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Book Excerpt: Down by the Riverside: A South Carolina Slave Community
© by Charles Joyner

Down by the Riverside: A South Carolina Slave Community

1984, by Charles Joyner. Chicago, University of Illlinois Press. © 1984 by the Board of Trustees, University of Illinois. Used with Permission of the University of Illinois Press

“Sit at the Welcome Table”

A walk through the slave village in the late afternoon, when the dark pines cast lengthening shadows on the weathered cabins, with their cypress-shingled roofs and broad front porches, was one of the remarkable experiences of the rice plantations. There, after the slaves’ field tasks were done, a visitor could observe not only the sights and sounds of the street – the women in their bright gingham dresses and white headkerchiefs, the men in their indigo-dyed homespun shirts and red jackets combining work with socializing as they went about their various chores – but also smell wood smoke from the cabin chimneys and the aromas of cornbread, peas and rice, pork or fish cooking over open fires in skilletlike ovens and iron cooking pots, stirred from time to time with cedar paddles. An understanding of the material environment of slavery – the food, clothing, and shelter of the slaves – would seem to be an indispensable prelude to comprehending other aspects of their culture. The material environment not only reflected the cognitions and perceptions of the slaves; it was itself a major influence on their behavior. One who would seek to understand cultural persistence and adaptation can ignore the material environment only at the cost of accuracy. Granting that attempts to probe such cognitions and perceptions are at best presumptive, and conceding that such matters are easier to assert than to demonstrate, one might still profit by an effort to go beyond the consideration of artifacts alone to the consideration of the slaves’ material culture – that is, the knowledge that enabled them to produce and appreciate material things – as a means of untangling the complex strands of slave folklife. In the social relations of slavers in All Saints Parish, food served several functions. The relations between any folk group and its foodways are partly shaped by the culture of the group, but culture itself is partly shaped by the basic human need for group. On the Waccamaw rice plantations slaves ate the grains, fruits, vegetables, and meats of the New World environment; but to those foodstuffs slave cooks applied an African culinary grammar – methods of cooking and spicing, remembered recipes, ancestral tastes. They added the soul ingredients. Not only did food provide the nourishment necessary to sustain life among the slave community, but it was also one of the few sources of pleasure they enjoyed. Thus food – creolized as soul food –became one of the symbols of group identity in the slave community.

The slaves’ rations were usually distributed on Saturday afternoons and had to last until the following Saturday, supplemented by food from the slaves’ gardens and animals they raised. If the allowance ran out before the end of the week, as it did on some plantations, the slaves had to steal or do without. James R. Sparkman reported his own weekly allocations to be “of Meal 10 quarts, of Rice or Peas 8 quarts, and of Sweet Potatoes one Bushel. This is the full allowance of every adult, and the younger negroes the same, no matter what their age, as soon as they are put to task work. Molasses is given throughout the year at proper intervals, Salt Fish only in winter, Pork or Bacon and Beef during the summer. The allowance of Molasses is 1 pint (for one week), of Salted Fish (Mulllet or Mackerel) 2 or 3 according to size, of Pork or Bacon 2 lbs.” Sparkman also said he distributed two quarts (8 cups) of beef-and-rice soup daily to each slave from the first of June to the first of November. On John D. Magill’s plantations, however, according to Titus Small’s daughter, “a week’s food for a slave family was a peck of sweet potatoes, a dozen salted fish; if there was a baby in the family you got one peck of grits and one piece of fat back. In the summertime you got one peck of meal and one quart of syrup.” Plantations had to contract for the purchase of beef, tongue, and molasses. It was sometimes necessary to substitute mutton from the plantation’s sheep when excessive heat made it impossible to preserve the beef.

Some slaves prepared and ate all their meals in their cabins, but more typical on the Waccamaw were the big kitchen and central eating place where all the slaves ate together. Kitchens were separate buildings from the Big Houses, usually situated strategically between the smokehouse and the Big House. Often the morning and evening meals were eaten at home in the slave cabins, while the midday meal was eaten at the central eating shed or, in some cases, in the field. J. Motte Alston described cooking rice in the field at Woodbourne plantation: “Uncover, as you walk along the banks of the fields, one of their little three-legged iron pots with its wooden cover, and try, if only from curiosity, the rice which they have prepared for their midday meal.” On the plantations of Plowden C. J. Weston breakfast was eaten in the fields at nine and lunch at three, after most task work had been completed.

