Studying Bacon to New Insights on the Daily Life of Enslaved African-Americans

Christopher Wilson in Smithsonian:

HogSadly in our nation’s history—erected on a foundation that included slavery—even bacon can be tied to bondage, but we will celebrate still the achievements of the bondsmen and women as culinary creators. On big plantations in the Lowcountry, killing time was serious work, just like everything else in these forced labor camps. Hundreds of hogs had to be slaughtered and butchered to provide the 20,000 or 30,000 pounds of pork it might take to sustain the enslaved workers toiling all year to produce rice and wealth for the few, incredibly rich white families of the region. Mostly hogs were used as a way to extract resources from the surrounding wilderness without a great deal of management. The “piney woods” hogs of the region, which most closely resembled the rare Ossabaw Island breed, were left to fend for themselves and then, as depicted in the film Old Yeller, with the help of good dogs hunted down and subdued either for marking or slaughter. In public history on the subject of slavery, there is always a conflict in how the story is presented—we often choose between presenting the story as one of oppression vs. resistance, subjugation vs. survival, property vs. humanity. Because the legacy of slavery is still so contested, audiences are sharply critical of presentation. If one shows a story of survival, does it follow then that oppression is given short shrift? If, on the other hand, we focus on brutalization, we run the risk of suggesting our enslaved ancestors were defeated by the experience of slavery.

This conflict is certainly at work in how we remember food on plantations. Missing from the common understanding of pork on the plantation though, is the skill of the enslaved butchers, cooks and charcutiers. The work involved young men like Shadrack Richards, born into slavery in 1846 in Pike County, Georgia, who remembered more than 150 people working for over a week on butchering and curing, preserving the sides of bacon and shoulders and other cuts to keep on the plantation and taking time to create great hams for sale in Savannah. Another survivor of slavery Robert Shepherd remembered with pride just how good the hams and bacon were that his fellow butchers created despite the cruelty of slavery. “Nobody never had no better hams and other meat” than they cured, he recalled.

More here.