The Bahamian staple food dish of pig feet ‘souse’ is not of native island origin. Souse is, in fact, an old English and continental European, Middle Ages, cooking method. This means that wherever in the New World, Europeans who enjoyed souse landed, they brought their recipe with them. How souse crossed substantial borders, crossing the great divide of the Atlantic Ocean, to become a staple food and cooking method, in the Bahamas, is a pretty direct one. It was an essential food preservation and preparation method, passed down by the British, during slavery.
1882 near Sheffield, England The “Souse” Food Poisoning Affair
The 20 persons suddenly prostrated at Handsworth, Woodhouse, near Sheffield, through eating “souse” prepared by a local butcher, are progressing favourably. An official analysis states that an examination has been made for the presence of an irritant poison with wholly negative results, but the uneaten portion of the “Souse” was in a condition of incipient putrefaction.
(The Jersey Weekly Press and Independent, Saturday Morning, March 18, 1882)
ETYMOLOGY OF THE WORD “SOUSE”
Souse in modern day Bahamas, is both a verb and a noun. As a verb it describes a method of cooking. As a noun it describes a type of prepared food.
As a noun, “souse” represents boiled meat or fowl dishes. Sheep tongue, chicken, pigeon and of course pig’s feet, in which the liquid is seasoned with copious amounts of lime, lemon, pepper, a bay leaf, thyme and salt to taste. The liquid becomes a soup like broth. The broth trstretches the offering of the meat. This was a necessary adaptation of the original European way of serving souse. Turning the traditional “sousing liquid” into a soup, when the Bahamas was a slave colony, made better use of the very little meat that was available for slaves to consume.
Souse, since it’s origins in the European Middle Ages, has undergone what some linguists would term “semantic bleaching.” Bleaching in terms of language means that part of the original meaning has fallen away over time as it crossed borders and cultures. The word, in new geographic spaces, begins to carve its own path, differentiating itself from original associative words.
Interestingly enough, the words salad, salami, sausage and souse, all originate from the same root word ‘salt.’
Salad, a popular ancient Roman dish was originally “salted vegetables” or “vegetables seasoned with brine.”
Sausage comes from the Latin word “salsicus” meaning seasoned with salt.
Salami came into English through Italy but is derived from the old Latin “salare” to salt.
Souse, crossed into England from Germany. The German “salz” salt, means to keep food in a liquid such as vinegar. It was originally a kind of “pickling,” to preserve meat for later consumption.
RECIPE FOR SOUSED HERRINGS
(The Lancashire Daily Post, Wednesday, December 19, 1934)
SLAVERY’S STRANGE LEGACY
Bahamians today can’t trace a lot of things regarding their ancient ancestral history, but they can surely trace their long, perfunctory relationship with food. Before African slavery, Europeans had developed a traditional, almost reverential appreciation for food, largely based on the new ways they had invented to control it. Bitter European winters meant that they had to become really clever in ways of preserving food; especially during their long, cold months.
When Europe stumbled upon the agricultural lushness of the New World, this was a major reason why they fell to their knees in prayer. All year round warmth, to grow as much food as they could possibly want, was all their long prayers suddenly answered.
Once slavery was introduced, food moved from being a gift from god for Europeans in the New World, to becoming a method of control over their slaves.
Food, and our relationship with it, is something little considered in the overall social equation in the Bahamas. Moving into the present day, the legacy of slavery remains in subtle psychosocial ways. For many West Indian slave colonies, like the Bahamas, food serves a perfunctory, functional purpose. Its context within Bahamian negro culture has been almost static due to the hundred and thirty years or so of pronounced post emancipation negro poverty.
Food’s present overabundance on the average Bahamian lunch or dinner plate is purposeful. It is meant to fill you. Keep you. Rice and potato and the pigeon pea and some sort of cheap meat, in the Bahamian diet, are truly historical in nature.
Over the past one hundred years or so, Bahamian food also has created its own unintended ends, within the physiological structure of the population. Our food relationship now, some surmise, has moved from functional to adversarial. Traditional food now, as some see it, is almost our physiological enemy.
THE ENGLISH BRING THEIR POTS FOR THE SLAVES TO COOK
When the English began to settle the Bahamas, they brought with them all their traditions and customs, including those related to food. Slaves who worked in the kitchens were taught to cook for their masters in the traditional British way. The same held true for other European slave colonies. On plantations, reared livestock, which represented meat as revenue, as well as plantation food, was the lifeblood of the master’s household. Offcuts and the bones were given to slaves, once the master’s revenue was ensured and his household had eaten. Favoured slaves ate more and better than field slaves.
For the negro, food was a gift from the master. Food was a weapon. Food was scarce. Food represented competition for the master’s favour. For all these reasons, the negro had to learn how to stretch what they got and eat as much as they could, because they never knew when it could be taken away or become scarce.