House servants often ate the same food as the master’s family, and they usually ate in the kitchen either before or after the master’s family was served. Breakfast, served anytime between 7 and 9 A.M., was a light meal for the planter’s family and the house servants. Wyndham Malet wrote of breakfasting on stewed peaches, bread, and clabber. Dinner, the midday meal, constituted “the great business of the day.” Dining around 2 P.M., the lowcountry gentry – and their servants – might enjoy a variety of meats (ham, mutton, venison, turkey, oysters, and turtle in combination were not uncommon) topped of by desserts (assorted puddings and pies), wines, and cordials. the Weston family continued the English tradition of high tea, but most All Saints planter families ate a lighter meal – supper – in the evening.

Slave cooks were skilled workers who established enviable reputations among the plantation community, black and white. Most plantations had both plantation cooks and children’s cooks who were responsible for the midday meal. Some idea of the magnitude of the cooks’ task can be gained from the “schedule of allowances” drawn up for the cooks at Haley plantation. the plantation cook was responsible for cooking for approximately 200 adult slaves, while the children’s cook had to prepare food for approximately 130 children. The following rations were given out daily except Sundays:

To each person doing any work, 4 qts.
To each child at the negro-houses, 2 qts.

To the cook for the public-pot, for every person doing any work, 1 qt.
To the child’s cook, for each child at negro-houses, 1 pt.
Salt to cook for public pot, 1 pt.
Salt to child’s cook, ½ pt.

Other rations were distributed biweekly or weekly.

To cook for public pot, for whole gang of workers, tradesmen, drivers,
&c., Meat 30 lbs.
To child’s cook for all the children, Meat 15 lbs.

To the plantation cook for each person doing any work, instead of the pint
of grits, Small Rice 1 pt.
To the child’s cook, for each child instead of the ½ pt of grits,
Small rice ½ pt.
To plantation cook for the whole gang of workers, tradesman, drivers,
&c., Peas; quantity depending on produce.

To the child’s cook, for all the children, Molasses, 2 qts.

Other food was apportioned directly to individual slaves to be cooked and eaten in their own houses:

To each person doing any work, Flour, 3 qts.
To each child at negro-houses, Flour, 3 pts.
To each person who has behaved well, and has not been sick during the
week, 2 Fish or 1 pt. Molasses.
To each nurse, 4 Fish or 1-1/4 pt. Molasses.
To head carpenter; to head-miller; to head-cooper; to head-ploughman; to
watchman; to trunk-minders; to drivers; to mule-minders;
to hog-minder; to cattle-minder; and to every superannuated person,
5 Fish, or 1-1/2 pt. Molasses each.

To each person doing any work, and each superannuated person, Salt, 1 qt.
To each person doing any work, and each superannuated person,
Tobacco, 1 hand.

To each person doing any work, and each superannuated person, fresh Meat, 3 lbs.; Salt Meat, 3 lbs.; Molasses, 1 qt.; Small Rice, 4 qts;
Salt, ½ bushel.
To each child at negro-houses, Fresh Meat, 1-1/2 lbs.; Salt
Meat, 1-1/2 lbs.; Molasses, 1 pt.; Small Rice, 2 qts.

Every day when rice is sown or harvested, to the cook, for the whole gang
of workers in the field, Meat 40 lbs.; Peas, as above.
No allowances or presents, besides the above, are on any consideration to
be made – except for sick people, as specified further on.

There are few descriptions of the cooking implements. Ellen Godfrey, a slave at Longwood plantation, recalled long after emancipation a great iron skilletlike oven with three legs and a snug lid, on while coals were piled for baking. Slave cooks had at their disposal a rather elaborate inventory of cooking utensils on James R. Sparkman’s plantations. These implements, however, were more likely used for preparing the Sparkman family’s meals than those of the slaves. An inventory of 1845 listed the following implements:

3 trammels
1 iron mortar
3 trivets
2 frying pans
1 cook, ladle, fork & skimmer
3 ovens (baking)
2 toasters
1 roaster
2 gridirons
2 iron tea kettles
1 griddle
1 coffee mill
1 steak pan
8 pots (various sizes)
2 thin wafer iron

The following appeared in a list dated May 1847: 2 large pots – 6 gal.; 2 pots – 6 qts.;
2 pots – 4 qts.; 4 pots – 3 qts.; 2 pots – 2 qts.; and 2 new spiders. An 1848 kitchen inventory listed 1 copper chelten kettle; 3 enameled saucepans; 1 trimont tea kettle; 1 meat cleaver; 1 cook knife w/saw; and I cullender.

