“African Roots in Southern Fields: What the Slaves Ate”


McKendra Heinke ('21) - Photo Bureau

Assistant Professor of African Studies and History Kelly Sharp will publish a book titled “Provisioning Charleston: Food, Race, and Labor in the Antebellum South Carolina Lowcountry.”

Assistant Professor of Africana Studies and History Kelly Sharp delivered a lecture on the culinary culture of enslaved African Americans titled “African Roots in Southern Fields: What the Slaves Ate” on Feb. 18. This lecture was the third of the four part 2019-2020 Paideia Texts and Issues Lecture Series “Resistance and Resilience.”

Sharp shared how culinary culture served as an important form of resistance for enslaved people in the antebellum South. Her research focuses specifically on the South Carolina lowcountry, a coastal region that flourished agriculturally due to the labor of enslaved people.

The lecture previewed a topic that Sharp explores in greater detail in her upcoming book, “Provisioning Charleston: Food, Race and Labor in the Antebellum South Carolina Lowcountry.” The book details how African Americans shaped the culinary culture of the South Carolina lowcountry by examining their foodways.

Currently under contract with Cambridge University Press, the book also explores the institutions of labor, economy, and racial identity through the medium of food.

Sharp emphasized the role of enslaved people beyond the “plantation enterprise.” Sharp explained how this topic helps provide a more complete picture of enslaved people and their cultural impact on the country.

“It helps us better understand the lives of enslaved people beyond just the labor that they performed,” Sharp said. “It’s important to remember that these people, who can often be seen as simply workers, or tools of capitalism, were also people. It’s important to think about not just the labor that they performed and the economic contributions that they made to this country, but also the culture that they brought with them.”

Sharp included details about what enslaved people ate and why. Most of their meals included stews of meat or fish, root vegetables such as sweet potatoes, greens to add bitterness, and rice or grits. Gourds were used both for consumption and as a bowl for other foods. Bowls were the most common kitchen item accessible to enslaved people.

Sharp believes the culinary culture of enslaved people is often overlooked and hopes to change this by sparking interest in history that people may not learn about inschool.

“I just hope to pique both student and community members’ interest in the nuances of history and in voices that are traditionally marginalized in the study of history,” Sharp said.

Sharp explored the connection between dishes considered to be part of southern culinary culture today and the culture of enslaved people during the antebellum era. For example, jambalaya, a popular southern dish with shrimp and grits, is derived from culinary traditions of enslaved people.

With this connection, Sharp expressed how the culinary culture that developed in the fields of southern plantations reveals a culture and identity that enslaved people of color shared as part of the larger African diaspora.

“I thought it was really important to consider how a lot of these parts of southern culture that deal with food are labeled as ‘southern culture,’ when really, they actually came from the culture that was developed by enslaved peoples,” Meron Abebe (‘22) said.

Sharp described how enslaved women prepared meals to feed their families. Food preparation and eating became a way for enslaved people to express a shared identity. By retaining their own culture amidst bondage and forced assimilation, enslaved people engaged in a powerful form of resistance.

Expecting to find more ties between the culinary cultures of enslaved Africans and white European Americans, Sharp was surprised by the stark differences between their cuisines.

“I thought I would find the ways that enslaved people were shaping southern foodways at large from the beginning of their time in what would become the United States, but in fact I found a very segregated culinary culture,” Sharp said. “That finding was surprising to me because it’s in opposition to what’s previously been written about the topic.”

After the lecture, Ian Danielson (‘23) expressed interest in the idea that learning about enslaved peoples’ real lives and cultures could be important in changing present day ideas about race.

“I think that learning about enslaved African Americans, what they went through, and what they did back then is useful in ending some of the racial stigma or oppression that happens today,” Danielson said.

Sharp’s research into food has led her to think about both history and food in new ways that she wants to communicate to students. Last spring, Sharp taught a class on African American foodways that she hopes to teach again.

“I think food is a really interesting way to learn about history,” Sharp said. “I think it has also grown my own personal appreciation for what I eat during the day, just thinking about where my food comes from in general, who is growing it now, but also about the historical roots of the food.”

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