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Slave Food and Other Insults

It was the first week of kindergarten 1979, and I was not yet well-versed in the ways of elementary-school putdowns. 

So, I stood frozen and anxiety-sweating when Tremayne, a classmate and only one of two Black boys in Miss Rhodes' class, suddenly called me a "black-eyed pea” during recess.

I didn’t know how to take the words he tossed in my direction after a game of round robin. But his snicker and smirk told me this was no compliment. I fumbled for an appropriately scathing response, preferably another edible-themed epithet. I flung out, "Your head looks like Mr. Peanut!” the mascot for Planters snack foods. My feeble rejoinder bounced off him like Teflon syllables. Giggling at my obvious discomfiture, how badly I failed at playing-the-playground-dozens, he scampered off for a more fulfilling game of tag.

There was nothing wrong with being likened to a vegetable. Still, I was discombobulated by being compared to a legume. As a matter of personal taste, I was no fan of the black-eyed pea, often cooked into beige mush. But my upset may have been related to the fact that I had told my six-year-old best friend days earlier that Tremayne was “tall, dark, and handsome”— a phrase I’d heard Willona use on the first season of Good Times. As far as I was concerned, in those late summer first days of “big girl school,” he rated as a Lilliputian Billy Dee Williams in the making and a novelty, a kid I didn’t know from the neighborhood.

Forty years later, I still ponder what he meant, a food writer’s useless intellectual enterprise. I have engaged in more than occasional overthinking about what it means to “be” a black-eyed pea, why this child’s nonsense still lingers in my memory. After all, there is nothing inherently insulting about being black-eyed; many a Victorian novel features a Mr. Rochester or Heathcliff, with the requisite flashing dark eyes of the tragic hero. But perhaps, the art of this insult lay in the child’s relationship to the scatological. The pea itself was not the problem; it was the sound of the word. The synonymic “pee”—human urine—that made me feel dirty. Combine it with “Blackness,” and it was a next-level smear that somehow wounded like the “Your momma’s so Black …” jokes never did.

There are simple enough explanations about why this memory hangs there like a heavy scrim. The insults of the in-group—people with whom you share some identity, and presumably, solidarity—sting enduringly. For we know how to hurt each other. And old hurts die hard.

So, forty years later, I wonder if we were re-enacting an inherited racialized food shame that neither of us—or our ancestors—had earned. 

 

I came to that thought at the end of a doomscrolling day, one indistinguishable from many pandemic days where I’d wasted hours on sundry internet inanities. That day’s round of social-media outrage—around fall HBCU homecomings or Thanksgiving—revolved around reports that those plastic buckets of special-occasion chitlins were hard to find and exorbitantly marked up. COVID-19 has ravaged the meat industry, with its plants having one of the highest incidences of the virus’s spread and death among U.S. workplaces. A friend in Atlanta was calling every grocery store meat department and braved the gridlock from downtown to Decatur to chitlin hunt.

Steak and ground beef prices aside, now the pandemic was fucking with our supply of pork intestines.

Alongside laments that Christmas wouldn’t be the same, some tweets predicted that those who considered themselves too good for chitlins would come around —when grocery meat cases went bare. Others praised glory, with videos of gospel singers rocking in celebration or gas-station body rolls jubilating that vendors from Atlanta to Detroit were low on the stinky food item. Many other thanked God for saving Black folks from ourselves and certain dietary proclivities. “Lord my family so black,” tweeted one commenter. “I’m listening to them talk about the chitlin shortage with the tech who checked [a family member’s] defibrillator.”

Now, no one is eating chitlins like snack food—if nothing else, the time and labor they take render that a nonstarter. But on social media, there are hardened battlelines between disgust and delicacy, who digs in and who disdains. It’s only a matter of time before some Black person calls another Black person else a “chitlin-eater” or a “chitlin-eating bitch.”

Just like Tremayne’s black-eyed pea riposte, “chitlin-eating bitch” may not be automatic fighting words, the kind where earrings are slipped off for the coming melee. The term’s humor defuses some of the disrespect. But one thing for sure, it’s usually not meant as affirmation, either of the living person in question or Black foodways.

I thought back to my decades-old exchange with Tremayne. Had we just repeated the first vegetables we could recall to get each other’s goat? Children’s spontaneous schoolyard insults often have little rhyme or reason. But they do have context. Had we reached for foods associated with Blackness, even if we were too young to know the roots of our choices? Lurking somewhere in the background, eavesdropping on elders, had we learned that some foods were “slave food?” That is, foods good enough for survival during slavery, established enough to comfort us in freedom, and stigmatized enough to disrespect people who look like us?

Black Americans’ eating habits come in for special scrutiny, with “sugar” and cardiovascular ailments raging in our communities and many reliant on public assistance to feed their households. It’s easy to point the finger, even at ourselves.