If cooking for the Big House required a wide array of implements, cooking in the public pots was often a crude affair. Sabe Rutledge recalled that his grandmother, a plantation cook, “had two pots going. Boil all day and all night. Biling Biling till he ticken (thicken). Cedar paddle stir with.” Utensils for eating were as crude as implements for cooking, if they existed at all. Sometimes wooden spoons, clam shells, or pieces of broken pottery served as eating utensils. On some plantations the slaves ate with their hands. Most of the plantations had special cooks for the children, who ate together and were served half-portions. Joshua Ward employed four full-time cooks for the more than 400 slave children on his plantations.

The basic ingredients in the slaves’ diet were vegetables. Although some plantation had a large communal garden for the whole plantation, a more typical pattern was for the slave to have small plots for their personal use. These gardens were worked by the slaves after their tasks for the day were finished and on weekends and other off times. Whether the plantation had one big garden or each slave had a small one, it was the work and sweat of the slaves that went into the soil to grow corn, sweet potatos, Irish potatos, tomatos, collards, turnips, peanuts, okra, eggplant, beans, and peas. “There is no vegetable of which negroes are more fond than of the common field pea,” wrote a planter in 1851. “They are very nutritious, and if cooked perfectly done, and well seasoned with red pepper, are quite healthy.” Other slaves mixed peas with rice and salt meat to make the popular “Hoppin’ John.” Since few of these vegetables were mentioned in the tables of allowances and rations, it would appear that most of these vegetables were grown by individual slaves.

Such fruit as the slaves were able to obtain came from the plantations’ grapevines, orange, lemon, and fig trees, and melon patches, or was purchased from the Caribbean by the masters. J. Motte Alston wrote in his memoirs of vessels from the West Indies steaming up the Waccamaw to pick up lumber from Henry Buck’s large sawmills. “These vessels would pass in front of my house,” he recalled, “and I would frequently lay in all the fruit I wanted at a trifling cost.” On most plantations fruits were preserved in some way – dried, canned, or brandied – for enjoyment during the winter. Slaves perhaps ate the wild berries that grew in abundance along the Waccamaw as well.

Rice was a staple food as well as the cash crop on the Waccamaw. Goliah, a slave of Robert F. W. Allston, told Allston’s daughter how rice should be cooked: “Fust t’ing yo’ roll up yo’ sleeve es high as yo’ kin, en yo tak soap en yo’ wash yo’ hand clean. Den you wash yo’ pot clean, fill um wid col’ wata en put on de fia. Now w’ile yo’ wata de bile, yo’ put yo’ rice een a piggin en yo’ wash em well, den when yo’ dun put salt een yo’ pot, en ‘e bile high, yo’ put yo’ rice een, en le’ um bile till ‘e swell, den yo’ pour off de wata, en put yo’ pot back o’ de stove, for steam.” “Rice,” according to J. Motte Allston, “when properly cooked is the best cereal for man; by far the most wholesome and nutritious.” Rice was only cooked properly, in his opinion, when it was “boiled till done, the water ‘dreened (drained) off, and set on the ashes to ‘soak.’ Around the pot there is a brown rice-cake, in the center of which are the snow-white grains, each thoroughly done and each separate. Unless one has eaten rice cooked this way, he knows nothing about it. The stuff called rice – soft and gluey – may do to paper a wall, but not to feed civilized man.” Rice, especially cracked rice, which was the slaves’ usual ration, was also prepared as pilau – boiled with salt pork, fish, or game and vegetables. Sparkman claimed an allowance of eight quarts of rice or peas weekly to his slaves at Mt. Arena – the equivalent of ten cup of cooked rice daily.

On some plantations rice was distributed every working day throughout the year. On others, slaves resorted to theft to augment their diet. At John D. Magill’s Richmond Hill and Oregon plantations “they would steal rice and hide it in the straw…They would have to tote rice straw to put in the corn field to use as manure, they would put a basket in the straw; steal rice and hide it in the basket in the straw; carry it out on their heads to the corn field; when they got the chance they hid the rice in the swamp making the spot…They would beat the rice out in the swamp. They burned out a stump and made a round hole; then they took a piece of pole and sharpened the edge and beat the rice out. This was a homemade kind of morta[r] and pestle; was used to beat the rice.” When slaves on Brookgreen plantation broke into the rice barn and stole more rice, the wife of Joshua Ward told the overseers that the slaves should be given more rice rather than being punished for trying to steal it. As Ben Horry, one of Ward’s slaves, later recalled, “Anybody steal rice and they beat them, Miss Bessie cry and say, ‘Let ‘em have rice! My rice – my nigger!’”

