Frederick Law Olmsted’s c.1856 book, A Journey on the Seaboard Slave States, offers eye-witness observations on the condition of slavery in a variety of regions in the American South. While people do not always record observations accurately or without bias, this book does give some salient details about the foodways of people who were enslaved in a James River Plantation in eastern Virginia, among other places, in 1852. The account of the foods of the Virginia enslaved may offer a close representation of the foods the enslaved ate in the larger Chesapeake region, including that which may have available to the enslaved people at George and Rosalie Calvert’s plantation where the c.1801 Riversdale mansion still sits, and at George Calvert’s other, larger, tobacco plantation on the Patuxent River in Upper Marlboro, Mount Albion (whose remains are now known as Goodwood). In addition, Olmsted also recounts the supper he shared in the big house with the slaveholding white family, and the contrast between the two meals is startling.
According to Olmsted’s accounts, the general allowance of rations per enslaved person per week was 1½ pecks of cornmeal and about three pounds of bacon per week; however, Olmsted claims that while sometimes a generous four pounds was allotted, in reality the slaves often received less than the promised three pounds. The distribution of these foods was called the drawing and it usually occurred on Saturday nights, though Olmsted relayed that it sometimes occurred on Wednesdays to prevent exchanging the bulk of the food for whiskey, which presumably occurred on the weekends.
Olmsted observed that on most plantations, the rations for dinner, the mid-day main meal of the day, were cooked in a cookhouse equipped with a large copper and oven. He wrote the following description of this process: “Every night the negroes take their ‘mess,’ for the next day’s breakfast and dinner, to the cook to be prepared for the next day. Custom varies as to the time it is served out to them; sometimes at morning and noon, at other times at noon and night. Each negro marks his meat by cuts, so that he shall know it from the rest, and they observe each other’s rights with regard to this, punctiliously.” At noon this meal was brought to workers in the fields. Olmsted also discussed other meals such as supper, the mornin’ bit, and breakfast which were made and consumed by the enslaved in their own quarters.
Olmsted observed that supper often consisted of a small amount of fried bacon, eggs, and cornbread baked in the same spider pan in which the bacon was fried to absorb the bacon fat and flavor. Fresh produce, such as sweet potatoes and greens, served to supplement weekly rations on some plantations where the enslaved were given permission to keep gardens for their own personal use. These items added much needed calories and nutrition to the meagre rations, and some may have been allowed to use the produce they grew to barter for other items or sell for cash. Adam Plummer, an enslaved man at Riversdale, was allowed to grow his own produce in this manner. In addition, enslaved women were also sometimes allowed to raise chickens for their renewable resource, the eggs. These were used to supplement the diet but, if allowed, were also sold to other enslaved people, neighbors, and/or even to the very people who were holding them in bondage. Olmsted bolsters this claim through his observation that slaves sold eggs to captains who docked their boats at plantations along Virginia’s James River. These accounts and other documentation was used to create a rendering rendering of a supper available to the enslaved in the Chesapeake at a plantation such as Riversdale during the antebellum-era. This meal is interpreted as consisting of about half a piece of bacon per person, 1 corncake per person, and 1 egg per person in addition to a small bowl of greens with pork and potlikker. To supplement daily protein needs, enslaved people cooked their greens with pork products such as bacon and ham hocks. While ham hocks might not have a lot of meat on them, the marrow in the bones seeps into the cook-water in the pot imparting a robust source of protein, making the potlikker and greens not just tasty but nutritious.
The next meal Olmsted observed the enslaved consume at the James River plantation he visited was called the mornin’ bit and was partaken of at about 2 am when everyone woke up and either ate cold leftovers or cooked a fresh, hot meal, after which they would all fall asleep again until morning. While this practice may seem strange to people today, it was quite common to rise in the middle of the night. In the days before the invention of modern electric lighting, most people across cultures and races went to bed quite early, around sunset, and woke up in the middle of the night after a lengthy sleep. They then fell back asleep until morning. These two periods of sleep were called first sleep and second sleep. After second sleep, breakfast was cooked in the cabins before the 11-hour workday in the fields began.
In contrast, Olmsted also presented a detailed description of a supper he enjoyed with a slaveholding family in the big house of their James River Virginia plantation. This meal consisted of “hot biscuit and corn-cake. There was fried fowl, and fried bacon and eggs, and cold ham; there were preserved peaches, and preserved quinces and grapes; there was hot wheaten biscuit, and hot short-cake, and hot corn-cake, and hot griddle cakes, soaked in butter; there was coffee, and there was milk, sour or sweet, whichever I preferred to drink. I really ate more than I wanted, and extolled the corn-cake and the peach preserve, and asked how they were made….”
This meal is in stark contrast to the meal shared by the enslaved in terms of both quantity and quality. In particular, the proportion of protein dishes at table in the big house, represented by eggs, bacon, ham, chicken, and milk is noticeable. Calorie-dense and thus filling carbohydrates are scarce at the table of the enslaved, consisting of just corncakes, while the big house supper included corncakes in addition to wheat biscuits, shortcake, and griddle cakes served with butter. These breads were also enhanced with sweet peach, quince, and grape preserves (in covered dish on table display) as well as seasonal fresh peaches. This hearty meal was also washed down with coffee and sweet or sour milk, accompaniments noticeably absent in the meal of the enslaved.
In addition, other components not mentioned by Olmsted but important nevertheless also factor into the relative pleasure of each dining experience. For example, the meal for the enslaved was lit only by the fire whereas those partaking of supper in Riversdale’s dining room would have eaten by candlelight; the dining service-wares and cutlery for the Calverts and their guests was of the best quality and all pieces matched; the enslaved made do with second hand and second-rate mismatched cast-offs. The Calverts ate with forks (still a relative luxury at that time) in addition to knives and spoons; the enslaved only had access to old, dull knives and spoons. Finally, each person at the Calverts’ table was given a soft, cushioned chair in contrast to the hard, wooden chairs available to just three of the four people seated at the supper table of the enslaved.
A wedding breakfast is a Victorian English term used to define the meal eaten after the ceremony, no matter what time of day it occurred. This breakfast could consist of a light buffet to a full meal. In Victorian times, a wedding breakfast also could take the form of a luncheon, or a light repast. The June 6, 1839 wedding of Charles Benedict Calvert and Charlotte Augusta Norris is being interpreted as this type of light repast consisting of sherbets, oyster patties, sweetbreads, salads, ices, cheese, salted almonds, olives, and other light refreshments. In addition, cakes also accompanied a wedding meal. According to period cookery books, the most common type of wedding cake in America in the 19th century was the fruit cake, iced beautifully. Finally, punch was also included in the celebration. For instance, the 1817 wedding supper of Ann Maria Hollingsworth to John Morris in Baltimore involved punch. In a letter written about the wedding by the bride’s aunt, Deborah Cochran, she noted “very supperb” [sic] supper was served at 9:30 pm and was followed by punch drinking attended by upwards of 100 people.”
To commemorate the 220th Anniversary of the 1799 marriage of Rosalie Stier and George Calvert, the original residents of Riversdale, join us for a special exhibition celebrating Calvert family weddings throughout the past 220 years.
Through a collection of decorative arts, primary sources, and items generously loaned to the museum by Calvert descendants, including clothing, jewelry, photographs, invitations, and special wedding gifts, this exhibit explores 220 years of wedding traditions and Calvert family history. The histories and stories of enslaved families and marriages who lived and worked at Riversdale will also be highlighted in this exhibit.