Judging how our fellow Americans, of all backgrounds, eat is a national sport here—even if how we eat is tied to what we can afford and access, where we live, and what we believe. I didn’t know Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin’s insight that diet defines us when I was in kindergarten. But I did know that ’70s animated Saturday morning PSA with the dancing, cheese wheel character who told us, “You are what you eat, from your head down to your feet. … You are what you swallow, so the next time you feel hollow, don’t just fill your face with any ol’ kind of treat.”

It seems we, Black Americans, believe it. Funnily enough, the vegetables Tremayne and I selected to pick on each other were both legumes associated with Black folk, slavery, and struggle.

George Washington Carver knew the value of the black-eyed pea and the peanut. The way we do Black history in this country, he’s often consigned to one sentence. Maybe a sketch in the curriculum, an entry in a list of contributions; perhaps a nod in the Black History Month showcase. These accounts often frame his work with the peanut—from which he crafted hundreds of products —as the effort of an obsessed wackadoodle. (Though who’s laughing now with peanut milk on organic-market shelves and peanuts masquerading as vegan meat?) Though he’s most remembered for his peanut research, he campaigned tirelessly for early twentieth-century Black farmers to grow cowpeas (black-eyed peas are but one variety). To hear Carver tell it, the cowpea was anything but modest; it had the radical capacity to pull impoverished Black farmers out of penury. Its rich nitrogen content could improve worn soil, often what was most available to the Black farmer, fresh from enslavement and with few resources to secure better land. He pushed the cowpea as a food capable of feeding not just a race, but a region: In a 1903 bulletin from his Tuskegee Experiment Station, he wrote “the cowpea should be to the South, what the White, Soup, Navy or Boston bean is to the North, East and West.”

Even so, white agriculturalists who also understood the cowpea’s unassuming superstar status couldn’t resist using it to denigrate Black Americans. At the 1914 annual meeting at the Georgia Breeders’ Association, W.M. Rowland made his case for larger-scale cowpea cultivation. “Even the most ignorant negro could grow them,” he assured, and particularly bad land was known as “land that won’t sprout peas.” He continued that most unlettered tenant farmers knew the cowpea’s worth, though they may have not been able to prattle on about beneficial gases or bacteria. Then came the complaint that “the negro is too shiftless to plant cowpeas.” Though not too shiftless to eat or prepare them, he added, with a weary-sounding, privileged aside. His cook— and thousands of women domestics around the nation—never failed to impress upon him and their employers the urgency of eating cowpeas on January 1. 

One can see why Carver didn’t get his rightful due as a founding father of American agricultural science: race, his former enslavement, segregation, his quiet and self-effacing manner, and his location at Tuskegee Institute, a center of agricultural innovation underrecognized by white, Northeastern brahmins and Westerners who were culturally disinclined to listen to Black, Southern perspectives.

The peanut continued to have a longstanding reputation problem. Noel Vietmeyer directed the National Academy for Sciences' Innovations for Developing Countries program in the 1970s, coordinating efforts to grow neglected crops that could feed millions sustainably and reduce world hunger. While describing the winged bean—which he touted as the “great green hope” with spinach-like leaves, stems that called asparagus to mind, and flowers that recalled mushroom—he compared researchers’ reluctance to promote it to previous anti-peanut stigma in a June 1978 Baltimore Sun interview. “It’s a poor man’s crop and, in a way, it’s like the peanut in America. Peanuts were brought here by slaves and were considered to be slave food. For years, no self-respecting scientist would work on a peanut.” No self-respecting, careerist white scientist, anyway.

So, forty years later, I wonder if we were re-enacting an inherited racialized food shame that neither of us—or our ancestors—had earned.

The slave-food stigma extended beyond white researchers and laboratories, emanating with particular force in a Black religious community that was indigenous to the United States. Elijah Muhammad, leader of the Nation of Islam from 1934 until his death in 1975, published his two-volume How to Eat to Live in 1967. In those books, he blended a foundation in sound dietary principles, including reduced intake of processed foods (never buy those processed biscuits, he warned solemnly), with Islamic notions of purity, statements about white supremacy and his own variant of culturally driven nutrition advice. He spoke the language of health disparities, noting high rates of diabetes in African-American communities, but effectively reinscribed white supremacy by asserting that Black and white bodies were fundamentally different. With the national rise of his one-time lieutenant Malcolm X and the growing presence of members peddling bean pies, newspapers, and ideology in large urban centers, the Nation was a small nation of people who left a large footprint on the food consciousness of many Black Americans.

Reared in rural Sandersville, Georgia, Muhammad knew well the contents of the Black Southern larder and took direct aim at its staples. He urged his followers to shun foods associated with enslavement. “Peas, collard greens, turnip greens, sweet potatoes and white potatoes are cheaply raised foods. The Southern slave masters used them to feed the slaves, and still advise the consumption of them,” he wrote. The plantocracy was still alive and wielding pernicious power over what Black Americans ate. Speaking to his reader as a familiar, Muhammad wrote, “You know, as well as I, that the white race is a commercializing people and they do not worry about the lives they jeopardize so long as the dollar is safe. You might find yourself following death, if you follow them.” Furthermore, these foods were sustenance non grata because many were also used for animal feed. It was a sign of Black debasement that chattel and cattle sometimes ate the same thing, even if the cows ate the cowpea hay as forage and humans fed on the cowpea.

