Sam Bowers Hilliard. Hog Meat and Hoecake: Food Supply in the Old South, 1840-1860. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1972.
The Old South is remembered for the dominance of export crops such as cotton, tobacco, rice, and sugar, but this vast agricultural expanse also generated an enormous yearly production of foodstuffs for local consumption. Hog Meat and Hoecake: Food Supply in the Old South, 1840-1860, by Sam Bowers Hilliard, “address itself to the overall theme of southern foodstuff self-sufficiency” and examines the unique regional food preferences and cultural dietary habits of the South (4). In order to survive and rise in society, independent farmers and wealthy planters had to balance the financial profit of cash crops, most often cotton, against the requirements of nutritional subsistence, and in many cases, Southern entrepreneurs chose a full pocketbook over a full stomach. Interestingly, much of the food eaten in the Old South commonly appeared in frontier regions throughout America, but due to its isolated geographical situation and rural population, the South retained its early eating habits longer than any other region and in many ways these distinctions have continued into the twentieth century.
As Hilliard notes, “Nowhere in the nation has a culture trait become so outstanding nor certain foods so identified with a single area as in the South” (37). Pork, the mainstay of the American frontier table, epitomized the Southern palate along with other staples of corn, okra, turnips, peas, and sweet potatoes. Beef, although commonly enjoyed, never equaled the consumption of pork, and dairy production lagged far behind Northern states. Hilliard postulates that this deficiency is largely due to the Southern practice of open range grazing of livestock, which lacked the control necessary for daily milking. Antebellum Southerners developed such a taste for poultry that its common consumption on Sundays led to its christening as the “Gospel bird,” and turkeys, geese, ducks, and mutton occasionally appeared as well. For those located along the coastal areas, seafood and rice often replaced dependence on corn, and seemingly all Southerners loved the taste of catfish caught in small streams and rivers. Most farms usually contained small gardens which provided a steady supply of fresh vegetables, and those with orchards partook of fruits such as pears, peaches, apples, and persimmons. When appetites tired of the routine cornbread and bacon, molasses could sweeten almost any culinary concoction. Wild grapes and excess corn found use in homemade wines and whiskey, which maintained an immense popularity in the pre-Temperance South.
The book contains detailed studies of Southern climate, soil, and agricultural practices. Hilliard notes how the longer growing season and high average annual rainfall allowed “the growth of long maturing plants” and resulted in a “much longer season in which many food crops were available” (30). Hilliard conducted extensive research for Hog Meat and Hoecake, relying upon census data, traveler’s accounts, plantation diaries, agricultural pamphlets, and trade manifests from urban merchants. The book contains numerous maps, charts, and tables illustrating the nature and local variations of Southern food production.
The unequal settlement pattern in the South left vast areas of uncleared forest, which provided both grazing for livestock and a steady supply of venison, opossum, rabbits, and the occasional squirrel. Hilliard also studies the diet of slaves, which ironically, more detail is known than for lower class whites. Slaves generally consumed much of the same foods as their owners, only in fewer quantities and often with less variety. Many suffered from nutritional ailments and vitamin deficiencies caused by a diet lacking in dairy products and fruit. Hilliard documents that many slaves planted their own gardens, hunted and fished in their free hours, and maintained their own flocks of poultry, which could often be sold for money. Such individual labor provided a small but invaluable income which could be used to purchase needed furniture, clothing, or other desired luxuries.
Indeed, as Hilliard observes, in many ways the antebellum diet of lower class whites and blacks appears to be superior to the post-war diet of sharecroppers, who had little extra land or time to devote to supplemental gardens. Although the Old South failed to achieve its goal of political separation from the North, it did maintain independence in food production, and as Hilliard concludes, “As a region it was, despite the exceptions noted, largely feeding itself” (235).
Hog Meat and Hoecake: Food Supply in the Old South, 1840-1860. By Sam Bowers Hilliard. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press. 1972.
“The Republic of Porkdom.”
Sam Hilliard argues that the South’s commitment to the production of a single commodity adversely affected the range of foodstuffs available in the region. Nevertheless, despite a lack of variety of fruits and vegetables the area ensured self-sufficiency via a dependence on pork-flesh and corn. Interregional trading offset any temporary shortages and food production, whilst an “ancillary business” provided an essential element in the cotton-producing system.
Although the growth of cotton resulted in large profits, it also impoverished the soil. In many cases, planters found it more viable to buy food than to grow it. Small landholders also preferred to devote their land and energy to the planting of cotton, as the capital investment needed to grow this cash crop was significantly less than that needed for rice or sugar. Food production became restricted to the growth of a small variety of hardy vegetables that required little attention.
