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South Yard Dwellings: Food & Cooking

“We had nothing to eat but corn bread baked in ashes, fat back and vegetables raised on the farm; no ham or any other choice meats; and fish we caught out of the creeks and streams.”– Richard Macks, 1936, formerly enslaved person1

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Here, Dr. Leni Sorensen sits in one of the South Yard dwellings and speaks about food for the enslaved.

Dr. Leni Sorensen is a culinary historian, teacher of home provisioning and rural life skills, and an expert in 18th- and 19th- century cooking methods used by Virginia housewives and slaves. 

Much has been written about the food prepared and consumed by enslaved African Americans. From what was provided by the plantation owners, to what was grown or hunted by the individual; from how it was cooked to the social events surrounding eating. Few details specific to Montpelier are known, and practices varied between plantations enough that only a few generalities can be drawn. 

In general, plantation owners provided some food for their enslaved workers—often pork, cornmeal, and portions of whatever crop flourished on that plantation. While the plantation owners may have considered the rations sufficient for feeding their workforce, many of the enslaved people did not. However, most plantation owners allowed their enslaved workers to farm their own small plots of land and hunt or trap animals to supplement their food supply—after work hours were completed, of course.

Through documentary and archaeological evidence we have found that food for the enslaved community was both supplied by the Madisons and supplemented by the enslaved people themselves. Since most of the provided food was produced on the plantation, purchase records are limited except alcohol purchases. Rum, brandy, and whiskey were purchased in fair quantities until 1818 when James Jr. reportedly substituted beer for whiskey during the harvest season.2 

Pork was a large portion of the enslaved people’s diet at Montpelier. Though it was not noted as purchased specifically for feeding slaves until 1825, faunal evidence in the archaeological record and an earlier cursory documentary mention indicates that it was a very large part of their diet. Much of it may have been in the form of bacon, which began to be purchased in large quantities in 1837, perhaps due to a change in plantation management after James Jr.’s death. Previously, the bacon may have been produced in the two smokehouses in the South Yard, next to the dwellings. 

An 1839 visitor to Montpelier recalled that each slave family “raise[d] their own pig and poultry.”3 The pig owned by each family may have been provided by the Madisons as a way to offset both the work and cost of providing pork to the enslaved people, but the chickens were undoubtedly wholly owned by the enslaved people who cared for them. Not only was this a common practice, but we know that in 1812, Michel Kromenacker purchased chickens from Montpelier slaves on the President’s account, signifying that Madison acknowledged that the chickens did not belong to him. 4

Corn was also provided to the enslaved people of Montpelier. Though we have no documentation for whether or not it was ground in meal before distribution or had to be ground by the individuals, a purchase record in 1818 shows that James Sr. ordered “3 barrels of Corn for negroes and horses, suggesting not only that the corn was purchased in the same form for enslaved individuals and horses (unground) but was also purchased with the same priority and of the same quality as food for horses.5

Food Storage

Unlike today’s ready access to fresh food regardless of season or geographic location, food consumed in federal America was rarely fresh. The restrictions of nature and the lack of reliable refrigeration for all but the most wealthy necessitated the constant practices of drying, smoke, pickling, and otherwise preserving food for long-term storage. 

Within enslaved contexts, food was often stored in small “root cellar”-like pits set into the floor of their dwelling. Since the floors of the South Yard quarters are raised above the ground, this practice could not be utilized. While there is no documentary evidence for food storage among the enslaved community at Montpelier, it was such a basic necessity that we can all but guarantee that various methods of food storage and preservation were utilized. 

The storage form most commonly associated with the period by modern visitors are stoneware crocks. While often shown in wealthier contexts, such as the cellar kitchen space, fragments of large stoneware storage forms have been recovered archaeologically from the South Yard. Other methods of food storage such as linen bags, which are ideal for storing dried goods, can be seen in the South Yard dwellings.


The only three cooking wares that are regularly mentioned in WPA interviews of former slaves are kettles, skillets, and ovens. Theses three items are quite different than the ones we know today, and while a household’s cooking could feasibly be done with only a single pot (of a type today called a dutch oven), the addition of a kettle and skillet vastly expanded the range of foods and decreased the amount of time involved in cooking.

During the period, “kettle” could refer to two forms: a pot with a spout, or a cauldron-type pot. While what we recognize as a kettle today was in use, it was less common than the other version. To make matters more confusing, pots that we would today call “cauldrons” were also called “ovens.” 

The main difference between kettles and ovens seems to be the proximity to the cooking fire: while ovens sat low on the heat, either hung or on short legs, kettles always hung above the fire and had no legs. Additionally, while the lid was an integral part of an oven, that was not necessarily the case for kettles.


Skillets of the period were very similar to skillets today. However, since they were meant to go directly above coals, many had three legs protruding from the bottom to hold them above the heat. This particular form, seen in the South Yard, is called a spider skillet. Skillets without these legs would sit on a trivet stand to be held above the fire. The first written reference to spider skillets was in 1790, at which point the “spider” was differentiated from the “skillet,” showing that pans both with and without legs were in use at the same time.



Perhaps most different from our modern definition is the “oven.” Rather than the large, immovable baking oven we first think of, the oven used by the enslaved community at Montpelier is what we would call a “Dutch” oven. The oven was a large pot with a very well-fitting lid; the lid was meant to create an air-tight seal. The pot either hung over the coals or sat among them on three short legs. The lid had a ridge around the edge so that hot coals could be piled on top creating an even distribution of heat inside the pot. The coals on the top caused the food to be cooked in much the same way as our modern large baking ovens. 

At all economic levels, entire meals could be cooked in a single pot. Bread puddings would be wrapped in cheesecloth and submerged within a soup or stew and everything cooked at once. If the oven was empty, food could be fried in it. Water for tea or coffee could be boiled inside an oven. While having more dishes meant more versatility and faster cooking, a kitchen was often considered complete with only an oven.

(From L to R) “A village day school.” London: Laurie & Whittle. 1804; cast iron pot fragment, South Yard; a modern kettle or “oven”; a fireplace in the South Yard featuring cookware. Notice the spider skillets, stands, and kettle. 


“On Saturday each slave was given 10 pounds corn meal, a quart of black strap, 6 pounds of fat back, 3 pounds of flour and vegetables, all of which were raised on the farm. All of the slaves hunted or those who wanted, hunted rabbits, opossums or fished. These were our choice food as we did not get anything special from the overseer.”- Rev. Silas Jackson, 1936, formerly enslaved person6

One of the most striking, and likely controversial, objects installed in one of the dwellings is a Brown Bess musket. While many states, including Virginia, had laws against slaves and free people of color owning firearms, many plantation owners allowed their enslaved workers to own guns—some even providing them—for hunting for extra food. 

WPA interviews of former slaves are filled with anecdotes about hunting, and virtually every hunt focused on small game—particularly possum. As recounted in the interviews, the food rations provided by the plantation owner were often subpar: not only were they repetitive, they often simply were not enough food. It benefited both the enslaved workers and the plantation owner for the enslaved to farm and hunt their own food to supplement their rations.

Whether or not Madison provided firearms for his enslaved workers, the residents of the South Yard did have access to them. Gunflints and lead shot (the equivalent of today’s bullets) have been recovered archaeologically in the South Yard as well as possum bones, which are evidence of hunting.

(From L to R) Photo of one of the South Yard dwellings featuring a replica Brown Bess musket; lead shot and gunflint found archaeologically in the South Yard.