A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Examining the role of food in African-American identity
Our story takes us into the kitchen of a now-empty two-story frame house in Annapolis, Maryland. The house was built in the 1850s, and over 120 years, two African-American families lived here. Today, the kitchen is cold, and those families, the Maynards and Burgesses, are all but forgotten in this weekender's paradise full of sunny shops, sailboats, and scenic cobbled streets. In 1991, with the Archaeology in Annapolis Project, Paul Mullins and I excavated the former Maynard-Burgess home. One thing we found in abundance was food remains. Could the sawn, burned, gnawed animal bones unearthed on the property tell tales that would warm the kitchen once again?
Our excavations uncovered the usual assortment of historical materials such as broken bottles, plates, and remains of what the families ate. It was the animal bones that particularly interested me. We recovered approximately 7,500 bones from a post-1905 privy, a post-1889 cellar, late nineteenth-century yard scatter, and an area below the floorboards of an 1874 addition to the house. At first glance, they seemed typical of the urban Chesapeake region: lots of pork and beef, some fowl and fish. It was after all the bones were weighed and counted and the remains summarized that an interesting and complex pattern of food consumption emerged. While the two families were acting like white consumers, purchasing the same standardized cuts of meat as everybody else, they were also making choices that unequivocally set themselves apart from whites, as seen in the pig and fish remains.
Consider the Annapolis in which the Maynards and Burgesses lived. They were part of a stable, socially and economically heterogeneous African-American community, but it was a world clouded by many forms of racism. Overt avenues of expression of African-American identity would have been potentially risky endeavors, so people like the Maynards and Burgesses were left to employ more subtle strategies such as food. By choosing pork and by avoiding city markets through fishing, the Maynards and Burgesses were quietly affirming their identities as African Americans.
Mark Warner is an assistant professor in the department of sociology, anthropology, and justice studies at the University of Idaho.