For runaway slaves, food took on an even more vital role. Food, like a soused pig’s foot, had to last a very long time for the slave on the run. It is not too hard to envision a runaway slave boiling a piece of preserved soused pig’s foot in an old tin pan, in the jungles of an uncultivated Nassau in 1807. They would sit in the bushes, being as quiet as they possibly could, drinking the salty seasoned souse liquid, in order to keep from starving.
Throughout the archipelago, these were the beginnings of the Bahamian negro’s relationship with food. Bahamian culture is borne out of its past. It’s past was rooted in violence, social separation, economic poverty, slavery, colonialism, and scarcity of resources like food. There are countless adopted traditions that are used today, for which many have no idea, as to how and why we do the things we do.
PSYCHOSOCIAL LEGACIES – HOW FOOD IS SEEN IN THE MODERN DAY BAHAMAS
In the Bahamas, nobody really looks passionately at a piece of raw chicken, or a leg of lamb or a side of beef or pig, or at the sea creatures we catch, to wonder in their minds for hours, if it had a good life or not. Then go home to agonise over how we we are going to cook it, and whether or not we will do its brief life justice. That is just not in our food history.
Bahamian food history is more pragmatic rather than romantic. It is more functional than esoteric.
Colonisation left a lot of legacies, but a romantic view of food was definitely not one of them. Unlike in so many places in Europe, where for example say Italians, when painstakingly rolling pasta at home, talk about how they harvest the wheat from the fields to roll the fifty different types of pasta, which was in their history. Or say in Scotland, where some can trace the very meat that they eat straight to the deer, and straight to the highland plains it roamed on, and even to the grass it ate at 3:00 o’clock on Wednesday March 8, 2015, just before slaughtering, is nothing short of incredible. It the long view of food.
This just doesn’t happen in Bahamian food culture. Romanticism towards food was not a tradition that was passed down by the British. These sorts of traditions were never really part and parcel of the islands’ historical relationship with food. Few today in the Bahamas know, or really care where the base ingredients of their prepared food comes from. Present day large scale food imports, coupled with the history of colonialism, slavery and poverty means that attitudes towards food, for the Bahamian, is an interesting one indeed. It’s a “belly full, ass glad” kind of a relationship.
FROM BARBADOS, ANOTHER FORMER ENGLISH SLAVE COLONY WHO ALSO HAD SOUSE AS A TRADITIONAL MEAL
(The Ottawa Citizen, Canada, Sunday, April 11, 1999)
TRADITIONAL SOUSE FOR CHRISTMAS IN MEDIEVAL BRITAIN
Europe, before its incursion into the New World, had long perfected many ways of food preservation. From the Middle Ages, food preservation was hugely important, especially for meats and fish.
Middle Ages preservation methods like burial, where meats, grains and even butter was buried in the ground, where to cold damp earth acted as a preservative.
“Parching” was another preservation method used for seeds and grains. Grain was spread over clay and heated by fire from below. This stopped them from sprouting or rotting. Grains and seeds could then be stored for long periods.
Bahamians today talk of “parching the benny” to make benny cake, a sweet desert made from parched benne seeds and copious amounts of sugar.
“The benne seed is derived from the same plant as modern-day sesame seeds, Sesamum indicum. Like many heirloom ingredients from the South, benne has a fraught history. “Benne” is the word African slaves used for the seeds, which were brought on slave ships from West Africa—along with many other crops.”
“Benne” seeds, a type of sesame seed.
Benne cake, a Bahamian hard sweet cake.
“Smoking” was another method of preserving meat and fish, which were hung in an enclosed room with a nearby simmering fire.
Then there was salting. “Salting” speeded up the preservation process for flesh food, by drawing out the bodily fluids. This gave some protection against bacteria infection in the food. Meats and fish could be dry preserved in salt or wet preserved in brine in jars. When these salt preserved products were ready to be used, they had to be soaked to get rid of the excessive saltiness.
Well before Christmas in the large manor household, one or more boars or boar-pigs from the domestic herd, were killed, and the head and shoulders put into a pickle of brine or brine and vinegar to make brawn for the festive season. Other parts of the animals were similarly pickled or ‘soused,’ and served up as ‘souse’ to the servants and lesser folk.
A short-term method of keeping meat or fish was to cook it, and then lay it in a ‘sousing-drink’ of salted water with the addition of bran or oatmeal or brewers’ grains or whey. It was an excellent way of keeping pigs’ offal, which otherwise had to be eaten immediately, or given away.
1867 – THE POISONINGS FROM EATING SOUSE
Pig Souse was once notorious for giving humans food poisoning. Improperly prepared souse, or souse made from a diseased pig, or even souse kept too long, could produce bacteria that was dangerous, even fatal to humans. Before proper animal meat handling laws, food poisoning, was quite common, in England.
(The Sheffield and Rotherham Independent, Saturday June 8, 1867)
1923 Souse Causes Student Strike, Maryland USA.
(The Baltimore Sun, January 23, 1923)
FAMILY POISONED BY SOUSE – Georgia USA 1904
(The Atlanta Constitution, Tuesday, 05 January 1904)