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Enslaved workers made “New World” grow

Lavada Nahon, interpreter of African American History for New York State, spoke to the Austerlitz Historical Society last month on the topic “Enslaved Foodways in New Netherland and New York.” Photo by David Lee

AUSTERLITZ—On June 12 the Austerlitz Historical Society sponsored a presentation by Lavada Nahon, interpreter of African American History for New York State. The presentation was “Enslaved Foodways in New Netherland and New York.”

Ms. Nahon is a culinary historian who specializes in the mid-17th – 19th century New Netherland, as European explorers initially named New York. She also, has “extensive experience” cooking historical meals of what people ate 100-to-200 years ago. In her talk, she noted that New Yorkers’ diets were more varied then than now.

Before describing a typical meal’s schedule, Ms. Nahon noted, “It’s not what the cook wants to eat but what the enslaver wants to eat.” Breakfast was early in the morning and consisted of grated cheese on bread with hot chocolate. Dinner, 1-3p.m., was the largest meal and included a soup or stew, roast, fish (sturgeon, salmon, striped bass, lobster and crabs) and several side dishes. In elite households there would be up to 21 side dishes and the meal could take up to three hours. According to Ms. Nahon, it was the Dutch who formally started “Tea Time” and pastry, not the British. The last meal, supper, 5-8pm, consisted of leftovers from the other meals.

In New Netherland “Dutch women left the kitchen and enslaved women stepped in.” Ms. Nahon said that the cooks were usually teen-aged girls, who were schooled for a minimum of three years.

She explained that Central Africa did not have “cattle or pigs because of the tsetse fly” and said that Africans from that region were “mostly vegetarian.” Also, apples, blueberries, strawberries, wheat and bread” were not indigenous to Central Africa. African crops were black-eyed peas, cabbage, turnips, mustard greens and sweet potatoes. Okra, a native New York plant, was used for thickening soups and stews.

The slides included pictures of “jambless hearths,” which had no sides.

Ms. Nahon, who offers cooking workshops in such hearths, explained that the cooking is actually done over embers and not flames. She vouched for locust as the best hardwood because it produces the least amount of ash. She explained that the enslaved children had to be very careful not to get ash in the food or risk punishment. Ms. Nahon linked the degree of smoke to “the skill of the cook.”

In addition to learning what to cook and how to cook, what wood to collect and where to find it, the enslaved girls had to learn to manage time, since there was only one hearth to prepare meals. Once all this was learned, the girls were sold as cooks.

Ms. Nahon started her presentation by correcting misunderstandings about New York and slavery. “What’s taught is the Civil War and the South,” New York was seemingly just a place where “slaves passed through” going further north. But 11 men, bearing Portuguese names from Congo and the Senegambia regions of Central Africa, were brought to New Netherland and “enslaved in 1626, nineteen years after” the arrival of Africans in Jamestown, Virginia. She added that although slavery was abolished in New York in 1827, the last enslaved person was not freed until 1840.

Because a Dutch company financed the colonization of New Netherland neither personal nor official records were written in English. Ms. Nahon credited the New Netherland Institute for translating letters, receipts, ads offering rewards for runaway enslaved people, journals and manumission requests into English. The Institute’s work unleashed a trove of documents that reveal the daily lives of the enslaved and their relationships to their enslavers.

Typically Dutch houses were built along with mills near water to facilitate construction and operation of mills. The houses were two or three stories. The cellars and small rooms, called garrets, that were built off the sides of a central staircase housed the enslaved. A large hearth for cooking and heating dominated the cellar. Generally the enslaved, numbering 3-5 people, ate the same food as their enslavers and shared a common dining room.

The Dutch West India Company awarded tracts of 150- to-200 acres, to Dutch men known as patroons, to entice Northern Europeans to New Netherland. Tracts were operated as a single farm with stonewalls marking pasture borders. Ms. Nahon said that men awarded these tracts were empowered as the legal “lord of the manor.”

Although patroon farms mostly were small tracts, Ms. Nahon identified three large estates that had labor forces of 50 or more enslaved persons including Phillipsburg Manor in Sleepy Hollow, then known as Upper Mills. Ms. Nahon said that Austerlitz was a freehold community, land not acquired through the Dutch West India Company. Austerlitz was located between the estates of Livingston and van Rensselaer.

In the South tracts were much larger, 50,000 aces or more called plantations. Ms. Nahon cited George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate, which at the time of his death, was 55,000 acres with a resident labor force of 317 enslaved persons. They lived in separate cabins, with individual hearths.

Because the enslaved numbered in the hundreds on plantations, food and other provisions for them were considered a budgetary line item. According to Ms. Nahon, documented receipts reveal what the enslaved ate, mostly corn meal, salt pork and molasses, as well as the amount rationed to them. The enslaved, also, were allotted provisional parcels of land for gardens to supplement their rations.

One stark difference between the two regions was what determined wealth and power. In the South it was land; in Dutch New York it was gold. The Dutch dominated the East Coast to West Indies and Caribbean trade route, shipping beaver fur and then wheat, when beavers became nearly extinct, in exchange for humans. The Dutch were active slave traders with two sources, Central Africa and the New World.

Another stark difference from European tradition: in the Colonies lineage was determined by the status of the woman not the man. Ms. Nahon said that enslavers realized, “We can grow our own slaves.” Children borne of slave women would always be slaves. Therefore Colonial enslavers had two sources of future slaves and would be less dependent on trans-Atlantic trade.

In response to a question from the audience asking why would Congo sell its people, Ms. Nahon explained the difference between a slave society and a society with slaves.

She said that the King of Congo had a relationship with Portugal. Both countries were Christian with Catholics and Pentecosts the two largest sects in Congo. Also, Congo was a society with slaves, who either were prisoners of war or refugees from famine. They were not locked into slavery. They were not renamed or forced to give up their culture.

On the other hand the colonies were a slave society, where Africans were immediately renamed upon arrival, forbidden to speak their languages or practice cultural traditions. Their present and future were enslavement.

When asked why the New Netherland enslaved did not run away like those in the South, Ms. Nahon responded, “And go where?” She said that in the 17th century, Canada practiced slavery. She conceded that the enslaved living in the upper Hudson Valley could and did flee to Native American nations in the Upper Mohawk region, but added that it was “not so easy” for those in the lower Hudson Valley.

For persons who profess that slavery under the Dutch was more benign due to manumission efforts and regulations requiring enslavers provide shoes, clothing and medical treatment to their captives, Ms. Nahon offered some caveats.

“Before the enslaved were manumitted they were subject to inspection” and proof of future self-sufficiency to insure they would not be dependent on the public. If proof was not adequate enslavers were required to provide care until death. Also, requirements to clothe the enslaved were more to satisfy Dutch sensibilities than concern for the enslaved.

Ms. Nahon recommended the book, The First American Cookbook: A Facsimile of “American Cookery,” 1796, by Amelia Simmons, for recipes.

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