Crops that appeared particularly adaptable to the South began to be identified with that region. Southerners became increasingly dependent upon turnips, corn, okra, and peas and the robust nature and prolific litters of local strains of swine that provided meat for both whites and blacks. The high caloric value of pork ensured a reasonable source of energy for field laborers and could be served in a variety of ways. Cheap and easily cured, it became a staple for many southern households, much to the disgust of foreign visitors. The “Hog-eating Confederacy” looked upon this humble animal as a symbol of its ability to remain self-sufficient. Northerners were not so enamored of the local porcine varieties. Even local agricultural journals called for the introduction of bloodstock to improve the overall quality of the beasts, but most farmers remained more interested at improving the system of husbandry rather than the breed itself. Traditionally, these animals had roamed free, but now farmers took to penning their brood sows lest they take to the woods “to mate with some long-tusked, long-nosed paramour of the piney woods.”
The preference for pork-flesh ensured that beef cattle and sheep would never achieve the same popularity. Although Hilliard presents anecdotal examples of large herds of cattle grazing in Georgia, southern Mississippi, and Alabama, he also notes that the relatively low quality of the stock rarely returned large profits to the herder. Another factor detrimental to the development of a strong southern cattle industry was the lack of hay and other forage crops. In many cases, the competition for land from cotton and other cash crops ensured that cattle farming would remain on the periphery of southern agricultural endeavors.
Hilliard’s work is augmented by a number of useful tables, charts, inventories, and maps. He freely acknowledges that at times a dearth of hard evidence forces him to make conclusions based on insufficient data. Yet his assumptions appear reasonable and his description of slave-diets proves most informative. Hilliard’s work transforms historical agrarian patterns into a highly readable study on the development of a southern food culture.
Claire PhelanHog Meat and Hoecake: Food Supply in the Old South, 1840-1860. By Sam Bowers Hilliard. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1972.
Sam Hilliard’s book focuses on late antebellum foodstuffs in relation
to the Southern United States economy. More specifically, Hilliard
brings into question the idea of the South as strictly a cash-crop economy,
wholly dependent on other regions of the United States for its food.
Rather than reinforce this dependent status, Hilliard argues for southern
self-sufficiency, evidencing his conclusions with census data, travel accounts,
and the like. Hilliard ultimately provides a compelling argument
for a Southern society that, in addition to cash crops, produced and raised
crops and livestock for their own sustenance.
Hilliard begins his study by describing the Southern diet. According to the author, the antebellum South provided a variety of foods for Southerners including beef, wheat products, sweet potatoes, rice, turkey, and fish. Southerners consumed pork most often, but Hilliard provides evidence supporting consumption of other meats like turkey, chicken, and even squirrel and opossum. The variety found in southern diets was limited to white southerners—slaves consumed pork rations more than any other meat primarily due to the abundance of swine in the South and slaves’ lack of firearms necessary for hunting other animals for food. Southerners also included in their diets fruits like strawberries and peaches that they preserved through canning. Settlements near the sea provided seafood including catfish and oysters, but such foods were limited to ports, and were not often found in inland cities.
The second part of Hilliard’s study focuses on the ways in which Southerners acquired the foods they included in their diet. Hilliard argues that the South devoted some effort to maintaining regional foodstuff production. The large consumption of pork, for instance, suggests that Southerners raised swine for consumption. According to the author, swine provided the South with a stable supply of meat. Unlike cattle and sheep, pigs have a high reproduction rate, ensuring Southern farmers a number of pigs for slaughter. Pigs were also relatively easy to care for, and southerners utilized corn—a crop in fairly high rate of production in the South—to feed and fatten the animals. Interestingly, Hilliard finds that where the market for pigs in the South was the greatest, the number of pigs in the region tended to be fewer than at other Southern cities. Hilliard concludes that these pig markets attracted swine trade from other parts of the South, suggesting an intra-regional swine market.
Hilliard demonstrates Southern self-sufficiency as well through beef markets. According to the author, Southern farmers and plantation owners did, indeed, raise cattle for food, milk, and farm production labor (or oxen to pull the ploughs). Southern cattle were not as healthy as cattle raised in Northern regions of the United States. Because beef assumed a secondary status in Southern diets, Southerners imported fewer cattle from the Northwest than they produced for their own use in the South.
Hilliard demonstrates that, consistently, Southern use of pork, cattle, and other foods such as corn (a crop particularly acclimated to the more tropical climates of the South) exceeded interregional trade suggesting that Southerners did, indeed, raise and grow their own food. Certainly, Hilliard acknowledges that the South did import foods from other regions of the United States, and the author emphasizes that food production never became a major industry because of more lucrative cash crop markets like cotton.
The author’s argument is compelling, and Hilliard’s numbers, including the number of swine and cattle per capita in the South as well as the bushels of corn and wheat Southerners consumed, points to an effort made by southerners to supply themselves with foods they included in their diets. One weakness in Hilliard’s argument lies in the author’s use of the term “self-sufficient.” While Hilliard demonstrates that not all livestock and produce were imported from the Northwest, the author does show that trade did occur between different regions in the United States. Therefore, rather than insisting on a self-sufficient Southern food economy, the author would have been better served to suggest a Southern economy working in conjunction with other regional markets. “Self-sufficiency” implies independence, and the Southern food market was not wholly independent. Nonetheless, Hilliard does make a strong argument for Southern production outside of cash crops.