Running close behind rice as a staple in All Saints Parish were grits and hominy, both derived from corn. The term hominy designates corn with the hull and germ removed; grits refers to the ground grains of corn. Elizabeth Collins, the English housekeeper at Hagley plantation, apparently learned her recipe for grits from the slave cooks:

The corn having been ground, and the grits well sifted through a wire sieve, which then divides the flour from the coarse grits, the former is reserved for making bread, and the latter transferred to a pot of cold water and let boil until the water is nearly gone; then the little water, which is only left to keep it from burning, is poured off, and the hominy is ready for the table. It is generally eaten for breakfast, when, if people choose to be stingy enough, the overplus can be deposited in a vessel with the flour, and mixed with a quantity of water or clabber, put to rise until the evening, when a couple of eggs or a sweet potato must be well stirred in, and of course, a little salt. Bake it at once, and then the economical housewife will have a good and light loaf for supper.

Some of the slave children expressed a dislike for yellow corn. Sabe Rutledge recalled, “I cry many a day bout that yellow corn! ‘Pa, this here yellow corn make hominy look like he got egg cook in ‘em; red corn look like hominy cook in red molasses!’ But yellow corn stronger feed! Stronger feed! And pa know ‘em.”

Cornbread was by far the most common bread in the slaves’ diet, although it occasionally included rice bread, rye bread, and wheat bread (called sweet bread). Buttermilk biscuits, baked in one of the great iron skilletlike three-legged ovens with live-oak coals heaped on top, were especially prized. Cakes and other baked delicacies, such as gingerbread, were reserved for special occasions such as Christmas and weddings.

The slaves’ provisions included allowances for sugar, honey, and molasses, often eaten with cornbread. they consumption of large quantities of molasses led Wyndham Malet to credit his slaves with a sweet tooth, but such an interpretation both ignores the importance of molasses as a source of iron and calcium (in a diet low in meat and dairy products) and glosses over the role of condiments and seasonings in slave food. Furthermore, one way of making ill-tasting – or tasteless – foot palatable was to pour molasses on it. Molasses spiced with vinegar and diluted with water made a common beverage for All Saints slaves. It tasted somewhat like treacle, or so it seemed to Emily Weston’s English housekeeper, who marveled that such a refreshment “is what the negro is very fond of.”

Among dairy products clabber was the most common and apparently the most enjoyed. Milk, especially buttermilk, was common enough during the winter, but quickly soured in the intense heat of a Carolina summer. Cheese was a rare delicacy. Elizabeth Collins contended that cheese could not be made in Carolina, “for on account of the intense heat, the milk quickly turns sour; in fact, if it is let to stand for about two hours, becomes a thick curd which is called clabber.” She acknowledged that clabber was considered by many to be “a dainty dish,” but she was happy that she had “never been obliged to eat it.” An English relative of the Westons, however, considered clabber to be “quite a godsend in the absence of tea. It is simply ‘curds and whey,’” he noted. “A bowl of milk is put by in the evening, and by atmospheric operation becomes claber in the morning.” Another dairy product in use among the slaves was butter, usually churned on the flood tide so that they butter would come “wid de tide.”

Meat, whether supplied daily or irregularly, was especially prized. Mt. Arena slaves ate beef soup thickened with rice daily from June to November, with occasionally substitutions of mutton. Goat, cheese, and chicken were also well liked, but pork was easily the favorite. Hog-butchering time meant spare ribs, bacon, and chitterlings for the slaves, the other parts being reserved for the master. Salt was scarce in All Saints Parish. The slaves of Robert F. W. Allston boiled it from sea water on the salt creeks between Waccamaw Neck and Pawley Island. While some plantations had saltworks, meat was usually preserved by smoking. Near the plantation kitchens stood smokehouses, where hams, sausages, side meat, and other meats were cured and stored.

Seafood ran a close second in popularity to pork among Waccamaw slaves. Oysters, clams, crabs, shrimp, fresh fish in the summer, and smoked or brined fish in the winter were all part of the standard diet for inhabitants of this coastal area. The waters teemed with salt and fresh water fish: shad, trout, pike, perch, and sturgeon. The slaves added to their allowances of food by using their off times for fishing, crabbing, oystering, and clamming. They caught autumn mullet at night in cast nets and hauled quantities of them home in sacks. Mullet was described by Motte Alston as “a fine fish and the roes especially so.” Sabe Rutledge recalled that he and his family ate mullet and rice for the three fall months. Fish were plentiful not only in the salt creeks and ocean but also in the freshwater lakes, which swarmed with pike and other varieties.

