Cooks & Vendors
African Americans in Food Service

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During the period of enslavement, some men and women were allowed to trade and engage in business. Depending on regional custom and law, and on the practices of individual slaveowners, the enslaved were often able to work small plots assigned to them by their owners.   In such cases, those enslaved used the produce to supplement meager food rations, or--when there was surplus--were able to sell produce at local markets or going door-to-door.  Others were expert at foraging wild fruit and vegetables such as persimmons, paw paw, elderberries, huckleberries, wild greens, and other local varieties.  Wild honey was especially valued. In some cases, profits from selling such delicacies, or prepared foods such as fried fish and chicken, teacakes and fritters, could amount to considerable sums.

Some slaves raised poultry, particularly chickens and guinea hens, for sale in the market. By the late 18th century, for example, enslaved Blacks in Virginia dominated the market trade in poultry. Fishing and harvesting turtle and shellfish (especially crayfish and oysters) were also common where slaveowners and regional custom allowed slaves to use Saturday afternoons for their own profit.

Despite the fact that guns were-of course-forbidden to slaves, and in many areas dogs also proscribed, snaring small game became a popular pastime for slaves where permitted. Possum and rabbit were easiest for slaves to obtain-deer and bear required guns, and raccoon typically were hunted with dogs.

Some cities began to restrict the market activities of slaves. In Annapolis in the 1700s, where slaves commonly went door-to-door selling their produce according to their own schedule, laws were passed to limit sales of certain products to the open air market. A similar law was in effect in Charleston. In Virginia and the Carolina lowcountry, laws were passed prohibiting slaves from planting corn, rice, or peas on their plots. These kind of laws were motivated by efforts to prevent the illicit sale of stolen produce and poultry; to prevent competition and limit the economic opportunities available to slaves; and to prevent slaves from using the benefits of their labor for their advantage and profit.

A Black Miner
Credit:Library of Congress
Although Blacks were with the Spanish explorers of California in the mid-1500s, it was not until the 1850s and the gold strikes that significant numbers of African Americans settled in the area. Many of them arrived as slaves, accompanying their white owners who had come in search of gold. George Washington Dennis, for example, arrived in San Francisco in September 1849. He had set out from Mobile, Alabama with his master, Green Dennis, a professional slave trader and gambler, who won and lost him three different times on the trip to California. By the time he reached San Francisco, he once again belonged to Green Dennis, who was also his father. Green Dennis immediately set up a 30 x 100 foot gambling tent on the corner of Washington and Kearney Streets, which he grandly dubbed the Eldorado Hotel. George Dennis served as the porter for the establishment, running errands and sweeping up at the end of the day. Three months later, George had saved $1,000 in "sweepings" in nickels and dimes, with which he purchased his freedom. He continued to save his sweepings and purchased his mother from Green Dennis and brought her to California where they served hot meals: selling boiled eggs for $12 a dozen, apples for 25 cents each, and loaves of bread for a dollar each.

African American Cook, circa 1864
Credit:National Archives & Records Administration
Ante-bellum African American cooks in the South were largely responsible for melding diverse European and African food traditions into what is known today as southern food. They mastered the practical mechanics of turning out elaborate and delicious dishes over an open hearth. As a result, southern food traditions are in many cases indistinguishable from African American food traditions. The inspired uses of inexpensive cuts of meat, regional fish and seafood, and small game that characterize African American food began in this era.

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