If there is one thing I am undeniably good at, it’s eating. Since I was a toddler I’ve been able to eat more-or-less my body weight thanks to a freakishly high metabolism (it’s not as good at is it sounds, by the way). Moreover, if there’s anything that’s universal to the human experience, it’s eating; everyone needs to eat. Claude Levi-Strauss, the founder of American Anthropology, theorized that an integral part of cognitive development was categorizing which plants and animals were good to eat and which ones weren’t. He opined further that food preparation — particularly cooking — was just as significant a cultural achievement for early hominids (see The Raw and the Cooked). Below the fold, my oh-so-failed attempt at ingesting part of what it was like to be a slave.
In addition to sustaining us and helping us cognitively evolve food helps dictate social relationships: who has access to proper nutrition, who is able to eat for enjoyment and pleasure versus who eats only to survive, and who is invited to eat at a certain table. The kinds of food we eat is inextricably linked to how we divide the day. As in the case of Lent, eating “breakfast food” at night is a signifier of how a given night might be different or special.
Herbert C. Covey and Dwight Eisnach, authors of What the Slaves Ate have compiled a very thorough account of what slave diets seem to have consisted of. Their sources were both written and oral, often from the mouths of former slaves themselves interviewed during the 1930s for the WPA slave narrative project. Some accounts seem to paint a more “well-fed” picture than others (one source asserts that it was in the interest of masters to feed their slaves well) but it is clear that, unsurprisingly, slaves were prone to diseases resulting from nutritive deficiencies. Some major ones included rickets, scurvy and beriberi.
It’s equally clear that slave meals required a certain amount of ingenuity and creativity. Stealing food was sometimes a necessity; in a previous paper I noted commonalities between the slave experience and the trickster figure of Br’er Rabbit — among other things, both needed to steal food in order to survive. Other times you just needed to use what you had in increasingly varied ways. This included how you actually prepared the meal, such as a recipe for jonny-cakes found in Covey and Eisnach’s book.
Which brings me to my horribly, horribly failed experiment.
I had found What the Slaves Ate in Brandeis’ library. It seemed like a fascinating book for the cultural reasons surrounding meals listed above, not to mention helping get at one of the more “elemental” aspects of being a slave. It also gave me an idea: why not try actually preparing and eating some of these meals? Granted you have a much more ready supply of ingredients than the average slave, and ample time to prepare and eat your meal, and there’s no guarantee that these recipes are 100% accurate, but still. It might, on some level, give you a more visceral connection to the subject.
So that was that. I decided to give this a whirl and eat at least one-or-two “research meals” a week. So yesterday morning I hunkered down in the kitchen and flipped through the book looking for breakfast recipes. I settled on Jonny-cakes (“Journey-cakes,” if you’re Northern like me. “Hoe-cakes” if you’re from the deeper South). Unlike most of the recipes in Covey and Eisnach’s book this one had more exact measurements (the majority of them read like “family recipes;” “a little milk,” “a few pads of butter,” etc). It also details the preferred method of preparation: taking the top of a barrel, cleaning it, and frying the cakes on it as you “set the board aslant before clear coals.”
Not having a barrel or coals handy, I decided to use my stove.
This may have been a mistake because, frying my first batch, the batter seemed a little . . . well . . . runny. Instead of the tempting smell of buttery corn and the inviting yellow of cornbread-meets-pancake I got a noseful of something reminiscent of burning metal and flour and an eyeful of tarry gray. I briefly contemplated “scrambling” the jonny-cakes in order to salvage my research project (I’m sure improvisation at all levels of food preparation was not unheard of to the slaves) but the glopping sound and gravy-like consistency of my concoction obviated that possibility. At least to my stomach.
I tried adding a little more flour in order to thicken the consistency, but to no avail. I resigned myself to a distinctly un-slave-like breakfast of an egg sandwich from Dunkin Donuts wolfed down on the way to the T since I was already running late to work.
So it seems that authenticity is key. Maybe pan frying jonny-cakes on a barrel top is as much a part of the recipe as flour and milk.
Or, perhaps, maybe corn starch is not a viable substitution for corn meal.
Either way, we’ll be trying this recipe again. Whoever originally came up with recipe, I’m sorry for half-assing it.