Cassava: A Contested Good

Brandi Simpson Miller

The widescale adoption of cassava in Ghana today has its roots in the nineteenth-century transition away from the slave trade to the “legitimate” trade in the palm oil that lubricated British industry. Cassava was introduced to the Gold Coast in the seventeenth century and flourished in the arid climate and infertile soils of the Osu environs of the Danish Fort, Christiansborg. Soon after, local experimenters tried to adapt the introduced varieties of cassava they found near Christiansborg into types that had a lower poison content (as recognized by taste), while maintaining attractive features, such as hardiness.[i]

Cassava or tapioca plant. Coloured etching by J. Pass, c. 1809. Courtesy of the Wellcome Library.

Intermittent food shortages in the southeast throughout the mid-eighteenth century gave experimenters the imperative to continue their development of cassava as a hunger food. Cassava gardeners were gratified to find that plants grown from cuttings rather than seeds halved the time it took to produce tubers of harvestable size. Cooks discovered that clones grown from a stem cutting produced tubers less fibrous and thus more suitable for making ampesi (boiled starch) and fufu (boiled and pounded starch dumplings).[ii]

 

By the 1780s farmers around Accra had produced cassava cultivars that were distinct from original, introduced stock from the New World. Their cassava was less poisonous, and Accra consumers considered these new types to be edible. These types were not completely free of cyanogenic glucosides, but cooks who peeled the tubers made the remaining starch safe because the toxicity of the hybrid cultivar resided in that outermost layer of the fibrous husk they removed.[iii]

The transition from the slave trade to the “legitimate” trade in palm oil resulted in conflicts that increased the consumption of cassava. The cessation of the slave trade resulted in an Asante invasion of the coastal Fante beginning in 1806-7 to monopolize any remaining trade with Europeans. This invasion was directly responsible for a series of famines beginning with the 1809 famine, as people were unable to properly attend to cultivation for the persistent fear of attack. The 1816 famine alone was responsible for the deaths of many thousands of Fante.[iv] Fante farmers turned to cassava to buttress themselves against famines by planting the crop in soils that were dry, nutrient-poor, or otherwise unsuitable for maize (which did not tolerate saline spray) or plantains (which required shelter from wind, and moisture).[v] Cassava, which stored well underground, could be grown in poor soil and retrieved under these arduous circumstances to stave off hunger.

Afro-Brazilians who resettled in West Africa following a series of slave revolts in Bahia between 1831 and 1835 contributed to the development of new cassava dishes.[vi] The dish now known as gari fortor—most likely derived from the Brazilian-Portuguese farofa or grated, roasted maniocmixes flavourings like onions, tomatoes, and eggs into the shredded cassava before frying and has become a residual marker of the Brazilian contribution to today’s Ghanaian cuisine.[vii]

Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, Jean Blackwell Hutson Research and Reference Division, The New York Public Library. “Accra, Gold Coast.” New York Public Library Digital Collections. Accessed July 9, 2021. https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/510d47df-a1a7-a3d9-e040-e00a18064a99

However much cassava came to be consumed on the coast by the Fante it was never to attain the positive associations that the eating of yam or maize embodied in daily life or in ritual. After the 1803 Danish ban on trans-Atlantic slave trafficking, Danish traders relocated toward the Legon Hills and along the Akuapem Ridge near Accra and used slave labour on plantations of indigo, cotton, or sugar cane.[viii] Cassava was chosen as a staple on slave provisioning plots and on core plantation grounds for the sustenance of the workers.[ix] As Europeans in the early nineteenth century began to ban the slave trade, merchants in Accra adjusted to the downturn in the maize trade by using their slaves to produce cassava for the coastal towns.[x] These choices resolutely identified cassava as the chief sustenance for enslaved people and reinforced its association with misfortune. Despite the low esteem in which cassava was held, cassava gari had become a staple food by the end of the nineteenth century. Gari is an excellent example of how the global migration of humans contributed to the ideas, tools, and techniques that make a cuisine.[xi]

 

[i]  J. D. La Fleur, Fusion Foodways of Africa’s Gold Coast in the Atlantic Era (Leiden: Brill, 2012), 163.

[ii]  E. V. Doku, Cassava in Ghana (Accra: Ghana Universities Press, 1969), 4-12.

[iii]  La Fleur, Fusion Foodways, 165.

[iv] Brodie Cruickshank, Eighteen Years on the Gold Coast of Africa (London: Hurst and Blackett, 1853), 118.

[v] La Fleur, Fusion Foodways, 168.”