Judgment became religious dogma. Tried-and-true nutritional science jostled with Muslim and Nation-specific eating dicta, vague historical context, and arbitrary commandments about eating this food or that. Kale was verboten; cauliflower florets were permitted but not the leaves; and one should “not become a habitual spinach eater.” The devout should avoid processed dried grapes and eat only those dried in the sun.

Muhammad mostly avoided explicitly pointing a finger at individual behaviors, focusing on the way slavery’s collective deprivation stunted the possibility of a healthy Black diet. But the message was clear. Telling his followers white bread was a dangerous innovation of American civilization and eating three times a day was the habit of a pig or a dog, Muhammad divided Black people into categories: Some were blindly following slavery foodways and white folks’ customs; others were evolving, spiritually, bodily, and dietarily.

Still, Muhammad’s critique—of a diet controlled by others, systemic malnourishment as a fundamental element of slavery and its harmful legacy on Black health—remains valid, even decades after it was published.

But what we know about the enslaved diet continues to change, however incrementally, through a few existing studies, and it challenges the reductionist notion of “slave food” so popular on the interweb. Archaeological excavation and botanical analysis at the slave quarters of Rich Neck Plantation in Virginia, an estate established near colonial Williamsburg in the 1600s, has uncovered traces of a remarkable and diverse diet gleaned from the land and not merely the master’s rations of pork and corn. The cowpea—the hardest-working, “James Brown” of legumes—made up almost a third of identifiable vegetable matter, along with traces of corn, melons, wheat, berries, and wild plants such as honey locust (used as a sweet and possibly medicine) and black walnuts. Bondspeople used the woods and streams as their larders. And this was necessity, not luxury. They had to fish, forage, tend tiny gardens of their own, scrounge, trade, hunt, or siphon to survive.

 

The finds at Rich Neck cannot speak for what slave food was everywhere, at all times. The enslaved diet in the Virginia Tidewater was likely not possible in the geography and climate of East Texas. A plantation’s wealth, proximity to markets, organization, and dynamics also made differences. But the largest factor of what slave food was— and may ultimately have been— was the presence of people who could skillfully extract the most from the landscape and an institution determined to keep them on the razor’s edges of starvation, productivity, and biddability.

In truth, scholars know so little about what enslaved people ate and even less about what they thought of it, whether they found solace and joy in assembling rabbit traps in the woods, or how onerous it was to gather wild persimmons or obtain a pinch of sugar.

Yet, somehow, the internet  seems to know so much about “slave food.” We’ve filled in the gaps with an imaginary that shows slaves passively receiving rations of pork and meal, not Black ingenuity in self-feeding, growing, and interacting‚ under captivity and hunger’s duress, with the natural world. It is an insult that purports to insult a system, but manages to insult the enslaved as well. “Slave food” is perhaps, at its most accurate, a pseudohistorical denigration of contemporary soul food; Thomas Jefferson is often wrongly credited with being the first American to import macaroni—and his enslaved cooks did make macaroni and cheese—but rest assured that pasta was not being boiled in the quarters most everywhere. And to the denizens of the online world, “to eat like a slave” is a state of mind, code to denote Black people who stubbornly cling to tradition and thwart progress, at risk to themselves.

I don’t eat chitlins, but I don’t think them an unalloyed menace either. I never believed my parents when they tried to hoodwink-introduce them to me about the same time Tremayne and I traded barbs near the jungle gym. The contents of that plate didn’t resemble or smell like any turkey and dumplings I’ve ever seen in my six years of life. Since then, I never developed a taste for them. I’ve also never developed a taste for shaming food preferences that aren’t my own.

One thing I have developed: After all these years, and in the run-up to my thirtieth high-school reunion, I’ve finally got a comeback for Tremayne, who still lives in our hometown. Should he ever call me a “black-eyed pea” again, I’d correct him and say, “I’m the mighty cowpea. And don’t you forget it.”

This series was published with support from The Julia Child Foundation for Gastronomy and the Culinary Arts.





Cynthia R. Greenlee

Dr. Cynthia R. Greenlee is a born-and-bred North-South Carolinian. She's a historian, editor, and essayist who writes about Southern and U.S. history, food, pop culture, reproductive health, and whatever piques her fancy. She's the winner of a James Beard Award for excellence in food writing and also co-editor of The Echoing Ida Collection, an anthology of Black writing inspired by Ida B. Wells and the desire for social transformation. Check out her website at www.cynthiagreenlee.com.