Over the weekend, we had the pleasure of attending the Stagville Harvest Festival, the brainchild of Orange County craftsman, Jerome Bias and hosted by Afro-culinary expert and food historian, Michael Twitty. Stagville is what remains of the Bennhan-Cameron family holdings dating back to antebellum North Carolina. It is estimated that some 900 slaves resided, worked, lived, passed through, and died on this 30,000 acre plantation. While Michael Twitty presented the intriguing barbecuing methods, using branches from trees set over hot embers in order to cook pork shoulders and spare ribs, African- American volunteers, including Clarissa Clifton and Nicole Moore, also struck a chord with their historical accounts of long forgotten and often labor intensive cooking techniques.
Donned in the customary attire of the antebellum era, each volunteer navigated the fires carefully, remaining upbeat and informative, though a warranted air of frustration loomed with the less than perfect setting of a 19th century method of cooking. There were two fire pits prepared for the event, one for the main barbecue and the other for side dishes. The upkeep of the flame was of utmost importance, as this was their sole heat source for cooking. Any slight breeze or break in the fire would require these individuals to constantly rotate burning wood and cast iron pots to generate the necessary heat for cooking. At several instances, the hem of an ankle length dress loomed dangerously close to the flame. There were shouts of warning, indicating that this sort of cooking, which required stepping into the pit and across the flames, was a dangerous occupation for enslaved women. In fact, during the cooking demonstrations, one volunteer admitted that a leading cause of death of female slaves included perishing after their dresses caught fire in similar fire pits. Of course, this is in addition to other causes of death such as childbirth, malnutrition, diseases like measles and typhus, and long, laborious work days.
Without much fuss over the ruination of dresses and potential third degree burns, the meal preparation went on. The ingredients were simple and included, ox tails, diced chuck roast, chicken, fresh herbs, flour for dredging, sweet potatoes, green beans, okra, tomatoes, bacon, a little salt, and lots and lots of lard. Why lard? According to volunteer Clifton, “Lard is much more flavorful than regular vegetable shortening. Without lard, we tend to over salt our food.” In times of limited salt procurement, lard served to flavor otherwise bland dishes. She later explained that lard was also the fat of choice for breads and pies as it produced tall, fluffy biscuits and perfectly flaky crusts. Another intriguing technique involved the method for rapidly heating water. An old cannonball, strapped to a chain was placed onto the hot embers. Left there for several hours, it becomes so hot that simply dunking it into a pot of water, heats it within seconds. The water bubbles vigorously as the pot is placed into the fire, ready to receive chopped vegetables (in this case, sweet potatoes) for a shortened cooking time. In addition to larding and hot cannonballs, this event raised awareness of the antebellum use of farm to table. Every portion of the animal was utilized. Vegetables and herbs grown in gardens were added to the pot and cooked over an open flame using wood from nearby trees. Short cuts were taken to stretch the meal, and as pointed out by Clifton, flour was often hard to come by and in order to produce a large output of freshly baked biscuits, boiled and mashed root vegetables were added to the flour, which provided much of the body of the biscuits.
The idea of recipes remained non-existent and largely an intuitive process passed from one generation to another. This meal was certainly not indicative of a feast in antebellum African-American circles. While they did construct these dishes to feed others, this level of protein and carbohydrates was often missing from the diets of enslaved people. As Twitty explained, most days slaves ate a corn mush (relatively similar to the West African dish ugali or kenkey, the latter a fermented variant); a simple porridge made from mashed corn kernels and water. This was sometimes accompanied by salted pork, not unlike the provisions available to Caribbean slaves, and perhaps on rare occasion supplemented by wild game such as rabbit, opossum, and raccoon. According to Clifton, sometimes slaves could obtain a small portion of land for growing their own vegetable gardens. They would need the permission of plantation owners as cultivation certainly required extra time, which could affect productivity on the plantation especially after a 16 hour work day. However, there was one catch. If a large event such as a wedding party or holiday function was to take place, the plantation owner could, and often did confiscate all of the produce in the gardens for their use. This left the idea of food and nutrients a well controlled and illusive product which often slipped through the hands of the enslaved. Many were utilized for their skills to prepare food. Some were brought in to plantations to barbecue, while others were sought out to prepare such things as pies, biscuits, stews, roasts, and side dishes.
