Zora Neale Hurston's Work on Food-Based Prescriptions for Illnesses: A History

Paul Theerman's picture
October 29, 2015
New York, United States
Subject Fields: 
African American History / Studies, History of Science, Medicine, and Technology, Cultural History / Studies

Zora Neale Hurston’s writings reveal an interest in natural prescriptions for the health challenges suffered by camp workers and plantation laborers. She also talks a great deal about natural remedies for poisoning. She incorporated what she learned about poisoning and natural remedies into her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God and other writings. Hurston writes, “Folk medicine is practiced by a great number of persons [in] sawmill camps, the turpentine stills, mining camps and among the lowly generally,” who do not depend on conventional doctors to cure their ailments. Her subjects had more access to plant-based medicines, or what Hurston called the “folk medicine” and “primitive medicines,” than modern medicine and doctors. Those who did not and, because of lack of access, could not depend on conventional doctors were forced to learn how to safely use herbs that they could grow or forage and therefore were of no cost to them. The more they were forced to depend on these, the more they learned how to use them. In her writings, Hurston recorded some food-based prescriptions for illnesses in Florida and elsewhere. Where they came from specifically is unclear. A look at the ingredients in the natural prescriptions that Hurston records in her writings provides interesting insights into the history of medicine, folk medicine, and food as medicine.


Frederick Douglass Opie is a Professor of History and Foodways at Babson College and a contributor on the radio show “The Splendid Table.” He is the author of Black Labor Migration in Caribbean Guatemala, 1882–1923 (University Press of Florida, 2009), and from Columbia University Press, Hog and Hominy: Soul Food from Africa to America (2010), and Upsetting the Apple Cart: Black and Latino Coalitions in New York from Protest to Public Office (2014), which looks at the history of black-Latino coalitions in New York City during the years of 1959 to 1989. Just published is his Zora Neale Hurston on Florida Food: Recipes, Remedies and Simple Pleasures (History Press, 2015).


Date:                     Thursday, October 29, 2015

Time:                     6:00 pm – 7:30 pm

Location:              The New York Academy of Medicine, 1216 Fifth Avenue at 103rd Street, New York, NY 10029


Free and open to the public; advance registration is requested. To register for this event, click here: Zora Neale Hurston on Food


For more information about this and other upcoming history of medicine events in the New York area, see the calendar page of our blog, “Books, Health, and History”: http://nyamcenterforhistory.org/calendar/, as well as our Cultural Programming brochure.

Contact Info: 

Paul Theerman, PhD
Associate Director
Library and Center for the History of Medicine and Public Health
New York Academy of Medicine
1216 Fifth Avenue 
New York, NY, 10029


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