A very special and rare seafood delicacy was turtle eggs. An English visitor found 115 turtle eggs on the beach at Pawleys Island in the summer of 1862. He had to learn how to prepare them from an elderly slave who was in charge of the Pawleys Island summer home of Plowden and Emily Weston. The slave informed him “they were ‘first rate eating,’ which, on having some for breakfast, I found to be the case. They have a delicate flavour, and must be very nutritious; their coating is tough instead of brittle.”

Among other seafood sometimes eaten by slaves were eel and alligator. Hagar Brown described how to prepare eel for eating. “Dress ‘em. Strip ‘em down the back. Stuff ‘em and bake ‘em.” In addition to its nutritional value, eel skin was reputed to be good for rheumatism: “wrap ‘em ‘round leg,” she advised, “keep ‘em till pain gone.” Regarding the alligator, she said that one could “eat every part but don’t eat the head and feet. Eat body part and tail. Makes chillum fat.”

Game meats were also popular among the slaves. The woods bordering the Waccamaw abounded in deer, foxes, rabbits, racoons, opossums, black bears, geese, ducks, turkeys, woodcocks, snipes, rice birds, pigeons, partridges, and plovers. William Oliver recalled the abundance of game. “Possum and squirrel all we could get,” he said. “Wild turkey, possum. Don’t bother with no coon much.” According to Hagar Brown, however, racoon was a greater delicacy than possum. “Coon better than possum; heap cleaner than possum. Coon won’t eat everything a possum does.” She also supplemented her diet with fox, crow, and hawk. “Fox? I eat ‘em,” she recalled, but added, “fox hard to lay hand on. Them thing kin out run a ghost. Possum good! Easy to catch possum.”

There are indications that slaves may have owned firearms. In any event they used them for hunting. Elizabeth Allston Pringle recalled in her memoirs that her father’s slaves shot rice birds on the plantations. A northern visitor to the Waccamaw in 1831 reported, “The blacks are never better pleased than when they are hunting in the woods; and it is seldom that they have not in the larder the flesh of a raccoon or opossum.” J. Motte Alston noted that, despite his requirements that slaves attend evening church services every other week, “there were some who preferred to hunt [or] fish.”

Please Note: This excerpt appears by special permission of the author and publisher and may not be presented elsewhere without permission of the copyright holders.
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Buy Down by the Riverside from the University of Illinois Press

About the Author:

Charles Joyner is Burroughs Distinguished Professor of Southern History and Culture at Coastal Carolina University. Prior to assuming his present position he taught at the University of California, Berkeley; the University of Mississippi; and the University of Alabama. He was an associate of the DuBois Center at Harvard University in 1989-90 and was visiting professor at the University of Sydney (Australia) in 1993.

Joyner is perhaps best known for his book Down by the Riverside: A South Carolina Slave Community (University of Illinois Press, 1984). It won the National University Press Book Award and has been called "the finest work ever written on American slavery." His most recent book is Shared Traditions: Southern History and Folk Culture (University of Illinois Press, 1999). He is also author of Remember Me: Slave Life in Coastal Georgia (Georgia Humanities Council, 1989) and Folk Song in South Carolina (University of South Carolina Press, 1971).

He is co-author of Before Freedom Came: African-American Life and Labor in the Antebellum South (University Press of Virginia, 1992), chosen by the American Library Association as one of the thirteen non-fiction works in its Notable Books List, and Southern Writers and Their Worlds (Louisiana State University Press).

He edited new editions of Drums and Shadows: Survival Studies among the Georgia Coastal Negroes (University of Georgia Press, 1987), Elizabeth Allston Pringle''s A Woman Rice Planter (University of South Carolina Press, 1992), and Julia Peterkin''s Green Thursday (University of Georgia Press, 1997).

He wrote introductions to When Roots Die: Endangered Traditions in the Sea Islands (University of Georgia Press, 1987), Ain''t You Got a Right to the Tree of Life? (University of Georgia Press, 1989), and Ballots and Fence Rails: Reconstruction on the Lower Cape Fear (University of Georgia Press, 1995).

Visit Charles Joyner''s home page at the Waccamaw Center for Historical and Cultural Studies

View other titles by Charles Joyner at the University of Illinois Press

View other titles by Charles Joyner at


Discover Frogmore Stew and Other Lowcountry Recipes from the Beaufort County, SC Public Library


Read Environment, Work and Health of Low Country Slaves from the National Park Service

Read "African Roots, Carolina Gold: The African Contribution to the Immensely Lucrative South Carolina Rice Industry" by John H. Tibbetts

Read The Gullah: Rice, Slavery and the Sierra Leone-American Connection by Joseph A. Opala, right here on Africana!


View When Rice Was King, a lesson plan from Teaching With Historic Places, National Park Service

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