The process of preparing a large meal was an arduous one. Plantation era barbecue required days of preparation. The fire was built a day or two before cooking allowing the coals to burn down to a low temperature, creating a smoky environment that turns tough cuts of pork into tender morsels. Ingredients were then gathered, logs split, and hogs slaughtered and butchered. At this Harvest Festival most of the dishes were cooked throughout the day. The sweet potato biscuits required that the sweet potatoes be boiled until tender, mashed together with flour and salt, and then rolled out by hand before being placed into heavy cast iron pots to bake in the large firepits. Heaps of lard was melted down in similar pots to fry chicken dredged in flour and herbs. This created a potentially volatile component to an outdoor flame, all of which was handled quite expertly by the volunteer staff.
A number of presentations were given before dinner was served. What makes Stagville standout as a historic site are the slave quarters built in 1850. These still standing, two story buildings are not typical of slave housing that once existed throughout the south, as these are large structures that served to house up to four families each. The four buildings provided a single room with a hearth for one family. Each small room accommodated approximately seven people. In some instances the number was considerably higher.
The chimneys on each side of the buildings were constructed from bricks made in the fall of 1850 by enslaved brick makers. During a single month, some 100,000 bricks were produced. As was pointed out to the gathered crowd learning about these constructions, the bricks had dried in the sun prior to being fired in the kiln. Though, not all had dried completely when moved, leaving fingerprints of their makers on the surface, an indelible mark of the antebellum period.
In addition to the various presentations, there was also a special announcement. Michael Twitty had recently undergone genetic testing by a company called African Ancestry, that traced his familial roots to Africa. The results of this test, still unknown at the time to Mr. Twitty, were announced before dinner commenced. This served rather dramatically to illustrate the purpose of the entire event. The process of reconstruction never ended as those affected by slavery, particularly its disconnection of lineage, language, and culture, seeking to trace their roots backwards. This reconstruction of heritage through food is keeping the history, not only of the African-American community alive, but that of the United States itself.
By dinner time, with the nearly 70 guests gathered, Twitty and the other volunteers worked to finish off all the various dishes which included the barbecue ribs and pork shoulders that had been cooking all day. In addition there were sweet potato biscuits, green beans, and a wide variety of dishes inspired by the slavery period. As Twitty pointed out, such a feast would have been uncommon, but the dishes were authentic in flavor and ingredients, and represented many of the foods that would have been served in North Carolina 200 years ago.
It is easy to assume that meal preparation in the days before mass market grocery stores was limited in flavor. While labor intensive, and difficult without all the modern conveniences we so adeptly take for granted the cooks of the antebellum south who included a wide range of ingredients to their dishes depending on availability. Certainly, a simple corn mush or flour and water biscuits didn’t excite the palate, though a wide range of locally cultivated herbs were available. Herbs offered not only flavor, but medicinal properties important to people with no health care, who had to innovate virtually everything from resources at hand. Nothing went into a dish that didn’t add flavor and as we sat down for dinner that fact was abundantly clear.
Events such as the one at Stagville are important in preserving cultural history for all individuals involved. It was quite interesting to witness the innovation of techniques and flavors of dishes we often serve in our homes and at barbecues, today. While these are proto-types of modern biscuits, fried chicken, or barbecued pork, they make up the foundation of flavors expressed in modern cuisine. Often times, we forget the hardships involved in procuring and producing foods. This was a celebration of flavor brought forth from a tumultuous period in time. However, food is the cornerstone of our survival, an expression of comfort, and the tool by which conversations are started. It is through food preparation that stories are told and in the act of eating that we learn of each others’ experiences and find similarities between historically relegated divergent populations, by way of the palate.
Authored by: Sabrina S. Baksh, MA and Derrick Riches, bbq.about.com