[vi] Paul E. Lovejoy, “Background to Rebellion: The Origins of Muslim Slaves in Bahia,” Slavery & Abolition 15, no. 2 (1 August 1994): 151–80; Lisa A. Lindsay, “‘To Return to the Bosom of Their Fatherland’: Brazilian Immigrants in Nineteenth-century Lagos,” Slavery & Abolition 15, no. 1 (April 1994): 22–50.

[vii] Fran Osseo-Asare and Barbara Baëta, The Ghana Cookbook (New York: Hippocrene Books, 2015), 152.

[viii] C. D. Adams, “Activities of Danish Botanists in Guinea 1783-1850,” Transactions of the Historical Society of Ghana 3, no. 1 (1957): 30–46.

[ix]  Ray A. Kea, “Plantations and Labour in the South-East Gold Coast from the Late Eighteenth to the Mid Nineteenth Century,” in From Slave Trade to Legitimate Commerce: The Commercial Transition in Nineteenth-Century West Africa, ed. Robin Law (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 137; Henrik Jeppesen, Danske plantageanlæg på Guldkystem, 1788-1850 (Place of publication and publisher not identified, 1966), 57–59.

[x] Kea, “Plantations and Labour,” 125.

[xi] Rachel Laudan, Cuisine and Empire: Cooking in World History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2015), 2–3.

 

About

Brandi Simpson Miller is the Visiting Assistant Professor of History at Wesleyan College Macon, Georgia. Beginning in the autumn term she will also serve as the Assistant Director of the Wesleyan College Center for Social and Racial Equity. Here research interests include the study of West African foodways from the seventeenth century to the present. Her current publications include a book chapter entitled ‘Food and Nationalism in an Independent Ghana,’ published by Bloomsbury in The Rise of National Foods in 2019. Her thesis, entitled ‘The Social History of Food and Cooking in Nineteenth- and Twentieth- Century Ghana,’ is being published as a monograph with Palgrave MacMillan. You can follow her on Twitter: @bsimpsonmiller1.

“You know I am no epicure”: Enslaved Voices in Eliza Lucas Pinckney’s Receipt Book

By Rachel Love Monroy

The Papers of the Revolutionary Era Pinckney Statesmen

The Pinckney Papers Project at the University of South Carolina includes both the Papers of Eliza Lucas Pinckney (1722-1793) and Harriott Pinckney Horry (1748-1830) and The Papers of the Revolutionary Era Pinckney Statesmen. Both editions are published by Rotunda, the digital imprint of the University of Virginia Press, in its “American Founding Era Collection.” The Pinckney Family represents one of the most important, yet lesser-known, families of the founding period. Eliza is best known for the management of her father’s South Carolina plantations at a young age and subsequent experimentation with cultivating improved strains of indigo in the colony. Her sons, and their cousin, are the subject of The Papers of the Revolutionary Era Pinckney Statesmen: Charles Cotesworth Pinckney (1746-1825), his brother Thomas Pinckney (1750-1828), and their cousin Charles Pinckney (1756-1824). They served as military, economic, political, and diplomatic leaders in South Carolina and the nation during and after the American Revolution, working as governors, diplomats, military officers, and delegates to the Constitutional Convention.

 

Image 1 – The first page of Eliza’s receipt book marked simply with her name and the date 1756, as well as Rect. Book No. 2. at the top. Citation: Pinckney, Eliza Lucas, 1723-1793. Eliza Pinckney receipt book, 1756. (43/2178) South Carolina Historical Society.

The pages of Eliza Lucas Pinckney’s receipt book reveal one hundred and thirty-nine recipes: ninety-eight culinary, thirty-nine medical, and two household related. With titles from “Plumb Marmalade” to “For an Ague of Fever” they depict an image of Eliza in the kitchen testing, improving, and adjusting her own concoctions. When she reminds us “your mold must be greased with fatt bacon before you put your wafers inn” and “be sure to grease it again each time,” the intimacy of her tone, knowledge of the ingredients, and tactile descriptions paint a picture of Eliza’s fingers stained with currant juice, hands sticky and scented of rosewater, and palate carefully judging.[1] Yet her familiar tone and interjections of advice obscure a different reality. The surviving manuscript is conspicuously clean of grease marks and stains. Eliza’s name is alone printed on the front, but what follows is a forced collective effort not a solitary enterprise. It is Eliza’s work, but it is also the work of enslaved people, their thoughts, inventions, ideas, and alterations. Eliza has erased and appropriated black hands mixing, chopping, stirring, kneading, and folding; black mouths tasting, black minds adjusting, and black voices retelling the recipes recorded in her own hand.

