cuisines, and still do. “Usually, it’s quite peppery—there’s fire on the tongue,” Brunache says. “That is something you see in every part of the Caribbean.”
Slavery endeavored to stamp out the culture and identities of enslaved people. English planters, for instance, gave enslaved people English names and imposed restrictions on African people meeting and practicing their traditional religions.
Yet African people held onto their foodways. Though forcibly uprooted and displaced across great distances, they carried their traditions, skills, and ideas about food with them. Their descendants continued to do so, over generations, including after the abolition of slavery and as families moved across the United States, bringing their cuisines to places like Chicago, Illinois, and Oakland, California.
In many regions of the Americas and Caribbean, the foods innovated and perfected by enslaved African women and men remain iconic staples. Black historians and archaeologists have highlighted how the foods of the African diaspora—including foods created by enslaved people—have become American foods. Enslaved African women brought meals from their quarters into the mansions’ kitchens, says Franklin, and that’s how White children received enslaved foodways as well, which became co-opted as “Southern cuisine.”
Continuity can also be found in the Caribbean. When Wallman gives public talks, many attendees who live on the islands are eager to share their own stories of using similar foods and recipes today. During a presentation, Wallman and her colleagues gave on Dominica, they showed pictures from excavations, including fish bones that offer clues to past meals. In reaction, Wallman’s audience chimed in with the local Creole name, sharing whether they still consumed that fish or where they catch that particular species. “We’re doing this for the greater good of history,” Wallman notes, “but also for local communities.”
These foods can connect people to their history in complex ways. “Salted codfish, for example, was slave food. It was specifically imported for enslaved people,” Brunache says. “But we [Haitians and Haitian Americans] still love the hell out of our codfish today … it was something we found positive and still choose to continue in our current identity.”
In Scotland, Brunache often prepares peppery gumbo, taro fritters, and sugarcane as part of lectures for primarily White European audiences who sometimes have little knowledge of the transatlantic slave trade or how Europeans—including Scottish merchants—profited from it. “Consuming historical dishes somehow allows people to embody the past more readily,” Brunache says. “It’s not abstract anymore. They’ve tasted it.”
Across history, foodways speak to identity. The meals Brunache and other scholars have unearthed reflect the lives of the enslaved people who once cooked them. As such, they can reflect the context of brutal oppression—and they also illuminate the ingenuity, skill, community, and subtle acts of resistance of the people who prepared them.
“The fact that the system was set up to kill you, and you survive, is resistance,” Brunache says. Enslaved people did more than survive, she adds. They created phenomenal food.
This article has been republished at Atlas Obscura.