Hog Meat and Hoecake: Food Supply in the Old South, 1840-1860. By Sam Bowers Hilliard. (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press. c. 1972. Pp. xi, 296. ISBN0-8093-0512-7)
In Hog Meat and Hoecake: Food Supply in the Old South, 1840-1860, Sam Hilliard asks whether the American antebellum South had problems supplying itself with food. Competition from cash crops like cotton, tobacco and indigo caused a distinct shift in agricultural production and Hilliard ponders if that shift caused the South to become dependent on foodstuff imports. The author examines the development of southern agriculture and the different foods included in the southern diet. He also notes the production and consumption of foodstuffs and then offers a determination as to whether the South, prior to the Civil War, was self-sufficient. Hilliard provides numerous maps, charts and graphs as well as an extensive endnote section although a bibliography is absent.
The author states that around 1800 the South entered a period of new agricultural growth. An increase in the availability of land, an increase in the demand for foodstuffs, and several technical advances all increased agricultural production in the American South. Hilliard, as a point of departure, notes the agricultural inclinations of the North and Northwest. This area produced an abundance of livestock and cereals (wheat and corn). The South’s main agricultural product became cotton. Nothing else produced in the South exceeded the importance of the cash crop, cotton. The author notes the distinct outline of the “Cotton Belt” by 1840 and cannot overemphasize the importance of the crop.
Hilliard says there were several reasons why cotton became the main crop in the South. Its high price provided ample encouragement for any planter. Profit overcame almost any other consideration. While there were minor reasons why other crops may not work as well as cotton, the author argues that the growers themselves limited other crops in relation to cotton rather than any environmental limitations. Southerners made a conscious choice to produce cotton. The question is whether that choice caused the South to become dependent on other regions for food.
Unequivocally, the author states that the main staple of antebellum southerners was pork. The South consumed other meats, but none anywhere near the amount of pork consumed. Most of the other meats, beef, poultry, wildlife and mutton, supplemented the southern diet, but none of them came close to the role pork played in the lives of southerners. Besides pork, the next dominant staple was corn. Corn overpowered all other cereals and vegetables in the southern diet. Southerners favored corn bread over wheat bread. The multiple forms and uses of corn in consumption provided southerners with their compliment to pork. The only other food, which came close to pork and corn, the author states, may have been the sweet potato.
The South added numerous fruits, nuts, and seafood to their diet and the only real difference in the diets of the different socio-economic classes was the availability of dairy products. Hilliard notes the existence of slave agriculture, but he continually doubts the slaves consumed his products. Instead, he surmises that the slave bartered or sold most or all of whatever the slave may have produced. Various regions produced specialty foods, but the main staple throughout the South remained pork and corn.
The author examines the different eating habits of the region and the real problem of the book becomes apparent. Besides figures on pork and some other sketchy numbers, the author constantly admits that real numbers on many of the subjects he investigates do not exist. His suppositions, projections and assumptions are always noted, but remain questionable in nature. Hilliard rooted out as many superficial numbers as he could, but the explicit and detailed numbers on not just how many pigs were produced, but what size they were, what amount of meat they yielded, and where they came from eluded his research. Unfortunately he makes many assumptions and conclusions based on educated guesses.
In an attempt to overcome the dearth of statistics, the author utilizes several surveys and compilations from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Again, Hilliard acknowledges the problem of projecting these numbers back 50-80 years, yet he draws conclusions from them. In some areas of study the necessary statistics are lost to history, but in Hilliard’s work nearly every arena he enters contains no detailed numbers.
Even without concrete statistics, the author does make several interesting points. First, pigs, cattle and poultry were generally inferior to livestock in the North. The livestock of the South generally wandered in nearby fields or forests and became more feral than livestock in the North. The feralness of these animals reduced the amount of meat that they would yield when harvested. Another interesting observation the author makes concerns the fact that many of the foods that an antebellum southerner ate can still be found in the diets of southerners today.
The author then examines the import and export of these foodstuffs in the South. The food trade consisted of a local, regional, interregional nature. Hilliard concludes that any real import or export of food went to the few major urban areas, such as New Orleans, and that any import of food came from other southern states or counties. The main supplier of any pork shortfall was the “Hill South” of Tennessee and Kentucky, not from the North or Europe. The author also notes the complete lack of organization of production, transportation and distribution of foodstuffs in the South.
Hilliard states that cotton was king in the South and almost everything related to that fact. The production of foodstuffs competed with cotton and those that emerged in the South provided subsistence for those who produced cotton. If cotton was king, then the pig was queen. Pork supplied the mainstay of the southern diet, supplemented heavily by corn. In answer to his original question of self-sufficiency, Hilliard states that as a region the antebellum South was self-sufficient.
Hog Meat and Hoecake offers an in-depth look at non-cash crop agriculture in the South before the Civil War. Without extensive figures the work cannot be considered definitive, however it is very readable for an agro-economic history.
Texas Christian University Scott Cowin