Northeast Historical Archaeology


The choices people make concerning food involve decisions well beyond biological sustenance. Food procurement and consumption, as well as the way in which a dish is served, are choices that are embedded with both overt and less obvious implications of social aspirations and validations (McKee 1999; Reitz, Ruff, and Zierden 2006). Food and the means by which it is prepared and consumed embody and communicate cultural traditions, as well as factors such as social identity, ethnicity, status, class, and consumer choice. In this article, we examine the faunal remains, tablewares, and food-preparation vessels recovered during excavations within a free African American household in an historically white town in northwestern New Jersey, and how these remains reflect and project the social identity of the household occupants, the Mann family. We compare the artifacts recovered from this site with other ante- and postbellum free black house sites in the northern mid-Atlantic region. While we note that some trends are common, like the use of wild species to supplement foods purchased in the marketplace and the presence of mismatched dishes, the amount of variation from site to site suggests each family responded individually to economic, social, and regional factors according to its own taste, beliefs, and ability. In addition to examining the Mann family’s foodways in the context of other free African American sites in the northern mid-Atlantic, we also discuss how foodways played a role in the Mann family’s display of status, as understood by both white and black communities.