The British Origins of Greens and Potlikker

In Southern and soul food cooking, a much-loved combination is greens cooked with pieces of pork such as ham hocks for seasoning, with the liquid left at the end of cooking (the pot liquor or ‘potlikker’ as it is generally known) being ‘sopped up’ using cornbread. This practice is commonly linked back to slavery, for, as the slave narratives tell us, slaves (especially children) were given potlikker to eat and they crumbled cornbread into it or dipped cornbread in the liquor and sopped it up. Many slaves were also allowed their own vegetable gardens, and were particularly fond of leafy green vegetables such as collards. The following is a brief summary on the topic from the book What the Slaves Ate:

One of the staples of the slaves’ vegetable diets was ‘pot likker’. Pot liquor was the liquid left over from boiling vegetables, occasionally adding meat (pork) to add flavour to the vegetable broth. It was one of the most common meals. It was especially a primary food eaten by slave children. Many of the WPA narratives mentioned ‘pot likker’, usually in a favorable tone; for most slaves, ‘pot likker’ and cornbread was a delicious dish…

Leafy greens, poke, turnip greens, and cabbages were all popular vegetables that slaves used to make ‘pot likker’, which had high nutritional value. Slaves served it with cornbread or corn pone. They broke up cornbread and dipped it in the ‘pot likker’ or used it to soak up the liquid. Slaves also added fatty meats for flavor, but even so, it consisted mostly of vegetable broth.

While it is assumed that this practice began with slavery in the South, and the dish is to this day strongly linked to African American cooking, there is actually evidence that it began in England and was brought to the US. When the diet of poor agricultural labourers in England is compared with the diet of slaves in the South, it becomes clear that the plantation owners modelled their slave rations on the food that was eaten by the poor of Britain. As so many of the slave owners – as well as the indentured servants who joined them – came from the South and West of England, it seems entirely plausible that they brought notions of what constituted a labourer’s diet with them. Many indentured servants, drawn from the rural labouring poor of England, would already be familiar with this food, and it is logical, therefore, that slave owners copied this diet when devising the food rations for slaves.

In an 1872 letter to The Times, the English writer Richard Jefferies informed the newspaper’s readers about the eating habits of poor rural labourers in Wiltshire (a county from which many indentured servants were drawn). Jefferies noted that the poor English agricultural labourer ‘presents in his actual condition at this day a striking analogy to the agriculturist of a bygone time’, and of their diet stated: ‘A more wretched cookery probably does not exist on the face of the earth’. Jefferies wrote of the labourer’s diet:

It consists chiefly of bread and cheese, with bacon twice or thrice a week, varied with onions, and if he be a milker (on some farms) with a good ‘tuck-out’ at his employer’s expense on Sundays. On ordinary days he dines at the fashionable hour of six or seven in the evening – that is, about that time his cottage scents the road with a powerful odour of boiled cabbage, of which he eats an immense quantity. Vegetables are his luxuries, and a large garden, therefore, is the greatest blessing he can have…

To dine in an English labourer’s cottage would be impossible. His bread is generally good, certainly; but his bacon is the cheapest he can buy at small second-class shops – only soft, wretched stuff; his vegetables are cooked in detestable style, and eaten saturated with the pot liquor. Pot liquor is a favourite soup. I have known cottagers actually apply at farmers’ kitchens not only for the pot liquor in which meat has been sodden, but for the water in which potatoes have been boiled – potato liquor – and sup it up with avidity. And this is not in times of dearth or scarcity, but rather as a relish.

So, like the slaves, poor English labourers grew their own vegetables, cooked a lot of leafy greens, and ate the pot liquor. As for their children:

Their food is of the rudest and scantiest, chiefly weak tea, without milk, sweetened with moist sugar, and hunches of dry bread, sometimes with a little lard, or, for a treat, with treacle. Butter is scarcely ever used in the agricultural labourer’s cottage. It is too dear by far, and if he does buy fats, he believes in the fats expressed from meats, and prefers lard or dripping. Children are frequently fed with bread and cheap sugar spread on it. This is much cheaper than butter. Sometimes they get a bit of cheese or bacon, but not often, and a good deal of strong cabbage, soddened with pot-liquor.

The diets of slaves in the South and the rural poor in England, then, were almost identical: bread, cheap meat, greens, and pot liquor. And it wasn’t just in Wiltshire. A 1774 novel by the Gloucestershire author Richard Graves, for example, makes reference to the eating of ‘a mess of onion-pottage’ and a dish of pot liquor for breakfast. Pottage, it should be noted, was a soup or stew, made from boiled vegetables mixed with wheat, barley, rye, or oats, which dates back to the medieval period in England. For the poor, these mostly consisted of a mix of vegetables ‘slow-cooked to reduce the contents to a homogeneous mass’, sometimes with the addition of some pig meat (not dissimilar to the slaves eating greens slow cooked with bits of pork). The rations given to slaves were not unique to the South, then, but were, rather, the poverty foods of rural England. The eating of greens mixed with meat was not a Southern innovation, nor was drinking pot liquor, thickening it with meal, or sopping it up with bread.

Other sources confirm this kind of diet’s existence in 18th century Britain. In Daily Life in 18th-century England, Kirstin Olsen writes of the poor woman of England ‘feeding her children on water porridge and garden greens’. This porridge was ‘watery porridge of pinhead oatmeal boiled in water’ (similar, therefore, to the grits eaten by slaves). Here we see again the centrality of garden greens. Olsen further notes:

Most of the laboring diet was bread… In Scotland and the northern English counties, like Lancashire and Yorkshire, oatmeal often replaced bread, especially at breakfast… Other staples of the laboring diet were cheese, treacle (molasses, used as a cheap alternative to sugar), greens from the garden or market, potatoes (especially in the northern counties), dumplings, broths, stews, small beer, and tea.

The Southern tradition that one should ‘sop up’ pot liquor using cornbread is well-known (see, for example, references to this practice in books such as The World in a Skillet and A Mess of Greens, and articles in Southern Living and Garden & Gun). However, this also was not a slave innovation and is derived from the foodways of England, where bread was used to ‘sop up’ dripping, gravy, or liquids (see, for example, a 1761 definition in The Royal English Dictionary). Indeed, as noted here, the ‘sop’ was ‘one of the most common constituents of a medieval meal’. While we don’t really refer to ‘sopping’ any more in England, mopping up gravy with bread after a roast dinner is still quite well known.

The slaves’ rations varied from plantation to plantation, but corn meal, lard, meat (salt pork or bacon), molasses, peas, and greens are often mentioned. Sweet potatoes were also widely eaten by slaves (some issued by plantation owners and some grown by the slaves), and foods such as hominy grits, cornbread, and cornmeal dumplings were also cooked. When these rations and foods are compared with the diet of British rural labourers, the similarities are too striking to be coincidental. British labourers survived on bread, lard, small amounts of cheap pig meat, treacle, greens, pot liquor, potatoes, oatmeal porridge, broths, and dumplings. The only significant difference is the absence of cheese in the slave diets. Cheese was a rarity in the antebellum South for people of all classes as the warm climate and humidity in the days before refrigeration rendered its production and storage very difficult. Cheese aside, the diet of British agricultural labourers and that of slaves in the antebellum South was almost identical. Given the English origins of the plantation owners, it is clear that the foods eaten by the slaves were modelled on the foods eaten by rural labourers in England and the British Isles. Greens and potlikker may seem like a uniquely American ‘Southern food’ or ‘soul food’, but its true origins lie in Britain.

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