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Because it’s strange and beautiful and hot, people from everywhere converge on Florida and they bring their cuisine and their traditions with them. The Zest celebrates the intersection of food and communities in the Sunshine State.

From the Big House to the White House: Dr. Martha Bireda on foodways of the enslaved

plate of food

Explore the food customs of enslaved workers who labored in the American South, including Florida.

Listen to the episode

Here at The Zest, we love to explore the foodways of Floridians past and present—including the people who weren’t treated like people.

This week we learn about the food customs of enslaved workers who labored on Florida’s plantations, growing cotton, tobacco, sugar and other cash crops. Many of their culinary traditions are alive and well today, although they rarely get credit.

“It is a marker of our cultural identity,” says Martha Bireda, PhD, director of the Blanchard House Museum of African American History and Culture in Punta Gorda. (The museum suffered damage from Hurricane Ian and was closed at the time of our recording. Check the museum’s website for updates.)

In this conversation, Dr. Bireda details the following:

  • What enslaved Africans ate during the months-long voyage to the New World known as the Middle Passage.
  • How enslaved people supplemented their meager rations of cornmeal, molasses, fatback and salt pork.
  • The origins of hoppin’ john, barbecue, gumbo and other foods commonly eaten in the American South.
  • The paradoxes of being a chef enslaved to presidents such as George Washington and Thomas Jefferson.
  • How President Lyndon B. Johnson’s personal chef, Zephyr Wright, inspired him to sign the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
  • And more.
"I host a food podcast" is a great icebreaker at parties.