As a plantation mistress in colonial South Carolina Eliza Pinckney was a slave owner. Historians estimate that at the time of her husband Charles Pinckney’s death she kept between two and three hundred slaves.[2] She grew up among slaves in Antigua and inherited them from both her father, George Lucas, and late husband. A 1745 inventory of her father’s slaves at Garden Hill Plantation listed 79 individuals by name.[3] Yet Eliza’s receipt book included no passing mention of black enslaved labor to produce ingredients or execute recipes, no discussion of “Mary-Ann” who “understands roasting poultry in the greatest perfection you ever saw,” or old Ebba who fattens the birds “to as great a nicety.” She left out Daphne who made “a loaf of very nice bread.”[4] In Eliza’s day, recipe books transitioned from products of independent women perfecting their recipes to collections of recipes reflecting the wishes of the household mistress more than her labor. Culinary skill transferred to the author of recipes and away from those who painstakingly executed them. Cooking was still an act of the hands, but not hands in peeling, dicing, or folding, but a hand grasping a pen and recording a recipe on the written page.[5]

Image 2 – An example of the recipes included in Eliza’s receipt book. This page includes recipes for “Little Pudings” and “Rusks.” Citation: Pinckney, Eliza Lucas, 1723-1793. Eliza Pinckney receipt book, 1756. (43/2178) South Carolina Historical Society.

Eliza consumed her slaves’ physical labor, as well as their creative power: their knowledge of native ingredients’ medicinal power in her remedies. Her whitewashing of recipes obscures both the role that slaves played and her own contribution. It is difficult to know how the drama unfolded. Did Eliza dictate and observe, or pass along recipes as an absentee cook? Where did her knowledge end and theirs begin? Were these Eliza’s ideas, or recipes developed by enslaved Africans for which she simply took credit? Eliza readily admitted, “You know I am no epicure, but I am pleased they [the slaves] can do things so well, when they are put to it” Eliza kept “young Ebba to do the drudgery part, fetch wood, and water, and scour, and learn as much as she is capable of Cooking and Washing,” while “Old Ebba boils the cow’s victuals, raises and fattens the poultry, Moses is imployed from breakfast until 12 o’clock without doors, after that in the house. Pegg washes and milks.” Mary-Ann pickled oysters very well, while Daphne cooks.[6]

Image 3 – A medicinal recipe from Eliza’s receipt book entitled: “For the Flux.” Citation: Pinckney, Eliza Lucas, 1723-1793. Eliza Pinckney receipt book, 1756. (43/2178) South Carolina Historical Society

Eliza discounted enslaved workers’ intimate knowledge of rice and sweet potatoes from West Africa and their ability to knead bread to its perfect consistency because they were merely an instrument in her cooking. Hers was the creative enterprise, intellectual pursuit, and scientific experiment. Just as Aristotle had called slaves an “instrument of their owner” a “living tool” Eliza’s slaves acted as her culinary instruments.[7] They were the knives, the ladles, and the frying pans. The kitchen tools were an extension of slave bodies, because to Eliza the slaves were tools themselves, that she held and manipulated. She recognized their contribution no more than she might have noticed the utility of a particular spoon or knife in performing the job at hand. Because just like these inanimate tools, Eliza believed tools of flesh and blood could not perform the task without her. They needed Eliza’s mind, her knowledge, and her creativity to breathe life into their bodies and cook.

 

[1] To make Wafers, in The Papers of Eliza Lucas Pinckney and Harriott Pinckney Horry Digital Edition, ed. Constance Schulz. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, Rotunda, 2012..

[2] Ted, Morgan, Wilderness at Dawn: The Settling of the North American Continent (New York, NY: 1993), 262.

[3] List of Slaves, George Lucas, May 1745, in The Papers of Eliza Lucas Pinckney and Harriott Pinckney Horry Digital Edition, ed. Constance Schulz. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, Rotunda, 2012.

[4]Eliza Lucas Pinckney to Harriott Pinckney Horry, n.d. , in The Papers of Eliza Lucas Pinckney and Harriott Pinckney Horry Digital Edition, ed. Constance Schulz. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, Rotunda, 2012.

[5]Wendy, Wall, Recipes for Thought Knowledge and Taste in the Early Modern English Kitchen (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015), 50

[6] Eliza Lucas Pinckney to Harriott Pinckney Horry, n.d. , in The Papers of Eliza Lucas Pinckney and Harriott Pinckney Horry Digital Edition, ed. Constance Schulz. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, Rotunda, 2012.

[7] Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics, trans. David Ross (London, 1980), 212.